Was there anyone in Pakistan who didn’t have a crush on Imran Khan in the mid 70s through 80s? Save for his fellow cricketers, who were sidelined or disregarded, though they were the talented players and begrudged him for being selected into the team not on merit but because of Zaman Park connections.
I keep trying to find some way to be sympathetic with Imran Khan. I try to understand what has happened. Yes – seventy percent of Pakistan is young and below the age of 30 years, cricket mad, and mad at the world for branding them as terrorists during the two decades of America’s war on terror.
Generations in Pakistan have been raised without freedom of speech, intense censorship and hyper religiosity and most importantly, with little to no education in history or civics. They’ve been raised in disappointment and defeat. They have been raised watching and listening to Imran Khan, who frames every disappointment as someone else’s fault, but a victory for him and therefore all of them – they are the forever victims of someone else’s faults. And therefore, failures are truly forever victorious. They have been raised on the notion that Imran Khan makes Pakistan proud. They’ve been raised on a steady diet of Cricket and muscular chauvinism.
I wonder why Imran Khan is the way he is. I search my memory of those days when he was debuting as a new and handsome bowler playing the historic test match against India at Gaddafi Stadium. He was on the field in glory, but in the enclosures, we were covered in tear gas when Nusrat Bhutto came in to demonstrate and protest for her jailed husband, the deposed Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The game was being televised live, in an otherwise complete news blackout context and so this was the only way to be seen and heard and get the message out. At a cricket match.
I learned decades later that Argentinian political activists had used the same tactic to get the message out about the atrocities under the dictatorship which was hosting the FIFA Football World Cup in their country in the same time period of the 70s. Thousands were killed and went missing. But Maradona rose as a demigod in part perhaps for the joy he brought to people’s lives in utter darkness. A young man winning allowed to be a hero, while thousands like him went missing. Everyone subsumed themselves in his glory.
That day, at Gaddafi stadium the game had to be interrupted while tear gas filled the ‘ladies enclosure.’ Nusrat Bhutto’s head was smashed by a police baton. Her husband, the deposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in jail, imprisoned by the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Bhutto was in jail and fighting trumped up murder charges against him. He would be hung to death a year later. At least 6,000 party workers and activists were imprisoned. Countless went missing. Journalists and activists were whipped in public for speaking up. Yet cricket matches went on.
Imran Khan was rising as a star – loved by the state for being an instrument for defeating India, albeit only on a cricket field and in pinups and fostering a distraction from reality. In hindsight, I’d say Imran Niazi Khan was seen as having triumphed in defeating India in a game, whereas his uncle General Niazi had failed and surrendered to India seven years earlier in 1971, when half the country had been lost. Both Niazis seemed to have a fondness for the avatar of a tiger.
That day, when tear gas filled the enclosure and Nusrat Bhutto was bludgeoned and blood streamed down her face – did Imran Khan stand on the field – golden, hands on his hips, leg thrust forward slightly, a slight breeze in that splendid mane of hair, young, gorgeous and annoyed – apolitical, unknowing and most importantly irritated that his parade was being rained on? That the game had been stopped and his stride interrupted?
There must have been hundreds of others in the spectators’ stands, all the middle class and elite of Lahore who might have been equally frustrated and unaware of what was going on, because not everyone was in that particular ladies’ enclosure that day. Then of course there was the news blockage so nothing was said during the cricket commentary that would give the game away. So even on the other side of the stadium, people wouldn’t have known what was going on in the ladies’ enclosure at the hands of the baton wielding tear gas firing police. Many would go on in the times to come to become the elite illiterates—eliterates of Pakistan, those who chose not to know what was going on. Those who chose to condone it. Those who forgot or erased history by choosing not to know.
Oh! What joy we got from watching him play – game after game after game. Gorgeous super man – in whose beauty we could subsume all the ugliness within us and shine, and instead stand tall in a world where we should have been ashamed and broken.
But that afternoon, our eyes stinging from tear gas, we rushed back home to avoid the ‘troubles.’ That night on Pakistan Television, there was no mention of what had happened at Gaddafi Stadium except for the commentary about the glory of our cricket team and the fielders at silly mid-on and slips, and the white flannels and lunch and tea breaks and the condition of the pitch. And so forth. Yes, all that was mentioned in the Sports section on the news.
My parents waited to tune in to BBC’s Urdu Service at 8.15 p.m. Sairbeen. It was here that we heard of what had happened at the Stadium where we ourselves had been present that afternoon. Within the country, there was no mention of the events. We received our copy of Masawat, the PPP leaning paper the next morning – it had a photo of Nusrat Bhutto propped up by party workers with her eyes shut, bleeding from the head. We cut out the photo and kept it, looking at it secretly, hoping that the people would rise. But there was dead silence in the papers and the state-run media. So it was for all such events.
Imran Khan was playing cricket and busy being Adonis – sportsman, playboy – from 1977-1979 onwards -coveting with Bollywood actresses, posing for torso baring pinup shots for the London broadsheets. Ah, we were mesmerized by him, and petrified at home of Zia-ul-Haq, his friend and patron. We had the steady diet of cricket and Jihad in Afghanistan and feeling like the super humans that we Pakistani were because of Imran. We were all gorgeous now, because of him. India might have democratic institutions, land reforms, a free judiciary, education, healthcare, science, industries, so what? We were good looking. Gorgeous.
I wonder as I watch on repeat that video of the young Imran coming into bowl bouncers – what was happening in that very moment in real time? Was Benazir in Sukkur jail in 120 degrees of heat, being slapped around – and worse. He wouldn’t have known and we wouldn’t have either. And as the stadiums burst in deafening roars for that young beautiful athlete, was that beautiful, defiant, unbreakable young woman being tortured to the point of internal bleeding and deafness in one ear in Sukkur jail? Was it the same time frame? Think about it. Were we all collectively, as a society, becoming deaf and blind and hemorrhaging internally?
In those years when we were mesmerized by Imran’s beauty, what was the context at home in Pakistan. Ugly was happening. The only public activity Pakistanis were allowed to participate in was cricket during this entire period. An elected Prime Minister was overthrown, tried by a rigged judiciary and hung under the regime of the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Bhutto’s daughter and wife were under house arrest and then imprisoned for years. Journalists and activists and party workers were disappeared, tortured and whipped publicly. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was humiliated day after day in a Kangaroo Court of the High Court of Lahore, where the front seats in the viewers section looked more like the ladies’ enclosure at the Gaddafi stadium and were filled with the elite of Lahore, taunting him. Bhutto was hanged. His party cadre, mainly in the Punjab where his support was the strongest, down to the 6th tier, were all in jail. Villages in Sindh were being strafed with bullets by helicopter gunships for daring to protest.
The country entered a dark night that just wouldn’t end. The name Bhutto could not be uttered even amongst friends, let alone in public or in newspapers or on radio or on the one TV channel. Books and magazines mentioning Bhutto were banned.
The only sun and star that rose and shone was that of Imran Khan, who was instrumental in helping us feel better than we deserved, feel super – who made us forget, and forget, and forget again. His photos and posters and pinups and TV reels were everywhere. Imran Khan was loved in Islamabad, adored even. Cheered on by Zia-ul-Haq.
Now decades later, General Zia’s son is in Imran Khan’s party. Imran Khan begins the history of Pakistan with himself playing cricket and winning the World Cup, and constantly speaks as if Pakistan’s history begins and ends with him. In fact, he goes far enough to lob threats that it could end with him if he does not get his way.
But there is something for which we must thank Imran Khan. Apart from the joy of watching him play when he was young, he has constantly insisted while ensconced on a red throne in his palatial drawing room in Zaman Park or in Bani Gala, that never in history has anyone suffered as he has, or sacrificed as he has for Pakistan.
Never in the history of Pakistan or perhaps the world has anyone ever-never-never-ever! Those who adore him are pure – those who do not are culprits. Those who are personal friends are pure. For him ‘the personal is political’ is distorted to mean those he knows and likes personally. Such is credo of his class of supporters.
Everything is only Imran Khan, and Imran Khan is everything. The beginning and end of facts and history and piety and purity. Now that fact checking has been allowed because the pet hero is biting the hand that made him, this cobbled together hero from the firmament of false piety and good looks stands ready to devour his makers. The young, the seventy percent, are drinking from the hose, as it were, in great big gulps – these facts, and with them finding out what has been Pakistan’s history. And I hope they are waking up.
Waking up to the possibility of the arrogance and intolerance of privileged men, whether in uniform or not. Waking up to the fact that Fatima Jinnah’s death was a murder. Waking up to the events that led to the civil war with East Pakistan. Waking up to the fact that seeds of the civil war with East Pakistan were sown in deep intolerance, arrogance, greed and elitism, and perhaps it began with Jinnah’s ill-conceived speech in English about Urdu.
Waking up to the relentless unexamined, undiscussed events that led to the civil war with the humiliation and deposing of Prime Minister Suharwardy. Waking up to the consequence of General Ayub Khan’s martial law, and continued with General Yahya who, too much, too little, too late held elections in 1971. Waking up then to Bhutto’s absolute heroism and courage, and his absolute arrogance and intolerance. And the terrible loss and tragedy of East Pakistan followed a few years later by his execution.
Waking up to what Zia-ul-Haq really managed to accomplish – what he did to Pakistan. Waking up to the fact that he endowed Pakistan with social and political cancer. Waking up to the fact that the assassination of Mujib-ur-Rehman, the founder of Bangladesh, was our tragedy too. He was once our own, a great leader of half our citizens. Oh, our history. Bacha Khan, Bugti, Wali Khan, Mengal, GM Syed, and it goes on and on. All the dead young, whether they were soldiers in the military or in APMSO or Jamiat or NSF. All went to their deaths for the arrogance of old men.
Oh, our history. But to speak of our history is treated like a crime. But we must. We must. Our history will not crush us. But understanding it will crush what does crush us.
I hope they are waking up to the fact that democracy isn’t about one team winning and the other losing. It is about rights for all of us, defended and protected by all for all. I will stand up for you, even when you don’t stand up for me, even when I can’t stand for you politically.
And yes, Imran Khan has been the reason for that wake-up call. Pakistanis are finally learning their history. And it isn’t cricket.
Imran Khan’s persona deserves in-depth clinical study for understanding what makes people of his ilk so impactful. Being caught in the political maelstrom, it may be too early to judge how such characters change the path of the society. This insightful article has also delivered some sledgehammer blows to the official narrative assiduously shaped by school text books like the Pakistan Studies and the mainstream media. The role of the social media in deconstructing the official narrative is laudable. Kudos to Maniza Naqvi.
Pakistanis who are selling their bodies and souls because they not able to resist the temptation of the lure of the dosh of foreign powers will be doing their baal–bachchaas a great favour if they bothered to learn a lesson from the plight of the post–Gaddafi Libya and post–Bashir Sudan.
You forget to mention the genocide which was perpetrated by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. His grred for power denied the winner of 1970 election the premiership of Pakistan. 3 million people died in that genocide and you were humiliated beyond belief by losing half the country.