2012, Karachi, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

On Jinnah turf, Nitish hugs safe silence

Sankarshan Thakur, The Telegraph

Karachi, Nov. 10: The mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah verily became the burial site of a famed political career back home. When L.K. Advani came here in the summer of 2005 and pronounced a paean to the founder of Pakistan he invited a hail of disapproval from his Parivar. Even those he considered close in the BJP rushed to censure him, the RSS screamed sacrilege, and Advani was given an organisational shove he is yet to recover from.

As Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar padded up the marble steps of Jinnah’s grand memorial in central Karachi this morning, he would have been reminded of the consequences of the overreach of eloquence. He chose silence.

If Lalu Prasad captivated Pakistan with his gift of the gab, here was Nitish displaying his gift of gumption on tricky ground. He said not a word on Jinnah. He’d rather not tarry with the past; he pulled out a pen and scribbled a note to the future in that same visitors’ book that Advani burnt his fingers with.

“Friendship, peace and brotherhood is what the people of both our countries want, we have the same heritage (virasat) and history (taareekh) that is why I am here.” Short, succinct and, most of all, safe. He was in and out of what he wanted to be no more than a photo-op.

Its central moment was Nitish standing in prayer ‘ as you would in a mosque ‘ as Kari Shamsuddin, imam at Jinnah’s sepulchre, recited a “fateha”, or Quranic prayer, in remembrance.

Thereafter, he was led down by his host and Sindh chief minister, Qaim Ali Shah, to a crypt where lie Jinnah’s darling sister, Fatima, and Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan. Both are entombed in marble and both stones, as Jinnah’s, are inscribed in Urdu and in Bengali, which used to be the second official language of the day.

The Bengali inscriptions are as much a visual trick as they are a treat ‘ it’s calligraphy so deeply stylised in the Persian school you must look closely to grasp the script is Bangla, a quaint throwback to bygone, probably bitter, times.

The Mazar-e-Quaid-e-Azam itself is a looming quadrangle of grey stonework topped by a high dome resembling a hemisphere. It stands on a high plinth reached by steps from four sides. All around is a sprawling acreage of manicured lawns and gurgling fountains. The inner dome is washed in pastel teal and an elaborate candelabra drops from it right above where Jinnah rests.

The dome is carved such that when Kari Shamsuddin began his recitation of the holy verses it rang like a forlorn song. The wreath of marigolds and roses that Nitish had brought along was the only dash of colour in what was mostly spare and spartan.

When Nitish spoke, he was already a fair distance from the “mazar”, in the glittering reception halls that abut the official estate of chief minister Qaim Ali Shah. This time he was prepared for a shot at eloquence and he did himself no harm.

On the contrary, he brought the gathered house to stand up and applaud. “Hum aapki dharti ko salaam karne aaye hain, hum log ek hain, bichchde hain, hum dosti ka haath badhane aaye hain (We have come to salute your land, we are one, we have been separated, we have come to extend our hand of friendship).”

The occasion was an “Experience Sharing” seminar dovetailed into a banquet lunch and some of Karachi’s top politicians, bureaucrats and social elite were in attendance.

A pre-written speech of Nitish’s had been circulated on the tables, but Nitish himself barely even referred to it save to say it was an “only an account of some of the work we have done”. He chose to speak extempore and dabbled in the kind of sentimentalism that he doesn’t often allow himself.

“I have only been here a day but I can never forget this journey,” he said. “The way we have been received, the warmth I have felt, the love and concern you have showered on me, it’s unforgettable. I plan to go to Mohenjo Daro tomorrow because I want to see where we all came from, the roots of our common civilisation.”

Applause, recurrent applause.

He wore the traditional Sindhi skull-cap Qaim Ali Shah had earlier gifted him and he spoke from behind a lectern adorned by a portrait of the late Benazir Bhutto. He didn’t once invoke her name ‘just as he didn’t Jinnah’s ‘ but he did it artfully enough for nobody to realise he was dodging. The way he was mobbed by his audience after he stepped down the stage was probably proof.

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