Makhdoom Javed Hashmi has left quite an impression with one of the most memorable speeches in Pakistan’s chequered parliamentary history.
Not only did the heartfelt notes from the once-firebrand and now much mellowed leader of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League make it to the front pages of mainstream national dailies but also invited editorial comment signaling newfound respect for a politician, who has dared to be different.
In 2004, while taking a connecting flight from Lahore to Islamabad on a Pakistan International flight, there was a buzz on the plane as it prepared to take off. Just then I spotted Hashmi in the distance.
Predictably, passengers started to walk up to him and congratulate him, assuming that he had finally been freed by the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf.
I asked Masood Khan, the Foreign Office spokesman at the time, sitting nearby if the government had indeed decided to call time on his incarceration.
But he was as clueless as I was only for us to see Hashmi shaking his head and informing the curious lot that he was merely being taken for the next hearing in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
Hashmi was referring to what he maintains to this day was a politically motivated case of inciting mutiny by Musharraf’s regime.
He was arrested from the parliament on October 29, 2003 nine days after he read out a letter that he received in mail, signed anonymously by some active military officers at the army’s General Headquarters, calling for an investigation into corruption in the armed forces and criticising their chief.
Significantly, the trial was held at Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail instead of a district and sessions court at the Lahore High Court, raising doubts about its fairness.
On April 12, 2004, Hashmi was sentenced to 23 years in prison for inciting mutiny in the army, forgery, and defamation.
The verdict did not surprise many given how Hashmi openly defied the dictator — going to the extent of calling for an independent investigation into the Kargil fiasco and an end to the military’s meddling into politics.
He was declared a political prisoner even by archrival Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. During incarceration, he wrote a famous autobiography, somewhat aptly entitled Haan Mein Baghi Hoon (Yes, I’m a Rebel).
A Supreme Court bench led by Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had only recently been reinstated following his forced exit by Musharraf early in 2007, granted Hashmi bail after three-and-a-half years in prison while the military ruler was still around.
Fast forward to the parliamentary awakening. As well as apologising to the nation for having once accepted a ministerial position under dictator Zia decades ago, which he described as his life’s greatest regret that he will take to the grave, Hashmi stunned all comers by asking his leadership to follow suit for seeking Musharraf’s mercy and choosing a decade’s exile over fighting it out back home.
Hashmi, who led Sharif’s party in his absence with some gumption, but was sidelined upon the latter’s return from exile in 2007, also asked every other politician, who had worked for or under an authoritarian regime to find the courage to seek the nation’s forgiveness as well as pledge never to breach their trust again.
Sharif chose to appoint Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan as the leader of the opposition when all logic pointed to the indefatigable Hashmi as the more appealing choice thanks to the wide respect he enjoyed across the political spectrum.
In the same speech, Hashmi also spoke of his pain at seeing his one-time object of ire, Benazir Bhutto, being assassinated. He recalled that he had cried, a rare occurrence in his adult life, at the loss and said he considered both her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and herself as martyrs.
Hashmi, who suffered brain hemorrhage in July last year and had to be hospitalised with speech impediments, rose to also make an impassioned appeal to his party leadership to consider the creation of more provinces in Punjab, in particular in the southern region, which the PML(N) is loathe to do for fears it would cut into its vote bank.
It is the same demand that is being peddled by the ruling PPP, PML(Q) and other PML(N) detractors, too, on the premise of giving autonomy but which, the Sharifs allege, is just a ruse for dividing the party’s vote bank.
Last week, he flew unannounced to a mass protest organised by Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan in Peshawar against the U.S. drone strikes in what was seen as another manifestation of Hashmi’s growing national stature.
Khan, a bitter critic of both PML(N) and PPP, felt so beholden he offered Hashmi to join his party.
For a nation attuned to seeing the bad side of politics and politicos, Hashmi is refreshingly different.
The writer is a newspaper editor based
in Islamabad and can be reached at [email protected]