In 1959, President Ayub Khan decided to move Pakistan’s federal capital from Karachi, first to Rawalpindi, then to the newly built city of Islamabad. At the time, no one foresaw that in the future the seat of power would be besieged by demonstrations and protest marches. The Ayub regime blamed Karachi for being overcrowded and a scene of political unrest with an unhealthy climate. However, sixty years later, unarmed and armed marches from across the country have emerged in Islamabad to besiege the capital and get their demands accepted. A week ago, Federal Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed sarcastically said Islamabad would not be allowed to become a “Hyde Park” where everyone is free to protest and disrupt the normal routine of life. .
Has the relocation of the capital from Karachi to Islamabad deepened the feeling of grievance in East Pakistan? Why has the assumption that Islamabad as the federal capital will be calm and peaceful turned out to be wrong? Should we bring the capital back to Karachi because the experience of moving the capital has failed?
Critics contend that Ayub Khan and his associates had a vested interest in moving the capital from Karachi to Islamabad, as they felt more secure and comfortable near the headquarters and were uncomfortable with the political and commercial characteristics of Karachi. But, by taking such a decision, they undermined the fact that Karachi had been chosen as the federal capital by the father of the nation Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It was acceptable to both East Pakistan and West Pakistan. Billions of rupees were spent to build the city of Islamabad and thousands of federal government workers were moved 1,500 kilometers first to Rawalpindi as the provisional capital and then to Islamabad. The change in the capitals has left the Bengali people of East Pakistan embittered and resentful. They often remarked that they could “smell the jute smell of the roads and buildings of Islamabad” because they claimed that the city was built with their resources.
East Pakistan, despite the geographic distance from West Pakistan, had accepted Karachi as its federal capital because of its diverse and cosmopolitan nature. However, when the Ayub Khan regime imposed the decision to move the capital from Karachi to Islamabad, they were unhappy and enraged. If the then Pakistani rulers had the vision and the ability to keep the country together, they should have moved the capital from Karachi to Dhaka. After all, personal and collective interests should not be above national interests. For example, when the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan realized that there was a threat of secession from the non-Kazakh northern Slavic part of their country, it decided to relocate the capital of Almaty located in the south of Kazakhstan in Astana located in the northern part of the country. But Ayub’s regime was more interested in ruling from the proximity of its seat of power and its hometown Haripur than considering the interests of the whole country.
In September 2019, the Speaker of the Sindh Assembly before a court of accounts demanded that “Karachi become the federal capital again. Karachi was the seat of power of the federal government when Pakistan was created, and the decision must be overturned. Meanwhile, Pir Pagara, the leader of the (functional) Pakistani Muslim League, also advised Federal Law Minister Farough Naseem to move the federal capital back to Karachi. He argued that “even from the security spectrum, Karachi can become the safest capital in the country”. Yet even after moving the federal capital from Karachi to Islamabad, Karachi’s importance has not diminished. It is Pakistan’s largest city and commercial hub. Karachi contributes 65% of federal revenue but receives only 15% of Center funding.
The price of transfer from the federal capital of Karachi to Islamabad is multiple.
First, billions of rupees have been spent to build the capital. Without a doubt, the final look was organized and modern. However, sixty years later, this aspect has been compromised due to unplanned construction, pollution and rampant crime.
Second, the relocation of the federal capital to Islamabad has increased the sense of deprivation among East Pakistan. Poverty and hunger weighed heavily on East Pakistan while the federal capital reflected prosperity and wealth. Having low representation in the military and bureaucracy, the Bengalis were furious that Islamabad was a symbol of the exploitation of their resources. They never considered Islamabad to be the capital of Pakistan.
Third, Islamabad’s highly bureaucratic and elitist characteristics made the entire population feel unrepresented. Besides the Bengalis in East Pakistan, even MQM leaders in urban Sindh began to complain that Islamabad’s greenery and infrastructure was a product of Karachi’s resources. A popular belief emerged that the beneficiaries of the capital were not the Pakistani people but a handful of elites who established their comfort zones at the expense of taxpayer dollars.
The argument that the capital should be moved back to Karachi to save the country from further debacles cannot be ruled out as unpatriotic. Those with a vested interest in retaining Islamabad as the federal capital may vehemently oppose such an idea, but it should be the present and future of the country that should take priority.
If Islamabad has become a “Hyde Park” and vulnerable to all kinds of unrest, violence, hooligans, protests and sit-ins, it is because of the unbalanced view of those who moved the federal capital from Karachi. The first sit-in in Islamabad took place on the 4the and 5e of July 1980 when the Shiite community protested against the imposition of the Zakat and Ushr ordinance. Their request was granted and they were exempted from Zakat and Uhr. From the 1990s, Islamabad became a hub for sit-ins and protests by religious and political parties. Islamabad has gained notoriety for frequent sit-ins, blockades and protest marches, which begs the question: why was the capital moved from Karachi in the first place?
Posted in The Express Tribune, November 7e, 2021.
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