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On the plane with Nawaz Sharif

Last updated on: September 11, 2007 11:38 IST
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On the plane with Nawaz Sharif


In September 2007, Mohammad Hanif, soon to be the celebrated author of the critically acclaimed, best-selling, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, accompanied Nawaz Sharif on his return from exile.

Hanif filed this gripping first person account -- Exclusive to -- of what happened after the PIA plane landed in Islamabad.

We republish the feature on the occasion of Nawaz Sharif's historic triumph in the Pakistan election.

As PK 786 came in to land at Rawalpindi airport yesterday, Nawaz Sharif stood in the middle of the Economy cabin, surrounded by his supporters, ignoring the pilot's increasingly desperate pleas for passengers to take their seats. Nawaz Sharif was returning from a seven-year long exile to defy a military dictator, he had ignored stern warnings from his Saudi friends asking him not to return; he must have thought he could get away with ignoring some basic flight safety procedures like sitting in one's seat and buckling up during the landing.

As dozens of cameras flashed and TV anchors prepared to do their this-is-a-historic-moment piece to camera, Nawaz did what everyone does as the planes touch down these days; he took out his mobile phone and made a call. He tugged at his eyebrows with two fingers, covered his mouth with the other hand and whispered something. But half a dozen microphones thrust into his face by the reporters, picked up the whisper: "Where are you?"

He was calling one of his party leaders and asking whether his supporters had surrounded the airport, whether there were crowds on the streets to welcome him. It's very unlikely that he got an answer as at that very moment all the mobile phones went dead. Reporters ready to file their Nawaz's-plane-has-landed story dialled desperately without any luck. Whatever its other achievements in war against terror might be, Pakistan's military regime has perfected the art of jamming telephones at the slightest pretext.

Pakistan International Airline's flight from Heathrow had been an ordinary journey in many ways. Air-sick children whined. A family of nine casually discussed, between complaining about the quality of PIA's tea, funeral arrangements for the body of a relative they were carrying back home. There was an announcement asking if there was a doctor on board. The cabin crew tried to sell duty free digital Qurans and Toblerones to the passengers but soon gave up.

But everything changed as the plane touched down at Rawalpindi. There was a moment's applause for the captain's smooth landing and then everyone rushed to the windows. "Elite force," someone shouted and we saw police commandoes in black uniforms moving towards the plane. "No faujis," someone pointed out. There was palpable relief in the Sharif camp.


Image: Nawaz Sharif speaks to the media inside Heathrow airport in London, before he boarded a flight to Islamabad.
Photographs: Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images


Someone recited Sarafroshi ki Tamanna, in true Rang de Basanti mode

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One of Nawaz Sharif's aides produced a sleek looking satellite phone. Someone else offered a Thuraya. Nothing worked. As the passengers left the plane, Nawaz Sharif's cheeks glowed like polished apples, his familiar bald patch glistened under his newly transplanted hair. He positioned himself in the middle of the Economy cabin hoping that when they come, and it was always inevitable that they would come, they would have to negotiate about fifty journalists from the world press and about a dozen very motivated supporters.

One of his bodyguards, who looked like a bouncer from one of Brimingham's tough pubs, stood behind Nawaz Sharif. His supporters chanted 'Go Musharraf Go', a slogan coined during the recent lawyers' movement and a rather literal expression of the general mood in Pakistan. Someone recited 'Sarafroshi ki Tamanna, in true Rang de Basanti mode. Nawaz Sharif's supporters were high on passion but low on planning.

Should he disembark from the plane or not? Should he hand over his passport to the immigration officials? Or as one of his bearded colleagues suggested, should they just stay on the aeroplane and pray for Pakistan? These debates raged in the middle of the Economy cabin as the Elite Force surrounded the plane.

Someone worried that the authorities might switch off the air-conditioning.

Image: Pakistani policemen arrest Nawaz Sharif's supporters during a clash in Islamabad, September 10. Baton-wielding police clashed with around Sharif's supporters and arrested key members of his party as he returned, while security forces threw up a five-kilometre security cordon around Islamabad airport.
Photographs: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

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He stood there, struck that pose familiar from a million election posters, and waved

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Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham, a man who can't stay away from any cause that might involve cameras, came to the rescue or as it happened in this case, to facilitate the inevitable. "Let's be civilised," he said to a young police officer who had already endeared himself to Sharif supporters by saluting the former prime minister. "Let's negotiate in British style. You tell us your demands and we'll tell you ours."

"We'll come down only if you remove the police commandoes surrounding this plane." As we watched from the windows, the black clad commandoes turned around, the slogan on the back of their T shirts read: No fear. They were replaced by civilians. One could easily tell they were military commandoes in civvies, armed with walkie- talkies, the kind of people who carry out abductions as a part of their day job.

"We wouldn't walk on the tarmac."

"OK we'll bring the bus to the aeroplane."

Lord Nazir's British-style negotiations were being carried out in Punjabi and seemed to be succeeding.

Nawaz Sharif descended the ladder and one could tell that he had waited for this moment for seven years. He stood there, struck that pose familiar to our nation from a million election posters, and waved. A police squad standing at a distance waved back spontaneously. But besides that there was nothing but the desolation of the Pindi airport which was recently described by a visitor as a tool shed with a runway. As we later found out the five mile radius around the airport had been completely blocked by the army.

Feeling safe in the airline bus Nawaz Sharif produced a comb from his pocket and fixed his hair.

Image: Soon after this wave Nawaz Sharif was sent back to exile in Saudi Arabia.
Photographs: Richard Beeston/AFP/Getty

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'Don't push him. He was your prime minister'


The VIP lounge was full of more men in civvies carrying walkie-talkies. Nawaz Sharif was again asked to hand over his passport. He refused. "I would like to meet my party leaders who want to come here to receive me."

The police officer looked at him in exasperation and disappeared to get more instructions. Lord Nazir's power to negotiate seemed to be diminishing. "If you can't do anything else at least give us tea. We have come all the way from London, we are your guests." Tea and biscuits were served. Nawaz Sharif took his time, savoured his biscuits and told journalists it felt good to be back home.

Nawaz Sharif had seen his fortunes fluctuate in the past as well. Scion of a Lahore's conservative business family, he was handpicked by General Zia-ul Haq to run Punjab. But Nawaz Sharif soon developed a taste for people power and fired an army chief. He tried the same with General Musharraf and found himself in jail, facing life imprisonment. But his luck turned again.

One day he was in that notorious Attock Fort prison and next day he was sitting in Suroor Palace in Saudi Arabia where he was flown with his extended clan including his favourite cook and domestic help. But he must have realised in those seven years that the kind of freedom the Holy Kingdom offered him was not much improvement on the prospect of a life time in jail. He got himself a hair transplant and bid his time.

And now here he was, having kept his word, proving all those wrong who said that he is a coward and can't take on the might of the Pakistani army. Nobody knows whether he harboured dreams of a Khomeni-style triumphant return or not but he was definitely hoping for a decent welcome from his party cadres. He knew that he might be sent to jail but he seemed ready for it.

The crackle on the walkie talkies suddenly increased, The military men in civvies whispered to each other furiously, a few locked themselves in the bathroom, probably to put final touches to the plan.

When the finale came it had a ring of brutal choreography to it. The police commandoes locked hands and formed a circle around him. The men in civvies formed an even stronger circle around this circle. The Bouncer from Brimingham threw himself against this human cordon and found himself sprawled on the floor.

"Don't push him," shouted a Nawaz Sharif supporter. "He was your prime minister." "You don't push. We are only doing our duty."

"No badtameezi please, be civilised," shouted Lord Nazir.

"You'll regret this." Screamed another supporter. "You look educated," shouted back the policeman, "Don't shout."

As Nawaz Sharif was led away towards a waiting plane that would take him back to Saudi Arabia, he looked back towards his supporters and waved one last time.

For the first time his face was serene, the face of a man whose worst fears had come true.

Image: A Pakistan International Airlines plane, with Nawaz Sharif on board, takes off from Islamabad airport, September 10.
Photographs: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images