It was early 1971, I was preparing for my FSc exams. We went to visit our extended family living on Shalimar Road, where I came across Amir Ahmed Khan Niazi Sahib (late), who had just moved there after retirement from government service. He was a forest officer who rose to the position of Secretary Agriculture of West Pakistan. Niazi sahib was a very able and kind person. He was a close friend of Ikramullah Khan Niazi, father of Imran Khan; both hailed from Mianwali. They were thorough professionals who believed in honest hard work. Niazi Sahib was blessed with a son in 1951 whom he named Imran Khan Niazi (Cuckoo). In late 1952, Ikramullah sb also had a son who was named after his friend’s son. Cuckoo was academically inclined, he studied Chemical Engineering in the US while Imran Khan was more into sports, and went to Oxford to earn a foreign degree and became a cricketer of international standing. Studying abroad was considered an honour in those days and successful students were received with grand fanfare at the airports as they were considered important players for the advancement of the country. Most of us returned to serve the motherland.

Niazi sahib inquired about my studies and then offered to help me in getting a passport. Perhaps he was hinting that I should go abroad like his son, for my professional studies, for which obtaining a passport was the biggest impediment. The offer came as a surprise as I had not thought of a foreign degree at the bachelors’ level, but I started to think about it. Despite winning freedom in August 1947, the people of Pakistan did not have the right to travel till the Passport Reforms of 1973. Even to be considered, the application for a passport had to be attested by a Class I Gazetted Officer. Those who were not well-connected could not get the attestation, hence no passport or travel. My late father helped some of his acquaintances in getting passports, enabling them to go abroad in search for greener pastures. Those who left invariably established themself financially as life was tough and competitive in the new land.

Unfortunately, when my turn to travel came in 1975, Niazi sahib had departed for his final abode, but fortunately, the elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) together with his Interior Minister Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, had reformed the Passport Directorate. The right of a citizen to travel was incorporated into the constitution. Effective SOPs were developed, first to obtain a National Identity Card (NIC) and then use it to apply for a passport. Forms for NIC were to be filled and handed over to the area postman who then verified the address and deposited them to the department. After two weeks, the NICs were delivered through mail. No further attestation was required. I submitted my passport forms through mail using the above SOPs. After two weeks, I received a letter from the Regional Passport Office to personally visit to collect my document. I wrote back that the SOP does not require personal appearance by the applicant, and as such the completed passport be mailed to my address. Promptly came a request that no time will be wasted in handing over the document once I personally visited the office. As it was a polite letter, I responded and collected my first document to travel; issued on March 21, 1975, at Lahore. I felt proud to be a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on that day. It opened new vistas in my life. I used this facility to travel, educate and grow to become a useful human being who could play his role in building society in general, and my nation in particular.

My late father, Nazir Ahmed Malik participated in the Pakistan movement; for his struggle he was awarded the Tehrik-e-Pakistan Gold Medal. Despite winning freedom from the colonists, our rights as citizens of a free state are seriously curbed even after over seven decades of independence. In their individual capacity that generation continued their struggle for freedom from colonial controls, and the democratic government and the constitution that followed had a major impact, but it was short-lived. In July 1977, the country was engulfed by the Zia dark ages. Democratic gains of the seventies were soon neutralised. Constitutional rights of the citizens were trampled. While still in the US, I wanted my mother to visit us. On my trip back home in the eighties, I went with my father to the Passport Office; most facilitating SOPs had been withdrawn by then. My father used one of the facilitators by the name of Butt sb, operating outside the directorate. Butt sb made an interesting comment while sitting on the pavement, “Malik sb can you imagine if free travel had been allowed since 1947, Pakistanis would have been all over the world sending billions in foreign exchange.” An honest individual who must have seen the agony of the applicants over decades knew the way forward, while our rulers and policymakers did not. I think this was deliberate; to control and contain the population. Pakistanis who benefitted from the reforms of the seventies are now our strength and a major source of the much-needed foreign exchange earnings. The enemy is within that keeps us crippled. Recently Imran Khan, who is now the Prime Minister of Pakistan, has spoken about the faulty system of governance prevalent in the country.

Our freedom will remain incomplete till we succeed in developing a system that facilitates, not impedes the growth of its citizens. In the US when they won their freedom, the entire colonial system was dismantled and the rights of the citizens established and ensured. The right to bear arms and travel were incorporated into the constitution. For outward travel, there is no check for passport or customs, one walks straight to the airline counter to get the boarding pass. The airline is required to ensure that the documents are valid for journey, as in case of deportation they are held responsible. Similarly, there are no arms licences, one can just walk into a store and buy protective weapons with no questions asked or forms to fill.

Like the US, Pakistan has been a constitutional democracy since August 1973. Our rights as enshrined in the constitution have been blatantly denied by the system of governance that we inherited from the colonists. In 1947, the founding fathers struggled for establishing a democratic order, while in the seventies, the elected government tried to consolidate our freedom by defining the rights of the citizen. Today, the government is headed by another popularly-elected leader; finally as a nation we have a chance to succeed in meeting the constitutional requirements as enshrined in the consensual document. After decades of struggle, the reward of freedom may finally be attained.