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The Muslim League (ML) is one of the oldest parties in Pakistan. But unlike the country’s other large party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the ML has evolved through schisms and splits, with the largest factions claiming to be the true expressions of the original ML.

The ML was formed in 1949 two years after the birth of Pakistan. The party had existed as the All India Muslim League (AIML) in undivided India and had led the movement for the creation of a separate Muslim-majority nation-state in the region.

The AIML had emerged in 1906 and till the 1940s was aiming to work towards gaining and safeguarding the rights of Indian Muslims. It did not demand the creation of a new (Muslim) state.

The AIML was initially against populist politics and repulsed by the political line and activities of parties and outfits headed by Muslim ulema and clerics. However, after the AIML failed to garner grassroots support from Muslims living in India’s vast rural and semi-rural areas, it shifted gears and decided to challenge the populism of the Indian National Congress (INC) and the more radical Muslim parties, especially during the 1946 election in the Punjab.

Punjab was one of the largest provinces in British India and 57 per cent of its population was Muslim.

The AIML had done badly in elections in the Punjab, so it used the 1946 election in the province to test the validity and reach of its new (populist) message i.e. of offering the Muslims of India their own country.

Led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan (both steeped in the values and traditions of modern European law and holding a modernist and progressive understanding of faith), Jinnah allowed (albeit reluctantly) the party’s Punjab leadership to engage and strike alliances with Punjab’s powerful Muslim spiritual leaders (Pirs) and those fiery clerics who supported the AIML. This was the party’s first real show of electoral pragmatism.

  Liaquat Ali Khan (left) with Jinnah.
Liaquat Ali Khan (left) with Jinnah.

The AIML was up against the powerful Unionist Party (UP) – a party that was controlled by Punjab’s foremost Muslim feudal personalities and Pirs, and (with the backing of some members of the province’s Hindu and Sikh populations), had become Punjab’s leading political outfit.

Jinnah’s party was also facing a challenge from an assortment of radical right-wing Islamic parties and personalities that were (ironically) being backed by the secular Indian National Congress (INC).

Circumstances saw the AIML (perhaps for the first time) run a highly populist election campaign that worked on three levels.

The student-wing of the AIML (the All India Muslim Students Federation), that was largely populated by progressive Muslim nationalists from North Indian colleges and universities, was mobilised and asked to attract Muslim votes for the party in Punjab’s urban areas.

Hundreds of members of the AIML’s student wing went around and explained the AIML’s struggle as a fight against feudalism, economic exploitation and corruption, and to create a separate Muslim nation-state where there will be economic benefits for all, and religious harmony.

 Jinnah with members of the women’s wing of the All India Muslim Students Federation. The wing was also called ‘Muslim Women’s Guards.’
Jinnah with members of the women’s wing of the All India Muslim Students Federation. The wing was also called ‘Muslim Women’s Guards.’

On the other hand, AIML engaged some fiery clerics to counter the influence that radical Islamic parties such as the Majlis-e-Ahrar enjoyed among Punjab’s urban and semi-urban petty-bourgeois Muslims. Such outfits were staunchly against the AIML and were being indirectly backed by the INC.

They accused the AIML of being ‘British agents’and ‘false Muslims’ who were ‘misguiding the Muslims of India’ and working to keep the Muslims under the influence of exploitative feudals. The pro-AIML clerics responded by accusing the Ahrar and other such outfits of being ‘Hindu agents’ who were being supported by the INC, and were working to keep the Muslims ‘under the thumb of the region’s Hindu majority.’

In the rural areas, the AIML was successful in weaning away influential Pirs and (consequently) their large number of followers (Murids) from the sphere of the Unionist Party.

Out of a total 175 seats in the province, the AIML won 73, the Congress 51 and the Sikh Akalidal Party 22. The Unionist Party (that had risen to become the province’s majority party in the previous election) could win just 20 seats.

The AIML’s victory in these elections elevated its status as the leading Muslim party in India. The very next year (in 1947) it would become the founding party of the separate Muslim nation-state, Pakistan.


It took almost two years for the party to reorganise itself after the creation of Pakistan, in spite of the fact that its members dominated the country’s first Constituent Assembly.

Jinnah became the new country’s Governor General and Liaquat became its first prime minister.

A bulk of what was once a minority in India had become a majority in Pakistan. Well over 90 per cent of the country’s population was Muslim. But cracks caused by historical sectarian and sub-sectarian differences, and splits on ethnic issues soon began to emerge because the new country was also highly diverse, consisting of various ethnicities, Muslim sects and sub-sects and about 7 per cent ‘minority communities’ that included Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Zoroastrians.

Considering the fact that it was the founding party of the country, it was remarkable how inept the League proved to be intackling the many economic and political issues facing the newly-formed country.

Jinnah died early (in 1948), and Liaquat reorganised the party to prepare it to stay in power. But only two elections took place between 1947 and 1958, both provincial.

In 1951, elections for Punjab, NWFP and Sindh legislative assemblies were held. By now the League had split into various factions. The faction led by Liaquat Ali Khan was the largest.

In the Punjab and NWFP emerged Jinnah Awami Muslim League (that was formed by former progressive members of the ML); and Islam League (formed by the more religious members of the League).

Some left-wing members of the League who had been eased out from the party after Jinnah’s death formed the Azad Pakistan Party.

In Punjab out of a total of 175 seats, the ML won 140, Jinnah League won 32, Azad Pakistan Party won 1 and Jamat-i-Islami 1. The Communist Party and Islam League failed to win any seats.

The League’s success was not quite down to it receiving the most votes due to its popularity as such. According to newspaper reports, widespread rigging and the fact that the League had continued to maintain its alliance with Punjab’s feudal gentry and influential Pirs made sure that the party retained its hold in the Punjab. The League had also struck an alliance with its former foe, the Majlis-i-Ahrar, in some areas of Punjab.

The ML also won in the NWFP. It had an open field here because the Pukhtun nationalist party, the Khudai Khidmatgaar, had been banned for being ‘anti-Pakistan.’

  A newspaper report of the 1951 election in NWFP.
A newspaper report of the 1951 election in NWFP.

In Sindh too, the ML managed to win despite the fact that some former ML members had formed the Sindh Muslim League and another former ML member, GM Syed, had formed the left-wing Sindh Muttahida Mahaz. Voter participation in Sindh, however, was the lowest (less than 20 per cent).

Liaquat was assassinated in 1951 after he had survived a coup attempt involving a left-wing Major General and the Communist Party of Pakistan.

The League held on to power with the help of a highly politicised bureaucracy and the banning of any political entity it thought could threaten its hold.

Much of the time and effort was wasted in trying to control in-fighting, splits and political intrigues, both real and imagined. The party’s health was finally exposed when during the 1954 election in the populous East Pakistan, it was routed.

East Pakistan, dominated by Muslim Bengalis, had supported the AIML’s call for a separate Muslim nation-state before Punjab and the NWFP.

However, many members of the progressive Bengali leadership in the League had broken away (due to what they thought were the party’s anti-Bengali policies) and had formed the Awami Muslim League. For the 1954 election, Awami Muslim League got together with some radical left-wing outfits and one East Pakistan-based Islamic party to form the United Front.

Out of a total of 237 seats, the United Front won 223, whereas the ML could win just 10 seats.

 Front page report in the Dawn on United Front’s sweeping victory in the 1954 election in East Pakistan.
Front page report in the Dawn on United Front’s sweeping victory in the 1954 election in East Pakistan.

Awami Muslim League would eventually evolve into becoming the leading Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League.

In 1955-56, another faction broke away from the ML and became the Republican Party.

Though the ML and the Republican Party managed to finally author and pass the country’s first Constitution, the ML seemed to have been fractured beyond repair.

The constitution had promised to hold the country’s first nationwide election based on adult franchise in 1958. But on the eve of the promised election, the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP) and the Awami League were the two parties that were in the best position to win the polls. The ML was in shambles.

But the election never took place. A popular military coup led by Field Martial Ayub Khan toppled the ML-led government and imposed the country’s first Martial Law.

All political parties were banned.


In 1962 when Ayub Khan lifted the ban on political parties, he decided to also form his own party. For this he revived the ML under his own leadership and became its chief.

But those ML members, who opposed Ayub, refused to recognise Ayub’s League and formed their own faction. Ayub’s League became the Convention Muslim League and the opposing ML became the Council Muslim League.

The Convention Muslim League became the ruling party under Ayub and enjoyed a majority in the National Assembly spun by the Ayub regime’s complex ‘Basic Democracy’ and Presidential system.

 Convention Muslim League members on a train with a pro-Ayub banner (1962).
Convention Muslim League members on a train with a pro-Ayub banner (1962).

The party stood for whatever the Ayub regime was founded upon: Industrialisation, state-backed capitalism, ‘progressive Islam,’ a pro-West foreign policy, and a strong centralised government.

  Ayub Khan.
Ayub Khan.

The Council Muslim League accused Ayub of hijacking the League to legitimise his rule. The truth, however, was that the conflict between the two Leagues was basically a personal tussle between two sets of Muslim League leaders and members.

No wonder both the factions were eclipsed by the radical Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League (AL), the populist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), during the 1968-69 uprising against the Ayub regime.

Furthermore, in Pakistan’s first general election based on adult franchise in 1970, both Convention and Council Leagues were routed.

In fact it was another Muslim League faction, the Qayyum Muslim League that managed to outscore Convention and Council Leagues.

The Qayyum League was formed by veteran Muslim Leaguer, Abdul Qayyum Khan, and it went on to win nine seats in the 1970 election (all of them in the NWFP). Convention Muslim League won seven and the Council Muslim League just two.

The elections were swept by the AL which bagged 160 seats (all of them from East Pakistan). The PPP came second by winning 81 (all of them from West Pakistan). The NAP won six.


The 1970s was a decade of further wilderness for the League. The Qayyum League merged with the PPP and its leader was made an ambassador by the PPP government that came into power after the breakaway of East Pakistan in December 1971.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the country’s new head of state and then government and his party, the PPP, enjoyed a comfortable majority in the National Assembly and in the Provincial Assemblies of the country’s two largest provinces, Punjab and Sindh.

  Former Convention Muslim League leader, ZA Bhutto, formed the left-leaning and populist Pakistan Peoples Party in 1967. In December 1971 he became the country’s first elected Prime Minister.
Former Convention Muslim League leader, ZA Bhutto, formed the left-leaning and populist Pakistan Peoples Party in 1967. In December 1971 he became the country’s first elected Prime Minister.

In 1973, Pir Pagara, a powerful feudal lord from the Sindh province, attempted to unite all the Muslim League factions floating around and formed the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F).

PML-F had originally been conceived in 1965 by Fatima Jinnah (Muhammad Ali’s Jinnah’s sister) to counter Ayub’s Convention Muslim League. Though Pagara was elected to head that party, he had failed to unite the anti-Ayub factions of the League and the party was overshadowed by the rise of left-wing outfits such as the National Awami Party (NAP), the PPP and the Awami League.

In 1973, Pagara was relatively more successful in uniting some League factions. It was also during this period that the League’s traditionally centrist ideological disposition began to shift a bit towards the right, mainly to challenge the PPP government’s populist and ‘socialist’ tenor.

By 1976 the PML-F had become the largest PML faction in the country. It joined an anti-Bhutto electoral alliance, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), for the 1977 election.

The PNA was made up of nine anti-PPP parties. These included three right-wing religious parties, the Jamat-i-Islami (JI), the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) and the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP); two left-wing parties (National Democratic Party and Milli Awami Party); one centrist party, the Tehreek-i-Istaqlal; and two conservative-democratic parties: the Democratic Party, and the PML (that, as mentioned earlier, had begun to shift more towards the right from its traditionally centrist position).

When the PPP swept the National Assembly election, PNA accused the government of rigging the polls. It then began a concentrated and often violent agitation against the Bhutto regime.

The protest movement was largely centred in Karachi and Lahore, and mostly involved youth belonging to the country’s urban bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie sections who had been affected the most by the Bhutto’s regime’s socialist economic experiments.

 Pir Pagara talking to the media at the Karachi Press Club during PNA’s protest movement against the Bhutto regime (April 1977).
Pir Pagara talking to the media at the Karachi Press Club during PNA’s protest movement against the Bhutto regime (April 1977).

In July 1977 General Ziaul Haq toppled the Bhutto government in a reactionary military coup. The coup triggered a split in the PNA, when the right-wing and religious parties of the alliance welcomed the coup, while others opposed it.

PML-F decided to support the military regime leaving a senior member of the party, Malik Qasim, to breakaway and form his own faction of the League (Pakistan Muslim League-Qasim). This faction would go on to join the PPP-led anti-Zia alliance, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1981.

By the early 1980s, however, the League had once again split into various tiny factions.


In 1984, after a dubious referendum confirmed Ziaul Haq as Pakistan’s President, he encouraged the formation of a united Muslim League that he could use to legitimise his presidency and government.

Pir Pagara was once again instrumental in bringing together various factions of the party and in 1985 a revamped Pakistan Muslim League (PML) was formed, consisting of most League factions.

This PML was different from most other incarnations of the party because it took on an overtly right-wing and religious complexion to suit the conservative ideological make-up of the Zia regime and personality.

  General Zia.
General Zia.

But unlike Ayub Khan, Zia did not become a direct part of his League, instead functioning as a figurehead and sympathiser of the newly united party. The new PML threw up two main leaders, Mian Nawaz Sharif (from a conservative industrial family in the Punjab), and Muhammad Khan Junejo (from Pagara’s PML-F and a member of Sindh’s landed gentry).

After the so-called ‘partyless elections’ of 1985, that were largely boycotted by the anti-Zia parties, individuals sympathetic to the Zia regime won a majority in the Parliament.

In essence, it was the new PML that became Pakistan’s new ruling party, even though Zia still held much of the power.

Junejo was elected as the Prime Minister and Zia lifted the Martial Law that had been in effect ever since July 1977. He, however, remained to be the country’s President and army chief.

Though the PML government was to create the illusion of ‘democracy’ that the Zia regime wanted to display and provide a civilian face to what was still a reactionary military regime, trouble began to brew between Junejo and Zia, especially in 1987 when the Soviet Union began to exhibit its willingness to quit Afghanistan.

The Junejo government supported the United States’ move to trigger a hasty retreat of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and roll back the ‘anti-Soviet jihad’ that it had initiated in the early 1980s with the help of the Saudi and Pakistani regimes.

Zia, whose dictatorship had been largely strengthened and founded upon the financial, strategic and ideological ground that was laid to launch the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet forces, now seemed to feel vulnerable and insecure.

Though he was never a very popular head of state but had managed to hold on to power with the help of the massive amounts of economic and military aid that his government had received from the Americans and the Saudis and through the highly systematic ways, he repressed any opposition (both real and perceived) to his regime.

  Junejo (left) with Zia during his swearing-in ceremony in 1985.
Junejo (left) with Zia during his swearing-in ceremony in 1985.

Then, in July 1988, Zia suddenly and abruptly dismissed the Junejo government – a set-up he had himself moulded. In a teary-eyed address to the nation (on TV and radio), Zia accused the Junejo regime of failing to curb corruption and trying to dislodge the country from the ‘Islamic path’ that he (Zia) had so painstakingly laid.

But by August the same year, Zia was no more. He died in a controversial plane crash over South Punjab. Sabotage was suspected and over the years a number of theories have emerged about the alleged saboteurs.

Names of four ‘culprits’ continue to prop up in the many journalistic inquiries that followed the crash: The Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB; The former Afghan intelligence agency, the KHAD; former left-wing urban guerrilla outfit, the Al-Zulfikar; and the American CIA.

KHAD and KGB supposedly assassinated Zia due to his government’s aggressive and militant stance against the Soviet forces (and the Soviet-backed government) in Afghanistan; Al-Zulfikar, that was headed by ZA Bhutto’s two sons, bought Zia’s plane down to avenge their father’s death; and the most interesting theory in this respect puts the blame on the American CIA that now wanted to eliminate their former client because he had become an irritant in the peace process that was to follow the exit of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

Though divisions between the two main groups in PML – one headed by Junejo and the other by the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Mian Nawaz Sharif – became more apparent than ever, remnants of the Zia regime in the country’s intelligence agencies urged the party to remain united.

The PPP was set to win the 1988 election that were to take place after Zia’s demise. So, not only did the agencies succeed in keeping the PML intact, it made it to head an electoral alliance of right-wing parties, the Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI), to push back the tidal victory that the PPP was expecting to achieve.

 Benazir about to address a rally in Lahore just before the 1988 election.
Benazir about to address a rally in Lahore just before the 1988 election.

Though the PPP won the largest number of seats in the Parliament, the IJI came second and was able to deny the PPP an absolute majority.

  An IJI rally in Lahore (1988).
An IJI rally in Lahore (1988).

A young Benazir Bhutto became the country’s new Prime Minister. But she was inexperienced and struggled to address the many political and social problems that had crept up during the Zia era (such as corruption and ethnic and sectarian violence), and had now spilled over into the post-Zia period.

This and the fact that her shaky regime was constantly besieged by political intrigues conceived by the ‘Ziaists’ in the establishment and executed by the IJI, saw her government fall in 1990, dismissed by President Ishaq Khan (a veteran bureaucrat who had become a Zia loyalist in the 1980s).

The IJI then won the now famously rigged 1990 election and Nawaz Sharif became the country’s next PM. But IJI’s engineered victory brought out into the open the infighting that was taking place in the PML.

The Sharif group that was a lot closer to the establishment managed to prevail over the Junejo group, mainly due to the fact that some of the latter’s leading lights had lost the 1988 election from their own home constituencies (including Junejo).

By 1992m IJI had split but the Sharif government remained intact because PML was the alliance’s main party. Sharif too struggled to not only put to rest the problems that had spilled over from the Zia era, but since American aid had by now dried up (due to the end of the Afghan civil war), the economy of the country began to fold as well.

The PPP took advantage of the situation and organised a series of protest rallies against the Nawaz regime. Nawaz had not only been alienated from his many former allies, but in frustration, he ended up clashing with President Ishaq Khan as well, who still enjoyed the power to dismiss elected governments.

 Nawaz Sharif (centre) surrounded by party workers in 1992.
Nawaz Sharif (centre) surrounded by party workers in 1992.

In 1993 the Nawaz regime fell, dismissed by Ishaq on charges of corruption.

PML fell apart as well. Though Junejo passed away in 1993, some of his leading supporters in the PML formed their own faction, PML-Junejo. The rest of the PML simply became PML-Nawaz.

PML-Junejo allied itself with the PPP during the 1993 election and helped the latter return to power.

It is said that PML-Junejo was the more moderate and pragmatic group in the PML, whereas the Nawaz group was still largely attached to the mix of religion and capitalism that had prevailed during the Zia regime.

Nevertheless, soon PML-Junejo too split when a faction, led by Manzoor Wattoo, broke away to form PML-Jinnah.

PML-Nawaz became the largest PML faction when it swept the 1997 election after the second Benazir government was dismissed by its own President (Farooq Laghari)!

This was the period when PML-N peaked as a staunchly right-wing and quasi-Islamist party. Still trying to re-enact the ‘Islamic capitalism’ of the Zia era (but without the benefit of US aid), the PML-N ended up getting itself embroiled in a number of clashes with the judiciary, the parliament and eventually the powerful armed forces.

At one point, Nawaz actually wanted to amend the Constitution so he could become the all-powerful Ameerul Momineen (commander of the faithful), and/or an Islamic caliph!

His government was eventually ousted in a military coup in 1999, undertaken by General Pervez Musharraf.


Musharraf’s coup was a popular one, just as Ayub Khan’s coup had been in 1958.

Just before the 2002 election after Musharraf consolidated his position by becoming the President through a referendum, he gradually began to reconstruct the country’s economy and return it to a more controlled form of democracy.

For this, he repeated the ploy of his predecessors; Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq, by uniting the erstwhile PML factions to form a single League that would help him give his military regime a civilian face and façade.

He managed to attract the attention of some leading PML-N luminaries who had fallen-out with Nawaz Sharif during the PML-N regime’s tussles with the judiciary and the military.

These luminaries, along with technocrats and Muslim League moderates formed the PML-Quaid with the idea to politically back Musharraf’s moderate/liberal regime, laissez faire economic policies and a pragmatic brand of Pakistani nationalism.

PML-Q won the largest number of seats in the 2002 election. PML-N that could only win a handful of seats seemed as good as over.

But in Pakistan where Musharraf and the PML-Q were enjoying a wave of popularity mainly triggered by a booming consumer economy, the PML-N leadership mended its fences with the PPP in exile.

By the time the Musharraf regime fell in 2007, PML-N had successfully reinvented itself into a moderately conservative democratic party that was focused more on achieving economic breakthroughs through imaginative economic policies and striking peace with Pakistan’s neighbours rather than pad its capitalist manoeuvres with reactionary/religious rhetoric and action.

  Benazir and Nawaz in London during Musharraf regime. The mending of fences between the two also saw PML-N becoming a more moderate conservative party.
Benazir and Nawaz in London during Musharraf regime. The mending of fences between the two also saw PML-N becoming a more moderate conservative party.

The PML-N came second during the 2008 election (that were won by the PPP), but was swept into power during the 2013 election.

As a party in power, the PML-N has stuck to the ideological formula it decided to strike in the early 2000s and it is currently perhaps the party with the most robust ideas about Pakistan’s economic uplift.

However, though it has finally shed its baggage of once being the civilian surrogate of the reactionary legacy of Ziaul Haq, its concentrated and well thought-out economic agendas are quite the opposite of its rather feeble and superficial understanding of certain existentialist threats being faced by Pakistan in the last decade or so.

Despite the fact that it is no more a ‘Ziaist’ party, the PML-N still seems to be tied to controversial ties it began to cultivate with various reactionary outfits to win elections in certain clusters of the Punjab.

It has also gotten into a cold war with the military establishment as well, especially over the trial of Pervez Musharraf and due to the military’s decision to start a full-blown operation against extremists and militants in the north-west of the country.

Though the PML-N government finally (and reluctantly) gave the operation its approval, it is feared that the party’s main electoral bastion, the Punjab, would suffer a backlash from the militants and undermine the party’s position there.

The Punjab that was the epicentre of left-wing and progressive politics till the early 1980s, had become a strong-hold of right-wing political groups ranging from mainstream right-wing parties such as PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to various more militant and reactionary groups. This was mainly due to the fact that Zia’s economic policies (mixed with religious propaganda) greatly benefitted the province’s bourgeoisie, petty-bourgeoisie and trader classes.

At the time of writing this feature, the PML-N’s strength in the Punjab is not being challenged by the country’s left-liberal outfits, but by another right-wing democratic party, the young PTI.

The PML-Q lost much of its steam after Musharraf’s departure. In fact, Musharraf went on to form his own Muslim League, the All Pakistan Muslim League.

Pagara’s PML-Function has once again been relegated to a party restricted in one part of the Sindh province and tiny PML factions such as the PML-Zia (formed in 2002 by one of Zia’s sons) and Awami Muslim League (formed by former PML-N man, Sheikh Rasheed), are no more than one-man parties.

The PML-N remains to be the largest faction and it can be predicted that if (for whatever reason), this government is not able to complete its five-year-term, the PML-N too, is bound to splinter into various factions.