Uprisings and Downfalls: Attempts at ousting Pakistani governments

Updated 30 Oct 2014

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While the ousters did stem from shortcomings in the respective governments under attack, it is true that they only intensified the rot which they set off to check in the first place.
While the ousters did stem from shortcomings in the respective governments under attack, it is true that they only intensified the rot which they set off to check in the first place.

Action, reaction


There have so far been four major political movements in Pakistan that attempted to unseat a sitting government. Three of these movements were against military rule and one targeted an elected civilian setup.

Though three of the movements (two against military rule and one against a civilian government) were actually successful in initiating a sequence of events that bought the government down, the eventual successes of these movements were soon soiled by the consequential emergence of greater social and political crisis compared to the ones that the movements had pointed their remonstrations against.

The four movements include the 1968-69 uprising against Filed Martial Ayub Khan’s military-backed regime; the 1977 movement of opposition parties against the civilian government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; the 1983 movement led by the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq; and the 2007 protest movement led by radical lawyers and aided by opposition parties against the pro-military set-up of General Parvez Musharraf.

The movements against Ayub, Musharraf and Bhutto were successful in gradually ousting these men. But each one of these successes were soon followed by certain weighty events that were largely triggered by the immediate consequences of the movements i.e. weakening of the economy, political bedlam, and the withering of the social contract between the state and society that encouraged indiscipline and confusion within state institutions and in society in general.

Ayub’s regime fell in 1969. Though his fall was followed by Pakistan’s first ever general election based on adult franchise (in 1970), in 1971 Pakistan lost a civil war in its Eastern wing (East Pakistan) and then a war against India whose forces aided the separation of East Pakistan from its Western wing.

The weakening of Bhutto’s regime due to intense protests against it in 1977 was almost immediately followed by a reactionary military coup that lasted for eleven years. The dictatorship’s legacy today is widely considered to be one of the most damaging to the country’s social and political fabric.

The movement against Musharraf forced him to hold an election in 2008 that allowed the return of the country’s two main parties (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the PPP); and the same year he was forced by the newly elected government and parliament to resign as head of state and Army chief. However, his exit further intensified episodes of anarchic terrorism by religious extremists and militants who had first emerged during his regime. Thousands of civilians, politicians, soldiers and policemen were killed in the militant violence and bombings that erupted during the regimes that followed his ouster.

Of course, the movements that ousted Ayub, Bhutto and Musharraf can’t be entirely blamed for such devastating quandaries because the roots of the ultimate damage that followed their ouster also lie in the shortcomings of their respective governments. But it is also true that the economic, political and social consequences triggered by the movements did intensify the magnitude of the rot that had been brewing within the country’s state and society before the movements began.


1. Adios Ayub

Many people who as young men and women took part in the widespread protest movement against the military rule of Ayub Khan in the late 1960s suggest that Ayub relinquished power after he was told what some of the protesters had started to call him. In 1968 at the height of the movement against him, young protesters in Karachi and Lahore began describing him as a dog (Ayub Khan Kutta!).

This was a time when politicians and rulers in Pakistan hardly ever used any derogatory language against their opponents, so Ayub was shocked when he heard that some of his ‘children’ (the term he used to describe his subjects), had decided to call him a dog.

Ayub had come to power in 1958 on the back of a popular military coup (Pakistan’s first), and had enjoyed a significant run of admiration from a majority of Pakistanis in the first four years of his dictatorship.

Vowing to make Pakistan a powerful and influential military-industrial state, Ayub encouraged and facilitated an unprecedented growth in the process of industrialisation in the country. He also initiated the introduction of technical innovations in agriculture and brought Pakistan closer to the United States, thus benefitting from the military and financial aid that came with the enhanced relationship.

 Ayub Khan with American First Lady, Jackie Kennedy (1961).
Ayub Khan with American First Lady, Jackie Kennedy (1961).

By 1961 the Ayub regime had largely restored the country’s economy that had begun to weaken from the mid-1950s onwards, mainly due to the political chaos that prevailed in the country, as various factions of Pakistan’s first ruling party, the Muslim League, indulged in constant infighting and intrigues, and were unable to address the growing disenchantment and cynicism exhibited towards politicians by those who were kept out from the political process dominated by the country’s political-bureaucratic elite.

Ayub was at the height of his power and popularity when he decided to lift Martial Law in 1962 and restore at least a semblance of political activity by the parties that had been banned in 1958.

He became President and handpicked an assembly through a complex electoral system that he called ‘Basic Democracies’. After discarding the 1956 Constitution, his assembly passed a brand new Constitution that enshrined Ayub’s idea of ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan.’

 Ayub in Jinnah cap: The 1962 Constitution enshrined his idea of ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan.’
Ayub in Jinnah cap: The 1962 Constitution enshrined his idea of ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan.’

The idea revolved around the construction of a strong military-industrial state, propped up by state-backed capitalism, free enterprise, agricultural reforms and a ‘progressive interpretation of Islam that was compatible with science, technology and modernity.’

Ayub detested politicians, from both the left as well as the right sides of the conventional ideological divide. His regime came down hard on left-wing parties and then went on to ban certain fundamentalist parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) (though the ban was overturned by the courts).

The leftists accused him of encouraging capitalist cronyism, the exploitation of the workers, and the suppression of the rights and ethnic-nationalism of of the Bengalis (in East Pakistan), Sindhis, the Baloch and the Pakhtun, and of dislodging the Urdu-speakers (the Mohajirs) from important state and government institutions that they had helped build after Pakistan’s creation in 1947.

The religious right denounced him of being overtly secular. Ayub easily glided through the many periodical protests that took place against him after 1962 and then won a second term as President in a controversial Presidential race in 1965.

Buoyant by his victory and his firm status as a ‘benevolent dictator,’ Ayub then made an uncharacteristic mistake by allowing himself to be convinced by the hawks in his cabinet (led by his young Foreign Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto), to crown his economic and political achievements with a military triumph against India.

 A 1962 poster describing Ayub as ‘The benign dictator’ who was progressive and treated his people ‘like his children.’
A 1962 poster describing Ayub as ‘The benign dictator’ who was progressive and treated his people ‘like his children.’

India had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese army in 1962 and Bhutto and his supporters in the cabinet were convinced that the Pakistan army would be able to crush the weakened Indian armed forces.

Though the Pakistani armed forces made rapid gains in the initial period of the 1965 Pakistan-India War, the conflict soon turned into a stalemate for both the countries. Ayub settled for a ceasefire, sending Bhutto into a rage.

Ayub eased out Bhutto from the government but the damage was done. The war had drained the country’s resources and the economy began its detrimental slide.

Ayub’s opponents accused him of copping out and of ‘losing the war on the negotiation table.’ Bhutto went on to form his radical left-liberal party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and along with the already established left-wing groups, such as the National Awami Party (NAP) and the National Students Federation (NSF), he became the most prominent face of left-wing opposition in West Pakistan.

In Bengali-dominated East Pakistan, Shiekh Mujeebur Rehman’s Awami League (AL), upped the ante against the regime and accused it of leaving East Pakistan open to an Indian attack during the 1965 war.

 Ayub in consultation with some of his officers during the 1965 Pakistan-India war. The war ended in a stalemate.
Ayub in consultation with some of his officers during the 1965 Pakistan-India war. The war ended in a stalemate.

As the Bengali nationalist movement led by AL and by various militant/Maoist Bengali nationalist groups in East Pakistan gathered pace, in West Pakistan, Ayub was suddenly faced by a spontaneous students’ movement when in October 1968, a large contingent from the NSF gate-crashed a ceremony being held by the government at Lahore’s Fortress Stadium (to celebrate the government’s ‘Decade of Progress’).

The students began to chant anti-Ayub slogans and clashed with the police. They accused the regime of enriching a handful of cronies and letting everyone else suffer unemployment and economic hardship. Then in November 1968, police opened fire on a left-wing student rally in Rawalpindi, killing three protesters.

 A 1967 poster of the national Students Federation (NSF).
A 1967 poster of the national Students Federation (NSF).

In response to the killings, the students formed a Students Action Committee and announced that students across Pakistan would begin a concentrated protest movement against the regime.

As the students began their campaign (with most of the student groups demanding a socialist system and parliamentary democracy), Bhutto’s PPP joined the fray along with NAP and their entry brought with it the participation in the movement of the radical trade and labour unions that were associated with these parties.

By late 1968 the movement had spread beyond Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar and reached the smaller cities and towns of Punjab and Sindh. Meanwhile in East Pakistan, AL and other Bengali nationalist groups began to demand complete provincial autonomy for East Pakistan.

Schools, colleges and universities stopped functioning; workers went on strike and closed down a number of factories, and white-collar professionals refused to attend office, further crippling an already deteriorating political and economic order.

After failing to quell the protests (through police action and wide-scale arrests), Ayub invited opposition parties to hold a dialogue with the government. But the PPP and NAP boycotted the negotiations that were largely attended by religious parties and some moderate right-wing parties. However, Mujeeb’s AL did participate, but the talks ultimately broke down.

By early 1969 the movement had also been joined by peasant committees and organizations in the country’s rural areas.

 ZA Bhutto surrounded by his supporters during the anti-Ayub movement.
ZA Bhutto surrounded by his supporters during the anti-Ayub movement.

In March 1969 a group of senior military men advised Ayub to step down, fearing the eruption of a full scale civil war in East Pakistan and political and social anarchy in the country’s west wing.

A weakened and tired Ayub finally decided to throw-in the towel and resigned, handing over power to General Yayah Khan who immediately imposed the country’s second Martial Law.

He promised to hold the country’s first general election based on adult franchise and relinquish power after introducing parliamentary democracy in Pakistan. With this announcement, the movement came to a halt.

The elections were held in 1970. In East Pakistan AL won 98 percent of the allotted national and provincial assembly seats, whereas in West Pakistan, the PPP swept the polls in the region’s two largest provinces, Punjab and Sindh. NAP performed well in the former NWFP and Balochistan. Most of the ‘status quo parties’ (such as the many Muslim League factions), and most religious outfits (except Jamiat Ulema Islam), were decimated.

However, a three-way political deadlock between AL, PPP and the Yayah regime (over a power-sharing formula) triggered a grave crisis that finally saw the feared eruption of a civil war in East Pakistan and then India’s entry into the deadly conflict.

Pakistani armed forces, exhausted by the anti-Ayub movement and facing negative sentiments due to the fall-out of Ayub’s departure, lost both the civil war and the consequential battle against Indian forces.

A group of military officers (most of them Bhutto sympathizers), forced Yayah to resign and then invited Bhutto and his party to form the country’s first parliamentary government.

Ayub, who had gone into seclusion, died in 1974.


2. Bhutto’s paradox

Between March and June 1977, ZA Bhutto saw the emergence of a protest movement against his government – the kind he had triggered and then led ten years earlier against the Ayub Khan regime in 1968.

But even though the movement against the Bhutto/PPP regime in 1977 was as strong, impactful as the one that ousted Ayub, the 1977 movement’s class and ideological make-up was squarely different than that of the 1968 movement.

During the 1968 movement a wide cross section of the society had participated – left-wing middle-class youth, blue-collar workers, peasants, etc. The1977 movement on the other hand, largely revolved around right-wing student groups, middle-class/white-collar professionals, traders and urban and semi-urban petite-bourgeoisie.

Bhutto had come to power in December 1971 after his party had won the largest number of seats in the former West Pakistan. After the dramatic separation of East Pakistan, a group of disillusioned and angry army officers forced General Yayah Khan to resign and hand over power to Bhutto.

Bhutto’s party, the PPP, had contested the 1970 election on a populist socialist manifesto and the first three years of his regime were spent in repairing the morale of the armed forces and the civilians that was deeply damaged by the separation of East Pakistan and the defeat of Pakistani forces at the hands of the Indian army.

 ZA Bhutto addressing the nation on TV and radio after taking over power in December 1971.
ZA Bhutto addressing the nation on TV and radio after taking over power in December 1971.

It was also during these years that his regime implemented large-scale populist policies that included the nationalization of a number of industries; widespread reforms in the bureaucracy and the armed forces; (limited) land reforms; action against ‘monopolist capitalists’ and ‘corrupt bureaucrats;’ the ouster of ‘Bonapastists’ from the armed forces; formation of two strong parallel security forces (the Federal Security Force and the Red Guards) that were directly placed under Bhutto; education reforms (that saw the nationalization of a majority of educational institutions that drastically cut down their fees and allowed the working classes to send their sons and daughters there); and cultural reforms that facilitated the proliferation of folk music and ethos of Pakistan’s various ethnic groups.

Also during this period, the Bhutto regime drafted a brand new constitution (1973), and managed to get it passed in the national assembly by gaining the approval of all political parties.

By 1973 the regime had also successfully managed to somewhat restore the economy. Contrary to popular perception, and according to political economists such as S. Akbar Zaidi, Asad Saeed, V.Y. Belokrenitsky and V.N. Moskalenko, Pakistan’s economy actually rebounded after the beating that it had received during the later years of the Ayub regime and especially after the economic fall-out of the conflict in East Pakistan.

 A 1974 ad propagating the government’s ‘socialist’ tenor and nationalisation policies.
A 1974 ad propagating the government’s ‘socialist’ tenor and nationalisation policies.

However, it is also true that the economic restoration could not withstand the stress generated by the 1973 international oil crises that raised the inflation rate in the country and Bhutto had to devalue the Rupee. This got a negative response from traders and businessmen who then began to ship out their capital, creating a new economic crisis.

The incompetency and inexperience exhibited by the new managers in the nationalised industries further deepened the crisis and the Bhutto regime now decided to look towards the oil-rich Arab countries that had begun to make large profits due to the unprecedented hike in oil prices after 1973.

By 1974 Bhutto had overtly become the pragmatist that he actually was and began to ease out the hard-line leftists from his cabinet. Conscious of the early moves made by oil-rich Arab states to begin funding a mainstream revival in ‘Political Islam’ in Muslim countries, Bhutto began manoeuvring a delicate balance between his socialist/populist policies and the emerging interest in Political Islam to attract ‘Petro-Dollars’ from Arab countries.

He cracked down on radical labour and student outfits (calling them ‘impractical’ and detrimental to Pakistan’s recovery), and tried to appease right-wing opposition by agreeing to address some of their demands to ‘Islamize the Constitution’.

Bhutto was sitting easy in 1976 as the Petro Dollars began to come in and he had quietened opposition from the left as well as the right (one through arrests and the other through pragmatic appeasement). He also seemed to have the military’s support and backing after he initiated a military operation in Balochistan against supposed Baloch separatists.

 Bhutto at a state dinner held in the honour of Saudi King Faisal in Karachi (1975).
Bhutto at a state dinner held in the honour of Saudi King Faisal in Karachi (1975).

Feeling confident, he announced elections almost a year before they were due only to be left surprised when he saw a fractured and battered opposition unite on a single electoral platform to compete against the PPP in the 1977 election.

The Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) was made-up of nine anti-PPP parties. It included three of the country’s main religious parties, some moderate conservative parties and a few small left-wing outfits.

PNA largely represented the frustrations and aspirations of those groups that had been affected the most by the Bhutto government’s economic and other policies. These included industrialists, businessmen, traders, shopkeepers, the anti-Bhutto landed gentry and the urban middle-classes.

The PNA denounced the Bhutto regime for being detrimental to the cause of Islam in Pakistan, and for turning Pakistan into a ‘land of sin’. They also accused Bhutto of being a ‘civilian dictator’, an ‘oppressor’ and ‘a drunkard’ who had let loose a reign of hooligans on the streets of the country.

Bhutto’s party which, by now, had toned down its socialist rhetoric and tried to prove that its Islam was more enlightening than that ‘of the capitalist and feudal mullahs of the PNA,’ swept the election.

The PNA cried foul and claimed that the election was rigged. It boycotted the provincial election and decided to start a protest movement. Today, according to various analysts and historians, rigging took place on not more than a dozen seats (in the Punjab) but resentment against the regime in certain sections of the society had been brewing so strongly that the movement that Bhutto thought would fizzle out, erupted in the most devastating fashion.

According to a detailed study of the movement done (in 1980) by historian and author, Ahmad B. Saeed, the main participants/protesters of the movement included disgruntled urban middle and lower-middle class youth (mostly belonging to Karachi and Lahore); traders, shop-keepers and white-collar office workers.

According to Saeed, the working classes and the peasants largely remained away from the movement. The agitation against the regime and the police crackdowns mostly took place in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi. Government buildings, police stations, homes of the members of the PPP, nightclubs, bars, cinemas and hotels were attacked by mobs demanding Shariah Law (Nizam-e-Mustafa).

 Anti-PPP student groups protest at the campus of the Karachi University during the anti-Bhutto movement in April 1977.
Anti-PPP student groups protest at the campus of the Karachi University during the anti-Bhutto movement in April 1977.

Bhutto called in the army and imposed long curfews but even that failed to stem the mad flow of the protests. Cops frequently opened fire on the rampaging mobs but some military personnel refused to follow the orders of their superiors and this became a major concern within the military.

Wealthy Industrialists who had been stripped of their perks and power by Bhutto were accused of funding the movement, and the regime also alleged that the United States was bankrolling the protests. Many PPP leaders also pointed the finger towards the large amounts of Saudi Riyals that (according to the PPP) had reached the coffers of the religious parties.

After a month of violence, Bhutto invited the PNA for talks. The PNA demanded fresh elections and the implementation of Shariah Laws. To stall the first demand, Bhutto agreed to conditionally implement the second request and in April 1977 he ordered the closure of all nightclubs and bars. He also banned the sale of alcohol (to Muslims) and replaced Sunday with the Muslim holy day (Friday) as the weekly holiday. PNA decided to stay in the talks.

More than a decade later, veteran Jamat-i-Islami (JI) leader, late Professor Ghafoor Ahmed, who played a leading role in the movement, told journalists that the talks went well and just when Bhutto had agreed to hold fresh elections, General Ziaul Haq decided to impose the country’s third Martial Law (July 1977). He said that most PNA leaders were happy at how the talks had gone but some leaders, such as Asghar Khan (of the moderate conservative, Thereek-i-Istaqlal) and Begum Wali (wife of the left-wing Pushtun nationalist, Wali Khan), desired military intervention.

 Government and opposition on the negotiating table.
Government and opposition on the negotiating table.

When asked why then did JI join Zia’s first cabinet whereas most PNA parties opposed the Martial Law, Professor Ghafoor claimed that joining Zia was the decision of the party’s Punjab leadership and that JI’s Karachi chapter had opposed the move.

Zia, who adopted PNA’s ‘Islamic’ rhetoric and agenda, went on to rule Pakistan for the next eleven years. Bhutto was arrested and in 1979, through a highly controversial trial, he was sentenced to death for a political murder he was alleged to have ordered, and hanged.

 Zia addressing nation on TV after overthrowing the Bhutto government (July 1977).
Zia addressing nation on TV after overthrowing the Bhutto government (July 1977).

3. Zia gets a scare

Though protests against the Ziaul Haq dictatorship began almost immediately after his military coup in July 1977, his regime’s harsh measures (such as public floggings, executions, sentencing by military courts and torture) against any and all opposition did not allow opposition groups to organize themselves in a more coherent and systematic manner.

 Public floggings were regularly used during the early years of the Zia dictatorship to disperse opposition against the regime and infuse in the society a sense of fear.
Public floggings were regularly used during the early years of the Zia dictatorship to disperse opposition against the regime and infuse in the society a sense of fear.

But even though the beginning of the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan Jihad’ in Afghanistan in late 1979 meant that the Zia regime was poised to attract recognition from the United States, and (thus) become its vessel to carry the large military and financial aid that the US and Saudi Arabia pledged as a way to back the Mujahedeen guerrillas in Afghanistan, it would take another few years for Zia to use this material patronage to strengthen his position by reviving the country’s shattered economy.

The regime’s undoing of the economic policies implemented by Bhutto and with the US and Saudi aid now beginning to come in, the economy did begin to slowly revive itself, but Zia’s position was still vulnerable in 1981 when a strong political alliance decided to launch an all-out protest movement against him.

The alliance – Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) – was formed by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that was being led by ZA Bhutto’s widow, Begum Nusrat and his 28-year-old daughter, Benazir Bhutto, both of whom had been in and out of jail and house arrest ever since ZA Bhutto was toppled by Zia in 1977.

The MRD was headed by the PPP and also included various smaller left-wing parties, Sindhi, Baloch and Pushtun nationalist outfits, one Muslim League faction (PML-Qasim) and the only mainstream religious party that opposed Zia, the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI).

 A wall in Karachi covered with MRD and PPP posters during the 1981 MRD Movement.
A wall in Karachi covered with MRD and PPP posters during the 1981 MRD Movement.

The movement kicked off in early 1981 from Karachi’s Saddar area where a PPP worker arrived on a camel and court-arrested to the cheers of a large crowd that had gathered there. Soon the movement, whose first phase involved court-arrests, spread into Lahore and was about to take-off when it suddenly collapsed due to the adventurism of Bhutto’s sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz.

Both had escaped to Afghanistan where under the patronage of the Soviet-backed Afghan government they had formed a left-wing urban guerrilla organization, the Al-Zulfikar (AZO), to plan strikes against Zia’s regime in Pakistan.

The AZO was made-up of Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun and Urdu-speaking militants belonging to the PPP’s student-wing, and after conducting a couple of assassinations and two failed attempts to strike Zia’s plane with a SAM missile in 1980, the AZO hijacked a PIA plane from the Karachi Airport (March 1981). The mission was led by former President of the PPP’s student-wing, Salamullah Tipu, who got over 50 political prisoners released from Zia’s jails when he took the plane full of passengers to Kabul and then to Damascus.

Benazir condemned the hijacking and became even more critical of his brothers’ actions when Tipu shot dead a passenger in Kabul. The MRD movement collapsed when Zia accused the PPP of being behind the hijacking and used the episode to unleash an unprecedented and severe crackdown against MRD leaders and workers.

It took another two years for MRD to reorganize itself and plan another movement against the dictatorship. But by 1983 Zia had consolidated his position and revived the economy - even though the revival brought with it a new kind of institutional corruption and the initial emergence of delinquencies such as heroin/gun smuggling and the coming into the mainstream of radical sectarian figures who had been loitering on the fringes of politics but began being patronised by the state to prop-up support among young Pakistanis and Afghans for the US/Saudi-backed insurgency against the Soviet forces stationed in Kabul.

Also, since the Punjab had been the bastion of the PPP ever since the late 1960s, Zia (an immigrant Punjabi), began to overtly patronize various prominent business groups of Punjab and his economic policies were designed to attract the support of the province’s urban middle and lower-middle-class traders, businessmen and shopkeepers.

He then began to give these groups political roles and aligned them with the more radical religious outfits that he was fostering. So in a way the economic revival witnessed during the Zia regime was accompanied by a burst of religiosity within Pakistan’s bourgeoisie.

MRD deducted that the fruits of economic revival (at least in 1983) were mostly falling into the hands of central/urban Punjab’s middle and trader classes, industrialists and businessmen, whereas rest of the country was being ravaged by economic drawbacks, the rising rates of crime and corruption and the growing incidents of sectarian violence.

On August 14, 1983 (one year after Zia had gotten himself elected as ‘President’ through a dubious referendum), the MRD launched a brand new movement against him.

The groundwork for the movement was mostly done by second-tier members and common workers of the parties of the MRD because by now most of the main leaders of the opposition outfits were either in jail or under house arrest.

Though the movement kicked-off simultaneously in Sindh and Punjab, it failed to gather much support in the latter province. Soon, it became restricted to Sindh where at one point it began to threaten turning into a full-blown Sindhi nationalist movement.

 Bhutto’s widow after addressing a large MRD rally in Karachi. She was immediately arrested and put under house arrest.
Bhutto’s widow after addressing a large MRD rally in Karachi. She was immediately arrested and put under house arrest.

MRD activists and youth belonging to the student-wings of MRD parties and various left-wing Sindhi nationalist groups plunged into the fray and disrupted everyday life in Sindh - though the province’s capital, Karachi, remained relatively calm.

The situation went out of control for the police to handle and Zia called in the army. Anti-Zia activists used shrines of Sufi saints and the thick forests of Moro and Dadu to plan their agitation from. Dozens of MRD supporters were killed when troops used sophisticated weapons to mow down the protests.

 People surround the body of an MRD activist shot by Zia’s troops in Dadu, Sindh (1983).
People surround the body of an MRD activist shot by Zia’s troops in Dadu, Sindh (1983).

In Karachi left-wing and progressive student groups went to war with right-wing pro-Zia student outfits at universities and colleges and women organizations gathered on the streets to burn their dupattas as a protest against what they believed were Zia’s anti-women laws.

 Women activists burn their dupattas in Karachi to protest against what they believed were Zia’s ‘anti-women laws’ (1983).
Women activists burn their dupattas in Karachi to protest against what they believed were Zia’s ‘anti-women laws’ (1983).

Radical trade, labour and journalist unions too played a role in the movement, but by late 1983, it had squarely become a militant Sindhi nationalist movement when Punjab failed to rise.

Though the movement left Zia and his regime feeling nervous and thinking that they were facing another East-Pakistan-like situation, military troops finally managed to crush the commotion. A number of people were killed and hundreds were thrown in jails and severely tortured. The PPP’s main leadership went into exile. Zia had managed to avert a major scare to his dictatorship.

 Revolutionary poet Habib Jalib reciting a poem at a MRD rally in Lahore (1983).
Revolutionary poet Habib Jalib reciting a poem at a MRD rally in Lahore (1983).

But why Sindh? We have already discussed how Zia managed to change the political and social complexion of Punjab and begin the long process of drying out its support for the PPP. But whereas he managed to also keep Balochistan quiet (after releasing Baloch nationalists who had been thrown into jails by the Bhutto regime), and with the NWFP (present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) caught-up in receiving Afghan mujahideen and Afghan refugees and with the regime integrating the Pakhtuns into the changing ways of the ruling and business elites, Sindh was left to its own devises.

Apart from the fact that there was already anger among the Sindhis against the hanging of a Sindhi prime minister (ZA Bhutto), what actually triggered violence in the province in 1983 was the fact that Sindhis as well as the Urdu-speakers in Karachi felt that they were being invaded by elements that were posing a threat to their economic and political interests.

Firstly, Karachi began receiving waves of Afghan refugees, many of whom came for the sole purpose of setting up shady drug and weapons businesses in the city. This trend would trigger the vicious circle of ethnic violence in Karachi from 1985 onwards.

Secondly, Zia began to allot land and business in Sindh to Punjabis who began to migrate from Punjab into Sindh.

Zia did this to create a constituency for himself in Sindh. But what he got was resistance and resentment from the Sindhis and Urdu-speaking traders. In Karachi non-Punjabi traders and businessmen formed an anti-Punjabi organization called the Maha Sindh (this would partly evolve into becoming the MQM in 1984). But the reaction was more violent in the interior of the Sindh province where protests against the regime soon became militant and military troops had to be called in to quell the turmoil.

 Women organizations take out a rally in Lahore against Zia’s so-called ‘Islamization laws.’
Women organizations take out a rally in Lahore against Zia’s so-called ‘Islamization laws.’

The MRD would begin yet another movement in 1986 that was directly led by Benazir Bhutto. Though this time it did manage to draw support from Punjab, it would take another two years and a controversial plane crash for Zia to fall. He died in the crash in August 1988 paving the return of democracy Pakistan.


4. Musharraf fumbles … then falls

General Parvez Musharraf pulled-off a popular military coup against the second government of Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) in 1999. Just like Ayub, Musharraf too came to power and received a hearty round of applause from a populace exhausted by the economic downturns, corruption and chaos of the 1990s in which the country’s two main political parties, the PPP and PML-N, constantly pulled the carpet under each other’s feet and at the same time wore themselves out by combating political intrigues whipped up by remnants of the Zia era in the ‘establishment.’

The Musharraf coup was not appreciated by Pakistan’s leading donor, the United States, and the General struggled to restore the country’s battered economy during the first two years of his regime.

Posing himself as a moderate and a lifestyle liberal, Musharraf’s luck turned when he agreed to become a frontline ally of the US in its ‘war against terror’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy in 2001.

 A man pasting a large poster of Musharraf in Lahore in 2002.
A man pasting a large poster of Musharraf in Lahore in 2002.

Pakistan suddenly became the recipient of millions of dollars’ worth of military and financial aid from the US which Musharraf used to rebuild the country’s economy.

The economic boom masterminded by Musharraf’s second prime minister, Shoukat Aziz (a banker), and almost entirely based on various aspects of post-Cold War ‘neoliberal economics’, helped Musharraf avoid any serious resistance and the country remained largely peaceful till 2005.

However, joining the war on terror also meant Pakistan making some sudden U-turns regarding its policies related to religious militant groups who had been patronised by the state of Pakistan across the 1980s and 1990s to fight Pakistan’s proxy wars in Afghanistan and Indian-held Kashmir.

In 2002 Musharraf began to crackdown on a number of extremist organizations but at the same time his regime maintained links with certain militant outfits.

The crackdown, his decision to join the US war on terror, and him positioning his regime as liberal and inspired by ‘enlightened-moderation,’ triggered a backlash by extremist outfits that had been outlawed. Thus began the trend of suicide bombings against government targets and foreign embassies that then escalated from 2007 onwards against civilians in markets, mosques, Sufi shrines and churches.

Despite of facing terrorist attacks, the Musharraf regime managed to construct a feel-good environment in which the economy of the country’s urban areas thrived and no overt protest movement succeeded to take hold. This also included Karachi’s return to peace and development after two decades of ethnic turmoil.

 In the first five years of his rule, Musharraf managed to construct a feel-good environment in which the economies of the country’s major urban centres thrived. The euphoria however began to wear off after 2006.
In the first five years of his rule, Musharraf managed to construct a feel-good environment in which the economies of the country’s major urban centres thrived. The euphoria however began to wear off after 2006.

The euphoria lasted till about 2006. Both the PPP and PML-N remained side-lined and Musharraf seemed to have been enjoying a continuous stretch of popularity when the northern areas of the country (including the capital, Islamabad) were hit by a devastating earthquake.

Thousands died in the catastrophe but the regime was quick to offer aid backed by an unprecedented charity drive undertaken by various civilian organizations and individuals.

Interestingly, the drive also seemed to have stirred some latent resentment against the regime, especially in the Punjab and NWFP. When the economy (that seemed to have been built like a bubble), began to deflate, Musharraf started to face his first round of direct criticism that mostly came from opposition groups who were enthusiastically invited by the string of private TV channels that had emerged from 2002 onwards.

Then in late 2006 Musharraf casually dismissed a controversial and ambitious Supreme Court judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry. The TV channels gave a sensationalist twist to the episode and drummed-up a narrative that explained Chaudhry as deifying ‘the illegitimate orders of a dictator.’

Lawyers poured out on the streets of Lahore and Islamabad and demanded that Chaudhry be restored. As the protests of the lawyers grew louder, they now also demanded that Musharraf resign and fresh elections held.

 A group of lawyers chanting slogans against Musharraf (2006).
A group of lawyers chanting slogans against Musharraf (2006).

Seeing the protests as an opening and with the way agitation began to be covered by the electronic media, PPP and PML-N too jumped in, as did parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

Musharraf was clearly taken aback by the commotion which was then followed by another crisis when radical clerics and their supporters from Islamabad’s Red Mosque began to abduct cops and women working at beauty parlours and attacking music shops.

After negotiations between the government and the clerics failed, Musharraf ordered the army to storm the mosque where the armed clerics were holed in. The military used teargas, guns and missiles to clear out the mosque.

The event was freely covered by the new TV channels which, in an exhibition of some of the most anarchic coverage of a sensitive issue, further compounded the tense situation.

Exaggerated figures of the civilians killed (especially women and children) were often quoted and the clerics were given more airtime to sound out their views than the government officials.

The confusion created by the media and the regime’s own weakness to counter the narrative that was being built eventually saw the emergence of an alliance of extremist militants who began to target public places supposedly to avenge ‘Musharraf’s Red Mosque massacre.’

 Armed militants take positions around the Red Mosque. They were cleared out by the military (2007).
Armed militants take positions around the Red Mosque. They were cleared out by the military (2007).

It was at this point that the Lawyers’ Movement that had been initially started by progressive groups of lawyers began its shift to the right as parties like PML-N and JI began to dominate it. It was also believed that PML-N had begun to bankroll the movement.

The movement’s greatest presence was felt in urban Punjab and the NWFP. It was almost nowhere in Sindh and not at all in the province’s capital, Karachi.

This was the first major protest movement ever since 1968 and 1977 in which Punjab participated whole-heartedly. The province had largely remained quiet during the movements against Zia and many of Musharraf’s supporters in Sindh and Karachi suggested that Punjab only rises against non-Punjabi rulers. Though some events may actually substantiate this but the recent rise of Imran Khan in the Punjab against Nawaz Sharif (a Punjabi) might be used to counter such a perception.

Unlike the movement against Ayub (which included the participation of the working classes and the peasants as well), the movement against Musharraf was more like the one against Bhutto in 1977 in which the majority of participants belonged to the urban middle and lower middle-classes.

This time however, these classes had actually prospered under Musharraf but after reaching certain limits of economic prosperity, these classes became the ‘blocked elite’ – and/or that portion of the robust urban classes who may have gained economic influence (through business-friendly economic policies) and social influence (through media outlets), found themselves blocked to also gain political influence from the traditional ruling elites.

The movement began to settle down when Musharraf grudgingly allowed the return of the country’s two main politicians from exile, Benazir Bhutto (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif (PML_N).

Bhutto unfortunately was assassinated in a bomb attack in December 2007 and her party’s charge was assumed by her husband Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari and Nawaz led their parties to victory in the 2008 elections and both then squeezed Musharraf to resign as President and Army chief.