Pakistanis are a forgiving lot. They are even more forgiving of the dead. Civil and military dictators, fascists, hate-spewing clerics, and vigilantes end up with disciples, and at times, even with a shrine.

Military dictators are slightly more fortunate. An army of repute defenders, in uniform and civvies, continues singing the praise of the golden era when the ‘General Sahib’ once ruled.

They reminisce about the days when honey and milk flowed in ravines and open drains, and when the economic growth rivalled that of South Korea or some other Asian tiger or cat.

October 27 marked the 58th anniversary of the Martial Law imposed by General Ayub Khan.

Given that we have the advantage of hindsight, we can revisit the 'golden days' to test the veracity of the claims of bounty and harmony that are usually retailed, yet seldom verified.

Political leaders of all stripes and tenor must envy the good repute General Ayub Khan continues to enjoy almost 50 years after he reluctantly relinquished power.

The popular discourse about the Ayub era (1958 - 1969) is that of economic growth, prosperity, and the growing stature of Pakistan on the world stage.

However, the economic realities of the time are much less glamorous, if not dismal.

An objective review of General Ayub Khan’s policies and actions suggests that his primary motive was to sustain and prolong his rule as his regime sowed the seed, and generously watered the plant, for Bangladesh's separation that came years later.

He empowered the religious fundamentalists as he sought their support against Fatima Jinnah.

The economic growth, which many cite as his singular achievement, promoted the income inequalities resulting in the rise of the 20 influential families who controlled the nation's resources and amassed ill-gotten wealth, leaving the rest poor, hungry, and resentful.

Also read: Exit stage left: the movement against Ayub Khan

A Chief Martial Law Administrator is born

General Ayub's dramatic ascent to power in 1958 came after a decade of political turmoil.

From 1947 to 1958, Pakistan was governed by four heads of state and seven prime ministers.

The political jostling for power incapacitated the then president, General Iskander Mirza, who suspended the parliament and appointed a new cabinet with General Ayub Khan as the new prime minister.

However, within days, Ayub Khan turned the tables on General Mirza forcing him into a pensioned exile in London.

General Ayub Khan declared himself the president of Pakistan on October 27 while he simultaneously held the office of the Chief Martial Law Administrator. In the General's words:

"Major General Iskander Mirza, lately President of Pakistan, has relinquished his office of President and has handed over all powers to me. Therefore, I have this night assumed the office of President and have taken upon myself the exercise of the said powers and all other powers appertaining thereto."

Too illiterate to vote, but literate enough to create a homeland

From the time he assumed control, General Ayub resented the public and the democratic process.

For him, the public was too illiterate and poor to be trusted with adult franchise.

So he created an electorate ("basic democracy") of a few thousand of whom 95% elected the General as their leader.

That the same illiterate and poor people of Pakistan were wise enough to have voted earlier with their hearts, minds, and feet to create a new country that elevated the same General to the office of the army chief was not sufficient for them to have earned the General's trust for adult franchise.

General Ayub Khan held the politicians squarely responsible for the "chaotic internal situation" and accused them of being willing to barter the country "for personal gains".

He was keen to imprison leading politicians in East and West Pakistan.

The military dictators that came after him have held a similar contempt for politicians.

The economics of inequality

Shahid Javed Burki, a former World Bank economist, rightly identified the fundamental disconnect between the public and the Ayub Junta that celebrated 10-years of being in power by highlighting GDP growth and other inflated macroeconomic indicators.

The general public, however, cared less of the aggregate statistics as they struggled without much success against price inflation and spatial income disparities.

Burki points out that the so-called economic growth was rooted in income inequality, which worsened over time between regions and among people with the growth in the macroeconomy.

The result was evident: half of the industrial wealth accrued to Chinioties in Punjab and the immigrant Memons, Bohras, and Khojas.

At the same time, General Ayub opened the door to foreign experts who were ignorant of, and alien to, the political economy of Pakistan.

Yet they came armed with policies that might have worked elsewhere but were ill-suited for Pakistan's challenges.

General Ayub's economic prowess need not be discounted entirely. His penchant for central planning is evident in the second five-year plan.

The inflow of foreign capital, at twice the rate of that of India, sparked growth in industries that supported consumer goods.

One must also review what drove the growth and what industrial sectors blossomed as a result.

A close look at what transpired reveals that there was nothing organic about the growth.

It was primarily driven by foreign aid, the same way General Musharraf's rule was buttressed by American aid after 9/11.

By December 1961, foreign aid was more than twice the size of foreign loans. With the second five-year plan in 1964, foreign aid was responsible for 40% of the total investment.

And that's not all. Foreign aid covered 66% of the cost of imports. One must give credit where it's due, and it's mainly foreign aid.

Read next: Religious orthodoxy during Ayub regime

Despite the foreign investment as aid and credit, and the aggressive public works programme pursued by the regime to generate new jobs, unemployment persisted, and even worsened during the second five year plan from 5.5 million man-years in 1960-1 to 5.8 million man-years in 1964-5 in East Pakistan.

The regime allocated twice as much for atomic energy than it did for technical training.

What about the rapid industrialisation undertook by the Ayub regime using foreign aid? As soon as the industries started generating revenue, the regime disposed of them to private investors.

During 1964-65, the loans and advances by the government to the private sector were twice the size of the direct investments by the industry.

However, profit-making units that should have been set up by the industry in the first place should have not been handed over to the industrialists as an unearned reward.

Those who defend General Ayub Khan’s reign also hold false memories of peace and harmony. Do such claims withstand empirical scrutiny?

Raunaq Jahangir, quoted by Burki, demonstrated that violence, especially in Bangladesh (East Pakistan), increased tremendously during the Ayub era.

If there was peace and tranquility in the sixties, why did the unrest in 1968-69 reach such a feverish pitch?

It was not the economic growth, but the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few that irked the have-nots and fuelled violence.

A critical report by none other than Dr Mehboobul Haq, the then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, revealed that a coterie of just 20 families controlled two-thirds of the industry and three-fourth of the banking.

Pakistan's poet laureate, Habib Jalib, could not ignore the injustice. His poetry galvanised the public as he recited poems at gatherings where tens-of-thousands heard him denounce the 20 nouveau riche, who became even richer at the cost of keeping millions poor. Jalib wrote:

Biis gharanay hein abaad / Or karorron hein nashaad / Sadar Ayub Zindabad.

Related: Land reforms in Pakistan

General Ayub’s global fan base

There was no shortage of the high-profile admirers. From de Gaulle of France to President Johnson of the United States, Western leaders were singing praise for the economic growth in Pakistan.

Even Robert McNamara, the then World Bank president, proclaimed that Pakistan under General Ayub was “one of the greatest successes of development in the world”.

However, experts were quick to point out that de Gaulle, Johnson, McNamara and others focused solely on growth and ignored the distribution of wealth resulting in income inequalities that sowed the seeds of discontent, violence, and ultimately caused the splitting of East and West Pakistan.

The Bangladesh debacle

An oft-cited criticism of the former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971 - 77) is that he engineered Bangladesh's succession to avoid sharing with, or worse losing power to, the demographically dominant East Pakistan.

However, it was General Ayub's years of preferred treatment of West Pakistan that irked East Pakistanis, who couldn't ignore the sustained rebukes when General Ayub placed three of the largest legacy projects, i.e., the construction of the new capital (Islamabad) and the two large hydel projects (Mangla and Tarbela) in West Pakistan.

Furthermore, General Ayub never kept a confidante from East Pakistan as all the King’s men belonged to West Pakistan.

The government of best intentions and worst implementation

Land reforms were one of the cornerstones of General Ayub's socio-political reengineering that restricted the maximum size of land holdings to encourage a more equitable distribution of land and resources among the landless peasantry.

The land reforms, however, achieved little in limiting the size of land holdings and limiting the political clout of the landed gentry. Instead, power and wealth concentrated further in the hands of the notorious 20 families.

The Ayub regime decided to limit land holdings to 500 acres of cultivated land, 1,000 acres of dry land, and 150 acres of orchards. Over 6,000 landowners exceeded the newly defined ceilings, owning 7.5 million acres of land.

The landowners though outsmarted the regime by transferring the land in advance to relatives so that ownership remained with the landed gentry. Thus, not much land was transferred to landless peasants.

Ayub Khan and Islam

Unlike General Ziaul Haq (1977-1988), who spent 11 years of his dictatorial rule to revert Pakistan back to a 7th-century medieval utopia, General Ayub was more of a modernist who was wary of the attempts to convert Pakistan into a desert kingdom of a bygone era.

While addressing a seminary he articulated his views:

"This I consider a great disservice to Islam, that such a noble religion should be represented as inimical to progress … In fact, it is great injustice to both life and religion to impose on twentieth century man the condition that he must go back several centuries in order to prove his bonafides as a true Muslim."

General Ayub's most significant and long lasting contribution is the promulgation of Muslim Family Laws Ordinance in 1961 that empowered women, especially in the matters of marriage and divorce.

Though the commission that drafted the recommendations was constituted in 1954, the Ayub regime took steps to implement the laws empowering women.

Before the family laws were enacted, neither marriages or divorces were required to be registered with the state.

This created severe hardships for divorced women, some of whom eventually remarried.

Their former husbands could, and some even did out of malice, accuse them of adultery since the women lacked proof of divorce from the first husband.

The new laws also required men who desired a second wife to seek formal consent from the first wife.

In summary, the acts and ordinances introduced by the Ayub regime discouraged polygyny, “protected the rights of wives and granted the rights of inheritance to grandchildren.”

On the same topic: A secular man?

Despite his belief and the desire to modernise the society, General Ayub was quick to give into religious orthodoxy as long as the policy about-turns prolonged his control over power.

Sarfraz Husain Ansari documented the policy flip-flops as the General reinstated the restrictive clauses of the Objective Resolution in 1963, which had been expunged from the Constitution earlier.

Furthermore, while the 1962 Constitution used “Pakistan” as the official name, the General yielded to the religious forces and changed the country's name to “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” in December 1963.

Finally, the Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology, which does not miss an opportunity to embarrass Pakistanis by its archaic, and frequently misogynist, interpretations of Islam, is also a gift from General Ayub that keeps on giving.

Ab raaj karey gi khalq-i-khuda

Regardless of how efficient a military regime becomes, in the end, the protagonist has to surrender to the political process in the theatre of governance.

General Ayub was no exception.

Despite his misgivings about politicians and the political process, he joined a political party, the Conventional Muslim League, a version of which has always been available to Pakistan's military rulers as they struggle to transition out of the uniform.

General Ayub knew that joining the political party was no win for him. He explained the reason he acceded to a party was because he had “failed to play this game in accordance with my rules and so I have to play in accordance with their rules — and the rules demand that I belong to somebody, otherwise who is going to belong to me. So it is simple. It is an admission of defeat on my part anyway.”

One wonders if Generals Zia and Musharraf, who followed in General Ayub's footsteps, ever knew or understood his words.

At the end of the day, the right to rule belongs to the people, and it reverts to them regardless, for eternal victory belongs to them, and not to civilian or military dictators.

If it were not for his health issues, would General Ayub still consider abdicating voluntarily? In January 1968, he caught a viral infection followed by pneumonia that developed into a pulmonary embolism.

By the fall of 1968, his health deteriorated even more.

At the same time, the opposition by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto gained strength. On February 21, 1969, General Ayub threw in the towel declaring he would not seek re-election in 1970. By March, General Yahya Khan took control as the Chief Martial Law Administrator.

On the same theme: Objectives Resolution: the root of religious orthodoxy

The repeated failed experiments of military rule in Pakistan make it abundantly clear that unlike other developing countries in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia where military dictators have enjoyed tremendous longevity, Pakistanis love independence and will not tolerate for long attempts to curb their political freedoms.

At the very onset of General Ayub's Martial Law, Justice M. R. Kiyani, the then Chief Justice of the West Pakistan High Court, articulated the very aspirations of freedom and independence of the people as he addressed the Bar Association in Karachi:

"There are quite a few thousand men who'd rather have the freedom of speech than a new pair of clothes and it is these who form a nation, not the office hunters, the license hunters, even the tillers of soil and drawers of water."

Just two days later, the Chief Justice was forced to tender an apology for offending army officers.

Pakistan, despite its struggles with rule of law, violence, and crumbling infrastructure, is stronger today because no one can dare force a Chief Justice to apologise for upholding the Constitution and the principles of democracy.


On writing

On writing

There is no ceremony or ritual that marks any person as a writer except the simple yet unimaginably significant act of starting to write.


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