Iskander Mirza

Updated November 15, 2019

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HALF a century ago, on Nov 13 to be exact, Pakistan’s first elected head of state, Iskander Mirza, died in London. He was governor general when Pakistan’s first constitution was presented to him for signature. Mirza insisted he wouldn’t sign it unless he was to be head of state. His wish was granted.

Those were days when men practising the art of politics were gentlemen politicians, for those losing power — or their families — were not murdered or made to rot in prison.

At a personal level, Mirza was a thorough, soft-spoken gentleman, but what history would remember him for was the unfortunate precedent he set by abrogating the constitution, imposing martial law and making army chief Ayub Khan the supreme commander of the armed forces and chief martial law administrator.

The coup occurred on Oct 7, 1958, and 20 days later Ayub made Mirza go into exile to assume all powers himself. This perverse tradition was to haunt Pakistan for decades; even today, it casts its evil shadows on our political structure.

Generals Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf went on to ape Mirza, except that no one could outdo Zia in persecuting his political enemies and brazenly using religion to perpetuate his power for 11 years. Zia also has the dubious honour of having dissenting journalists whipped, his information minister being a member of a religious party.

Mirza wanted to return to Pakistan but was denied permission. He was later laid to rest in Mashhad.

There are many lessons we can learn from the first bout of martial law. Stability created by dictators is ephemeral, for Ayub’s rule succumbed to popular agitation. Similarly, the constitutional nostrums by Zia and Musharraf to strip the 1973 document of its parliamentary character were undone subsequently through parliamentary consensus.

Direct military rule, or its unseen but ubiquitous presence, has done incalculable damage to the country, failed to strengthen state institutions, led to the rise of fissiparous tendencies and weakened Pakistan’s roots.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2019