Chronicle Of A Resilient Democracy

In 1983 the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy launched a stringent series of protests against the military dictatorship of President Ziaul Haq. Here, women protestors in Lahore are witnessed in a fierce roundup by a contingent of the Punjab police. (Courtesy: White Star Photo) - Photo: Azhar Jaffery
In 1983 the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy launched a stringent series of protests against the military dictatorship of President Ziaul Haq. Here, women protestors in Lahore are witnessed in a fierce roundup by a contingent of the Punjab police. (Courtesy: White Star Photo) - Photo: Azhar Jaffery

IF it is true that unelected institutions and their leaders have always tried to monopolise and wield power using a wide variety of tools from guns and tanks to a weaponised judiciary to surrogate politicians in the country, it is equally true that democratic resilience, buoyed by popular support, has outwitted its antagonists, the autocrats. It is doubly tragic then that, in each case, this win is temporary, transitory, and the empire always strikes back and regains lost ground. Let me start with my earliest memory which dates back to when I was in school, Grade III/IV at the St Mary’s Academy, Lalazar, Rawalpindi.

“The Field Marshal says he isn’t going anywhere,” my father told us as he returned from the GHQ Auditorium one evening, where Ayub Khan had just addressed all senior officers posted in Rawalpindi against the backdrop of reports that he may quit as he was facing unprecedented countrywide protests. This must have been early March 1969.

The protest seemed to have followed a reminder that he had been in power for 10 years, as the so-called Decade of Development was officially celebrated in 1968. Despite his resolve, he was gone in a matter of days and his commander-in-chief Gen Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan took over and became the chief martial law administrator (CMLA) after fears of a civil war erupting in the East Wing emerged, given the intensity of the protests there.

Pakistan’s history has been marked by cycles of dictatorship followed by limited democracy. The people have indicated time and again their wish for representative governance, not autocratic rule.

Fatima Jinnah’s defeat

In 1965 Ayub won a rigged (indirect) presidential election against Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah. As Ms Jinnah addressed her election meetings across the then East Pakistan, Shaikh Mujibur Rehman was seen by her side, campaigning for her. But the election result seemed to have convinced Mujib that if Quaid-i-Azam’s sister was not allowed to win an election in Pakistan, despite her immense popular support, Mujib’s dream of securing the rights of the Bangla people would always remain unfulfilled if he fought by the army-led West Pakistan’s rules.

Hence, the intensity of the anti-Ayub protest was far more severe in East Pakistan and the death toll of the protesters was nearly five times that of West Pakistan, forcing Ayub to finally bid farewell to the seat of power he had occupied since ousting president Iskander Mirza in 1958 and sending him into exile in London.

So, next came Yahya, who tried to calm things down by announcing fresh elections and also an end to the hugely unpopular ‘One Unit’ through which provincial autonomy had been usurped totally. Yahya is credited with holding one of the few fair and undisputed elections in the country. However, this fair exercise came about as the result of an abject intelligence failure as Yahya was informed that no party would emerge with a majority and any government that was formed as a result of the elections would have to be a weak coalition, leaving Yahya’s own position unassailable. In fact, he was so self-assured, he distributed a draft constitution among some politicians. This obviously visualised a role for himself.

What followed in the 1970 election itself was a shock to the military ruler and his associates as Mujib steamrolled his opponents in East Pakistan and his Awami League captured all but a couple of National Assembly seats there, and emerged as the majority party on its own.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the majority in the West Wing. In the 300-seat parliament, Mujib won 160 directly contested seats and seven reserved seats for women against PPP’s 81 plus five. Of course, democratic will was not honoured, with the result that the struggle for power transfer turned into a full-fledged civil war that ended with the tragedy of 1971.

Yahya steps down

For the military defeat in 1971, Yahya and his coterie of generals were blamed, and the military ruler was left with no option but to step down and the winner of the majority party in what was left of Pakistan took over as a civilian chief martial law administrator (CMLA) and embarked on the task of picking up the pieces, rebuilding Pakistan and its economy, lifting the shattered national morale, and writing the country’s Constitution.

Bhutto also set about initiating the country’s nuclear weapons programme, and rehabilitated the military’s image by insisting on its training along modern scientific lines. This rehabilitation of the military’s image and honour was going to cost him dearly not much later.

Zia strikes

In the wake of countrywide protests after the elections in 1977, Bhutto was forced to the negotiating table by the opposition Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). One of its top negotiators, Jamaat-i-Islami’s Prof Ghafoor Ahmad, was later to reveal that the two sides had reached an agreement on re-election in about two dozen of the disputed constituencies and were to sign it on the subsequent morning when Bhutto’s handpicked army chief (chosen over several officers senior to him), Gen Mohammad Ziaul Haq, struck through a pre-dawn coup.

He took over the reins of the country and promised elections within 90 days, saying he was no more than a referee blowing a foul and would step aside after fresh polls. However, when Bhutto was freed and took a train journey from Rawalpindi to Lahore, a flood of supporters converged on all stations along the route. Seeing the multitudes thronging to receive and fete their leader clearly unnerved the dictator, if at all he ever had any plans to hold elections.

Some accounts suggest that earlier when Zia went to Murree where Bhutto had been detained, to meet the deposed prime minister, the latter lashed out at the army chief and warned him that as soon as civilian rule was restored, he would face treason charges and the most dire of consequences.

Many people, particularly some officers in Zia’s inner circle, debunk the theory that Zia was spooked by Bhutto’s threat and then decided to get rid of him. These close confidantes of Zia believe he never had any intention of holding elections and handing over power. Whatever little popularity Bhutto may have lost on account of rigging allegations and the PNA’s street agitation, he regained the moment the military removed him from power.

But Zia consolidated his power courtesy the Supreme Court, which validated his takeover citing the Doctrine of Necessity in line with the tradition established by the Chief Court (the SC’s predecessor) and chief justice Munir who had sided with an autocrat and upheld the latter’s dissolution of the Constituent Assembly.

Bhutto’s elimination

Zia clearly feared the worst regarding his own survival, and conspired with the judiciary to ensure Bhutto’s judicial elimination after a trial massively seen as flawed. In fact, Supreme Court Justice Naseem Hasan Shah, one of the judges sending Bhutto to the gallows, many years later expressed remorse on live TV when he admitted the judges were under pressure and their fear for their jobs made them open to manipulation. Many years after his ruling in the Maulvi Tamizuddin case, Justice Munir, too, in his book shed what several observers termed crocodile tears.

Autocrats, of all shades and varieties, have joined hands with the judiciary more times than I can count in Pakistan’s history to try and smother democracy. But somehow the uprooted plant of democracy has managed to grow, and sink new roots again and revive itself. I would say democracy’s resilience is reflective of the people’s deep-rooted understanding that they should be ruled by their elected representatives and time has testified over and over again that even the seemingly best dictator has done more damage to the country and its people than the worst elected leader.

For example, Ayub Khan ruled with an iron hand for a decade, but eventually the people rose up against him and his autocratic rule that saw some economic development in the country. But the masses did not benefit from his crony capitalism and the wealth of a handful of individuals grew in geometric proportions. One of the most damaging legacies of the Ayub era was the total alienation of the majority East Wing which eventually broke away.

Zia, too, ruled with an iron hand, executing Bhutto and many political activists while lashing others, but by 1983 the people had had enough of his oppression. The rebellion, mostly centred in rural Sindh during the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), left the military strongman so weakened that the following year he held a referendum (where nobody came out to vote but the general claimed a staggering turnout) and declared himself president for another five years.

He also had to announce elections, albeit partyless, the following year. His 8th Amendment bill adopted by the 1985 parliament diluted parliamentary democracy to no end and gave the president the authority to dismiss governments and dissolve parliaments with a stroke of his pen. He used it to dismiss his handpicked prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo in less than three years after making him the supposed chief executive of the country.

PPP reborn

After he perished in a plane crash, Zia’s successors moved quickly to assemble an opposition alliance led by Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif, who at the time was the blue-eyed of the men in uniform, as they feared Bhutto’s daughter Benazir. The game plan almost worked as it stopped the PPP from gaining a majority, but its popular support was such that all machinations failed to halt its march to being the largest single party in the National Assembly. However, a malicious campaign did deny PPP the majority in the crucial Punjab Assembly.

Within a short period of becoming the first woman prime minister in the Muslim world at age 35, Benazir survived a no-confidence motion backed by elements in the military. But just as her government was reaching the two-year mark, the president dismissed her administration on the flimsiest of grounds. The move was backed, some say instigated, by the military and upheld by the Supreme Court.

Nawaz followed her as prime minister, but three years later met the same fate. Even though the Supreme Court restored his government, the military forced him to call fresh elections and Benazir was back in power only to last three years, and handing over the reins back to Nawaz. Though he had huge majority this time round, he was sent packing by yet another army chief, General Pervez Musharraf. This goes without saying that the Supreme Court came to the usurper’s rescue in terms of legitimising his illegal, unconstitutional action. His exit eight years after he took power was yet another victory for the people and democratic forces in the country.

Post-Musharraf, two elected parliaments have completed their five-year terms, but the tussle between constitutional rule and those who feel such democratic indulgences are not made for Pakistan has continued. Today, we are in the fourth year of the third parliament though doubts remain if it will complete its term.

With a doomed hybrid experiment having flopped, again a measure of democratic revival appears on the cards. Tragically, as Pakistan celebrates its 75 years of independence, the only major success of democracy is that it has refused to die and managed to survive untold challenges, including long, dark dictatorial nights.

There can be no greater tribute to democracy than recalling that politicians and political parties who have unabashedly played the military’s surrogates to access crumbs of power, and collaborated in diluting the spirit of democracy, at one point or another have converted to the idea of civilian supremacy.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

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