| Welcome to Global Village Space

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The social polarization and Pakistan’s present political turmoil

Pakistan's present political unrest can be likened to what happened during the countrywide agitation that gripped Pakistan in the aftermath of the March 1977 general elections under PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was catapulted to power as a result of the catastrophic 1971 war that truncated the country.

In his latest video talk, Moeed Peerzada, the famous political analyst, defends himself against a controversial interview he gave to the journalist Matiullah Jan. Those interested to know about Moeed Peerzada’s point of view should watch the whole video. What made me interested in the video, though, was his remarks about Pakistan’s elite capture. Like many Pakistanis, I am also at pains and, at times, confused, while trying to explain to myself what ails the Pakistani society. It so happens that sometimes the reality is so obvious it fails to attract your attention. Then somebody makes an off-handed remark and you ask yourself “why didn’t I notice it before”?

We all know about the elite capture in Pakistani society, that almost eighty percent of the wealth and power in our country is controlled by approximately two percent of the privileged class comprising the landed aristocracy, tribal chieftains, and civil and military bureaucracy. We also know that Pakistan’s glitterati swims in looted money. Why is it then surprising when somebody points out to us, like the quorum in the national assembly, that corruption is not a national problem for the elite class? Rather, to them, corruption is the prime mover of a country’s economy.  When this reality sinks in, we reconcile with and understand the nature of the present socio-political struggle in Pakistan.

Read more: Pakistan Politics: Race to the bottom

Understanding the matter better

We are well aware of the respective narratives of the forces arrayed against each other in the present crisis. However, to most of my civilian friends, fathoming the army’s collective consciousness is something more complicated than unlocking the human DNA. Here I shall make an effort to explain a praetorian’s mind by relating the current situation with what happened a little less than half a century ago.

Pakistan’s present political unrest can be likened to what happened during the countrywide agitation that gripped Pakistan in the aftermath of the March 1977 general elections under PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Bhutto was catapulted to power as a result of the catastrophic 1971 war that truncated the country. A few weeks after assuming power, Bhutto sacked Lieutenant General Gul Hasan, the Army Chief, and Air Marshal Rahim Khan, the Air Chief, on charges of Bonapartism. He replaced Gul Hasan with Tikka Khan, the general accused by the anti-army lobby in Pakistan, and equally vehemently by India and Mujibur Rehman, of ruthlessly suppressing the Bengali uprising during the nine-month-long civil war that resulted in the separation of East Pakistan. Bhutto’s critics said that he made Tikka Khan the Army Chief to keep him pliant by blackmailing him about the Indian / Awami League’s demand to try Tikka for the alleged war crimes – Pakistani POWs were still in Indian jails.

On General Tikka Khan’s retirement in 1976, Bhutto appointed General Zia ul Haq as the next Army Chief. I was a subaltern then. In his first address to our garrison officers, General Zia praised General Tikka Khan for his professionalism, his determination, and efforts to rehabilitate the morale of the army’s rank and file after the 1971 defeat and, most importantly, for his apolitical stewardship of the Pakistan Army. Sometime later, Zia made Bhutto the Colonel-in-Chief of the Armoured Corps, a ceremonial appointment that reflected an army chief’s respect and emotional attachment to the country’s chief executive.

Bhutto’s opponents began demanding his ouster after the March 7 national elections, which they claimed he won through massive rigging. They wanted new elections. During the political agitation against Bhutto amid the allegations of rigging in the general elections, Zia and his corps commanders remained apolitical. This was evident by their addresses in army garrisons.

Read more: Senate Elections – Welcome to Pakistan Politics!

Zia started distancing himself from Bhutto in the final stages of the agitation

On 22 April 1977, Bhutto imposed martial law on Karachi and two other major Pakistani cities to evade mounting pressure on him to resign. An Army spokesman said the military rule was going into effect immediately in Karachi, Lahore, and Hyderabad, scenes of violence in the six-week-old political drive against Bhutto. In Lahore, a local Army commander (Brigadier Said Muhammad Khan) refused to order his troops to fire at the mobs and was sacked.

Some Pakistani and foreign political observers thought that Bhutto was taking a desperate and last-ditch step with the martial-law decree. “The only option left to him, should this fail, will be to resign,” one Western diplomat said.

Some observers in Karachi believed that the embattled prime minister would respond by putting the entire country under curfew or martial law. The industrial strike organized by the Pakistan Labor Alliance in Karachi a day earlier had crippled the port city. The alliance’s leader, Mohammed Sharif, said he expected “some positive results,” meaning Bhutto’s resignation within the next 48 hours”.

Read more: Behind the façade in Pakistan’s politics

Several informed Pakistanis in Karachi said they believed that even if Bhutto did impose martial law nationally, the country’s urban population would defy the army until Bhutto left office.

In retrospect, we can infer that General Zia supported Bhutto till the local Army commanders in Lahore openly refused to obey Zia’s orders to crush the agitation by force. Thereafter, Zia and his corps commanders, already in contact with the opposition leaders like Ch Zahoor Illahi, Pir of Parara, Wali Khan, and Mufti Mehmood, had a change of heart.


Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.