Matter Of Life, Death: Right Man for Pakistan’s Top Job

One Prime Minister ended up losing his life and another almost spent the rest of it behind bars despite thinking they covered all the bases for having the right man for Pakistan’s top job: Army chief

Pakistani media have reported Imran Khan was wary of General Syed Asim Munir’s appointment as the army chief.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

November has been the most crucial month in Pakistan’s political calendar every three years since 2007. It is the time when the new army chiefs have taken office or have had their tenures extended. In most democratic countries, these are routine processes and often go unnoticed but not in Pakistan. 

The appointments of army chiefs have backfired even when politicians assumed they had covered all the bases. At least two prime ministers, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif, thought they were playing it safe by superseding officers to have army chiefs they believed would be harmless. But they ended up paying dearly. 

Bhutto chose Zia-ul-Haq as army chief, superseding seven officers assuming he was incapable of mounting a coup. Zia was a refugee from India from the so-called non-martial farming Arian community unlike his four predecessors, who were Pathans and a Rajput. The British-designated ‘martial races’ such as Pathans, Rajputs, and Jats have been the mainstay of Pakistan’s army.

Zia cultivated the image of being the least ambitious general with no base of his own. He also was not from the Pothwar region, where a bulk of Pakistani soldiers has traditionally been recruited from. Politicians have been disinclined to have army chiefs from the region due to coup fears. Generals from the region are expected to have the support within the army ranks needed to effectively to mount a coup.

None of these calculations worked. Zia, who was born in Jalandhar and educated at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, proved Bhutto wrong and how. He deposed Bhutto within a year of becoming the army chief in 1977. Bhutto was later put on a questionable trial on trumped-up charges and executed two years later in 1979. 

Sharif repeated the mistake Bhutto made by picking Pervez Musharraf as the army chief for similar reasons. Musharraf, also a refugee from India, was named the army chief in 1998 superseding two officers. Musharraf would depose and jail Sharif a year after becoming the army chief. Sharif chose to go into exile after he was sentenced to life for preventing Musharraf’s plane from landing in Pakistan after dismissing the general before the 1999 coup.

Other Prime Ministers like Benazir Bhutto and most recently Iman Khan have had their tenures cut short for rubbing the wrong way the country’s powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for over three of the seven decades of its existence.

Khan’s now-scrapped march on the capital Islamabad demanding snap polls was seen as part of his attempt to prevent a 14-party coalition government of almost all major parties from naming army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s successor. He vowed not to let Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif pick the successor, claiming it will not be done on merit. 

Shehbaz Sharif named General Syed Asim Munir the chief days before Bajwa’s retirement, ending much speculation over the position as Khan backed off. Munir’s stint as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief ended prematurely within a year after he reportedly fell out with Khan, the then Prime Minister.

Bajwa, who in October announced he will retire a month later and ended speculation that he will seek a third term, got an extension for his second three-year term in 2019 as the head of the world’s sixth-largest army.

Lieutenant-General Nadeem Anjum, the current head of shadowy ISI, claimed in October that Khan unsuccessfully offered Bajwa a ‘lifetime extension’ when the former prime minister faced ouster in March. Anjum made the comments at a rare public appearance for an unprecedented news conference last week.

Anjum rejected Khan’s criticism of the military for plotting his removal in April and backing his opponents. He linked it to their refusal to do illegal or unconstitutional things at Khan’s behest. 

Pakistani media have reported Khan was wary of a Munir and did not want him to become the chief. He was believed to have sought the continuation of Anjum’s predecessor, Faiz Hameed, as the ISI chief and to eventually have him succeed Bajwa.

The disagreement over Hameed’s continuation is believed to have led to Khan’s souring of ties with Bajwa. Khan would earlier insist he was on the same page with the military and that the civil-military ties have never been as harmonious when he was in power.

Khan’s falling out with the military was the latest in a series of such quarrels in the decades-old history of civil-military tensions. Politicians have not always necessarily been at the receiving end.

Bhutto, 37, revolted against Ayub Khan for losing the 1965 war with India ‘at the negotiation table’ two years after the military ruler handpicked the young politician as a minister. Bhutto formed the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and joined a movement, which forced Ayub Khan to hand over power to General Yahya Khan.

The PPP swept the polls that followed in West Pakistan. But Bhutto’s refusal to share power with Awami League, which won the polls in Pakistan’s eastern wing (now Bangladesh), sparked a civil war and led to Bangladesh’s creation in 1971.

Bhutto would succeed Yahya Khan first as the chief martial law administrator, before becoming the president and later the prime minister. He sought to leave nothing to chance by picking Zia, the junior-most eligible officer for the top post. Zia even lacked experience in active combat and had little chance of getting the top job. Zia was involved in the distribution of supplies and provisions during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. He was in Jordan in 1971, quelling a Palestinian revolt, when India dismembered Pakistan.

Bhutto is said to have been impressed by Zia’s submissive behaviour. Zia is once believed to have taken out a cigarette from his pocket only upon Bhutto’s insistence that if he did not so he would have ended up burning his pants after the general hid it upon seeing the politician as a mark of respect.

Zia handpicked Nawaz Sharif at 31 as a minister in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. Sharif rose under Zia’s patronage to first become the Punjab chief minister and the prime minister. Sharif’s problems with the military began in the 1990s and truncated his first term as prime in 1993.  

Sharif appointed Bajwa in November 2016, superseding four officers, three years after returning to power in 2013 following 14 years in the political wilderness. The appointment also backfired as Sharif would accuse Bajwa of pressuring the judiciary when the three-time prime minister was convicted of corruption in 2017 and disqualified from holding public office. He blamed Bajwa for helping Imran Khan come to power. But Sharif backed legislation in 2019 to grant Bajwa an extension after the Supreme Court suspended it.

The tables have since turned with Imran Khan now blaming the military for reinstalling the Sharifs. The roles have reversed. Khan has now emerged as a tougher nut to crack, setting the stage for more tumult in the run-up to the next general election due next year.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Punjabis Have Dominated Ranks But Not Necessarily Pakistani Army’s Leadership

That Punjabis have dominated Pakistan’s armed forces is common knowledge but this has not necessarily been true about its leadership with Pashtuns and Urdu-speaking Muhajirs having punched above their weight in leading the army

At least two of the top four contenders for what is arguably Pakistan’s top post are Punjabis like Bajwa.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa ended speculation last month about his extension and announced he will retire at the end of his second three-year term in November. One of the senior-most army officers—Asim Munir, Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Azhar Abbas, and Nauman Mehmood—is now most likely to succeed Bajwa even though there have been occasions when the post has gone to someone other than four top lieutenant generals. 

At least two of the top four top contenders for what is arguably Pakistan’s top post are Punjabis like Bajwa, a Jat who superseded four lieutenant generals to become the chief in 2016. Bajwa was the third successive Punjabi after Raheel Sharif and Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to become the Pakistan Army chief since 2007. 

That Punjabis have dominated Pakistan’s armed forces is common knowledge. But this has not necessarily been true about its leadership. Pashtuns, who account for 16% of Pakistan’s population and are the second most dominant ethnic group within the army, and Urdu-speaking Muhajirs have punched above their weight in leading the army. 

Pakistan got its first Punjabi army chief General Tikka Khan in 1972, 25 years after the country’s creation. Six Punjabis have since headed the Pakistan Army for around 34 out of 75 years of Pakistan’s existence. Seven out of 16 army chiefs, or less than half, have been Punjabis, who account for 56% of the country’s population. 

Only four of the 13 army chiefs until 2007 were Punjabis. Just one of four military rulers, Zia-ul-Haq, has been a Punjabi-speaking Muhajir.  Four army chiefs with combined tenures of 16 years have been Pashtuns. They include two of four military rulers – Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Punjab-born General Yahya Khan – who ruled Pakistan for 14 years. 

Zia, a Punjabi-speaking Muhajir from Jalandhar, was Pakistan’s third military ruler for 11 years in the 1970s and 1980s. Delhi-born Urdu-speaking Muhajir Pervez Musharraf ruled the country in uniform for nine years. Non-Punjabis helmed Pakistan for 25 out of 34 years of military rule.   

Punjabi dominance dates back to British colonialism. It began with the changes to the British Indian Army’s recruitment policies following the 1857 revolt, which has been described as ‘the largest and bloodiest anticolonial revolt against any European empire in the nineteenth century.’ 

As many as 7796 of 139000 British Indian troops revolted in 1857 and threatened to end British rule. The revolt led to a major shift in how India was governed. The power was transferred to the British Crown from the East India Company. The British also ended the policy of enlisting soldiers mainly from the so-called upper-caste Hindu communities of what are now India’s northern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states. 

Punjabi and Gurkha soldiers remained loyal to the British in 1857 and played a key role in recapturing Delhi. The British thereafter preferred soldiers from such so-called ‘martial races’ of Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which is now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in Pakistani.

At least 29 percent of British Indian Army soldiers were Muslims mostly from what is now Pakistan’s side of Punjab in 1939. The British preferred Punjabi Muslims as they were seen to be more loyal to them for ridding them of Sikh rule. North Indian Muslims, who were among the mainstays of the revolt, were perceived to be nostalgic towards the Mughal rule and hence disloyal to the British, who succeeded the Mughals as India’s rulers.

Punjab accounted for fewer than 10% of British India’s population but would provide over 50 percent of the recruits to the British Indian Army from 1857 to 1947. NWFP and much of Punjab in 1947 become part of Pakistan, which received one-third of the British Indian armed forces, by far the biggest share of resources it got. The areas which became Pakistan in 1947 accounted for 21% of British India’s population and 17% of its revenue base.

The higher proportion of Pashtuns in the Pakistan Army has also helped it repel Afghan claims over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Afghan regimes, including that of the Taliban, have refused to accept the British-era Durand Line, which divides Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Pashtun areas.

A bulk of about 30 million Pashtuns are Pakistanis and mostly live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where separatism predated Bangladesh’s creation. The lopsided Bengali representation is believed to be among the reasons for exacerbating tensions between East and West Pakistan. Bengalis constituted less than one percent of the Pakistani army until its cessation and Bangladesh’s creation in 1971. 

The elevation of Ayub Khan, a Pashtun, as the first Pakistani head of the army in 1951 coincided with the rise of separatism for the creation of Pakhtunistan. He would lead the first military coup seven years later and rule Pakistan for 11 years. Pashtuns acquired greater stakes in Pakistan during Ayub Khan’s rule and helped counter separatism in the country’s Pashtun belt. 

The language riots in East Pakistan over the recognition of Urdu as the national language on the other hand in 1952 sowed the seeds of Bangladesh’s creation. The one-language formula underlined Urdu-speaking Muhajir influence during Pakistan’s infancy. The Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, who comprise six percent of the population, dominated bureaucracy and backed the idea of a unitary state with theirs as the national language. 

Two Urdu-speaking Muhajirs Musharraf and Azamgarh-born General Mirza Aslam Beg led the Pakistan Army for 12 years. Bangladesh’s creation hugely impacted the two and they also tried to get even with India when they were at the helm. Beg is believed to have steered the insurrection in Kashmir in the late 1980s. Musharraf planned the 1990 Kargil war to internationalize the Kashmir dispute.   

General Muhammad Musa, a member of the minuscule Hazara community from Baluchistan, led the Pakistan army for eight years from 1958 to 1966 but no Sindhi or Baluch has helmed it so far. Author Shuja Nawaz has cited internal documents to conclude that just 15 percent of soldiers in the Pakistan Army belong to Sindh and Baluchistan. 

Sindhis are Pakistan’s second biggest ethnic group and account for 17 percent population while Baluchs comprise three percent. The British granted Punjabis land and settled them in Sindh in recognition of their military services. Soldiers from Sindh in the Pakistan Army may not necessarily be ethnic Sindhis.

According to author Anatol Lieven, Punjabi settlers contribute a disproportionate number of recruits from Sindh. Pakistan has sought to encourage the so-called non-martial Sindhis and Baluchs to join the armed forces by lowering fitness and educational requirements for them. 

According to Shuja Nawaz, a far smaller region of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control adjoining Punjab’s Pothwar region, a major recruiting ground, contributed six percent of the recruits. A bulk of soldiers or 65 percent were drawn from Punjab followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (15 percent). In Punjab, recruits are mainly drawn from Pothwar’s Jat, Rajput, Awan, Gakkar, and Gujjar communities. At least three army chiefs, Asif Nawaz, Tikka Khan, and Raheel Sharif have been Rajputs from Punjab.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Iqbal Championed Their Cause, Made Way To Kashmiri Hearts

The poet philosopher’s biographer, Iqbal Singh Sevea, writes the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims, and memories of his family’s painful migration from Srinagar shaped Iqbal’s views on the disempowerment of Muslims 

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Abbaji, my grandfather Muhammad Sharif Khatlani, grew up in poverty. A square meal was a privilege most people around him did not have in Kashmir during his childhood. Abbaji came into his own in Lahore, which unlike Kashmir was culturally rich and prosperous. Lahore’s enabling atmosphere shaped him as a student in the 1930s. Abbaji dabbled in journalism in the Paris of the East. The fortune of seeing poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal in his flesh and blood was the highlight of Abbaji’s stay in Lahore.

Iqbal inspired and guided young Kashmiris in Lahore, the city that offered them opportunities while they faced exclusion from equal opportunities in education and employment. He was deeply attached to Kashmir; the land of his forebears. Iqbal’s advocacy of the rights of Kashmiri during the Dogra rule before 1947 made him a hero of the marginalized Kashmiri Muslims of Abbaji’s generation. 

Iqbal, who lived and died in the present-day Punjab province of Pakistan, is to Kashmiris what Tagore is to Bengalis. He was proud of his Kashmiri lineage and spoke out against the serfdom Kashmir’s rulers condemned their majority Muslim subjects. Schools, landmarks, parks, and the main library of Kashmir’s oldest university are named after Iqbal and memorialize him in his land of ancestors.

Iqbal’s biographer, Iqbal Singh Sevea, writes the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims, and memories of his family’s painful migration from Srinagar shaped his views on the disempowerment of Muslims. He associated himself with the Anjuman Kashmiri Musalmanan (Society of Kashmiri Muslims), which highlighted the problems of Kashmiris. He presided over the Kashmir Committee to unite Kashmiris to resist the Dogra rulers.

The resistance was boosted after the opening of the Srinagar–Rawalpindi road in the early 19th. The connectivity allowed Kashmiri Muslims to travel to Punjab in large numbers for education. Influential Kashmiris settled in Punjab offered them scholarships and formed the All-India Kashmir Muslim Conference in the 1930s to offset the Dogra regime’s exclusionary policies towards Muslims in education and jobs.

Kashmir’s iconic leader Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah was among those who were educated in Lahore. Abdullah aspired to become a doctor but there were no medical colleges in Kashmir then. Eligible candidates could study medicine in British India but only if the state funded them. The Dogra rulers’ policy of favouring Hindus for scholarship programmes dashed his hopes of becoming a doctor. Abdullah’s application to enroll at a Jammu college was rejected for speaking up for the right to education for Kashmiri Muslims.

Abdullah was eventually forced to go to Lahore to get an undergraduate degree. Iqbal greatly influenced him there. Abdullah felt ‘transported into a strange world, in earshot of the trumpet of Israel’ when he heard Iqbal speak out against the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims. 

The rejection of Abdullah’s candidature for civil services and the realization that he could not aspire to be more than a schoolteacher turned out to be the last straw. In the book Incarnations, which profiles notable Indians down the ages, author Sunil Khilnani writes about how some educated Muslims got around the bias ‘by sucking up but Abdullah was repelled by the idea of ingratiating himself with his oppressors’. He was convinced that the ‘ill-treatment of Muslims was an outcome of religious prejudice’. He was determined to get rid of it.

Abdullah chose to return to Kashmir to lead the resistance against the monarchy. Many Kashmiris stayed back in Punjab, where the community’s influence grew after the Partition. Mian Salahuddin, a two-time parliament member in the 1960s, was the most influential Kashmiri politician before the emergence of Nawaz Sharif in the 1980s.

Sharif, whose Kashmiri family was uprooted from East Punjab and settled in Lahore after partition, went on to become the prime minister thrice. His brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is now the prime minister. Kashmiris occupy important positions in his federal cabinet.

A family of Kashmiri origins owns Pakistan’s biggest Jang Media Group. Kashmiris have held also top positions in the military and bureaucracy. To name a few, Ali Azmat of the iconic Junoon rock band is of Kashmiri origin. So are Sana Mir and Nida Dar, the most recognisable Pakistani women cricketers.           

Iqbal’s grandson, Mian Yousuf Salahuddin, another prominent Kashmiri, lives in his family’s expansive, 350-year-old Barood Khana haveli, in Lahore’s walled city. It is a must-see place for visitors because of its association with the poet-philosopher. His ancestors migrated to Sialkot from Kashmir sometime in the middle of the 19th century.

In the 17th century, the haveli used to be one of Lahore’s biggest Mughal ammunition stores. Salahuddin’s great-grandfather, Mian Karim Buksh, bought it in 1870 to match his stature as one of Lahore’s wealthiest people. His family was lucky enough to have managed to bring their gold with them from Kashmir. They invested it in property and flourished. At one point, they owned large parts of Lahore.

Buksh made a fortune with his construction business. His success mirrored the change of fortunes for Kashmiris in Punjab. The Kashmiri community has emerged over the centuries among the powerful urban groups in Pakistan’s Punjab. They have a strong presence in places like Gujrat, Gujranwala, Lahore, and Sialkot.

Kashmiris have held key positions of power in Lahore since they began to migrate to Punjab in the 19th century to escape the oppressive rule back home. A large number of them began acquiring influential positions in cities like Sialkot, Amritsar, Ludhiana, and Lahore by the early 20th century and began actively supporting the struggle in Kashmir against the Dogra rulers.

Soap manufacturer and contractor Muhammad Sultan, a Kashmiri, was part of Lahore’s first municipal committee in 1862. Salahuddin’s grandfather, Mian Amiruddin, a member of the Punjab assembly, went on to become the first Muslim mayor of Lahore in 1931. The community has since continued to grow from strength to strength.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Imran Khan Poses Pakistan’s Military Hardest Challenge In Decades

Khan has precipitated the worst crisis for the military since a lawyers’ movement forced Pervez Musharraf out of power and it later failed to detect Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst where military officers are trained

Imran Khan at Lahore’s Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre. Reuters

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Despite an assassination attempt and reports of fresh threats to his life, former Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to resume his march on the capital Islamabad demanding snap polls. He has sought to continue his showdown with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment since his ouster from power in April. Khan, whose party is in power in two of Pakistan’s four provinces and as many territories accounting for over 75% of the country’s population, has blamed the establishment for his removal. He has also named an army officer for plotting the assassination attempt

Khan has been buoyed by a groundswell of support for him since his ouster. He has swept by-polls and held big rallies across Pakistan. His party is practically Pakistan’s only national party while two other major players, Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), are confined to Sindh and Punjab. Khan has emerged as the biggest challenge to the military establishment in decades. A Pathan from Punjab, Khan also draws his support from among Pakistan’s two major ethnic groups, which have been the mainstay of the country’s powerful army.

Khan has tapped into the public resentment over the return of the political status quo and to power to two families, which have ruled the country since the late 1980s despite serious corruption charges. The use of intimidation against Khan and his supporters also appears to have backfired. The street power Khan enjoys makes him the most potent challenger to the establishment in recent times. Tens of thousands of Khan’s supporters have taken to the streets demanding fresh elections amid rising prices and inflation.

Khan has precipitated the worst crisis for the military since a lawyers’ movement forced Pervez Musharraf out of power and it later failed to detect Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst where military officers are trained. American commandos took out bin Laden in a raid deep into Pakistan territory on May 2, 2011. The establishment was accused of winking at the Americans while feigning ignorance about their plans to raid Laden’s hideout. It was either seen as incompetent or complicit and had even its ardent supporters up in arms.

Spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also suddenly faced a flurry of cases. In February 2012, the Supreme Court ordered ISI to produce seven alleged militants suspected to be in its captivity for two years as the agency had a tough time explaining four custodial deaths. The court refused to accept its explanation that the detainees were terrorists. In Parliament, Opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan likened the military to a ‘mafia’ as the judicial scrutiny over the custodial deaths found an echo in the House. Jamaat-e-Islami would table proposed legislation to clip the ISI’s wings and curtail its powers to detain people.

In October 2012, the Supreme Court ordered criminal proceedings against former army chief General Aslam Beg and Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, the then ISI chief, for rigging the 1990 election. Durrani confessed to spending millions to influence the election to bring Nawaz Sharif to power at the behest of Beg.

Durrani and Beg’s indictment was a double whammy for the establishment that too thanks to one of its own, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, a 91-year-old former Pakistan Air Force chief. Asghar Khan’s lawyer, Salman Akram Raja, also persisted through protracted court proceedings and rejected offers for elevation as a judge and a seat in Parliament to successfully argue against a 2009 executive order, which sought to drop cases against tainted politicians to help Musharraf prolong his rule. He was also part of the lawyers’ agitation that forced Musharraf out of office in 2008.

The successes against the military establishment and ISI were notable since they have long been considered beyond scrutiny. Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ironically established ISI’s political wing. It entrenched ISI’s meddling in politics in the 1970s when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned out to be a godsend opportunity for the demoralized agency and the establishment following Pakistan’s dismemberment.

The US and other global powers pumped billions of dollars into the anti-Soviet Afghan war in the 1980s as ISI was chosen to funnel weapons and money into Afghanistan. The war gave the agency ‘an autonomous financial base’ and boosted its power within the ‘military and the state.’ The ISI collaborated with the American Central Intelligence Agency to defeat the USSR. This helped ISI consolidate its position domestically decades after its founding in 1948 as a minor, insignificant, and understaffed counterintelligence agency.

Major General R Cawthorne, an Australian officer on deputation to the fledgling Pakistan army, founded the ISI. He modelled it on the lines of Western spy agencies after a lack of intelligence coordination contributed to Pakistan’s loss of Kashmir. In 1965, ISI overestimated local resentment in Kashmir which prompted Pakistan to send irregulars to wrest the region. Most of the irregulars were caught without sparking a rebellion and triggered the 1965 war with India, which retaliated by crossing the border in Punjab.

The ISI failed to read the mood in East Pakistan in favour of the Awami League ahead of the 1970 elections as the party swept the polls winning all but two seats to emerge as the biggest party in the national parliament. The refusal of power transfer sparked a civil war, which prompted India to intervene to help the Bengali separatists carve out Bangladesh by dismembering Pakistan. India took over 76,000 soldiers as prisoners of war.

A decade later ISI bounced back thanks to the Afghan war to become an embodiment of the military’s supremacy. It became a behemoth, which was no longer just restricted to covert operations. The ISI’s responsibilities extended to domestic security, foreign policy, and politics. Its political meddling was Pakistan’s worst-kept secret and an important marker of the agency’s powers. No one really believed the ISI could be challenged until Asghar Khan proved otherwise.

Asghar Khan took the ISI to the Supreme Court in 1996 at the age of 75, seeking accountability for illegally financing a campaign to influence the 1990 election. The financing is believed to have tilted the scales in favour of an alliance against Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Benazir Bhutto’s loss of power in 1996 pushed the case on the back burner. Her successor, Nawaz Sharif, was among the beneficiaries of the ISI’s largesse and the case threatened to end his political career. The case remained in cold storage after military ruler Pervez Musharraf deposed Sharif in 1999 to rule for the next nine years. Asghar Khan persisted well into his 90s for the next 16 years and continued to attend court hearings despite his advancing age. But unlike Imran Khan, he did not have the political capital to take the fight to the finish.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Pakistani Military’s Domination Is Linked To Events Over 3 Centuries

Any real challenge to the Pakistani military’s domination, which is linked to a series of events triggered after a new Tory party’s rise to power in London in the late 18th century, is easier said than done

Pakistan’s military has claimed Khan offered Bajwa a lifetime extension when the ex-prime minister faced a non-confidence motion in March 2022. Picture courtesy AFP via Getty Images

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Appointments of army chiefs are routine processes and often go unnoticed in most countries. But they are literally a matter of life and death in Pakistan and have often backfired there. In the 1970s, Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two decades later, thought they had covered all the bases by superseding officers to have army chiefs of their choice but ended up paying dearly.

Bhutto chose Zia-ul-Haq, a refugee from India, superseding seven officers in 1977, assuming the army chief from a non-martial farming community will be harmless. But Zia deposed Bhutto within a year of taking over as the chief. Bhutto was executed two years later in 1979 after a questionable trial on trumped-up charges.

Sharif would repeat Bhutto’s mistake by picking Pervez Musharraf, also a refugee from India, as the army chief in 1998. Musharraf superseded two officers to become the chief and deposed and jailed Sharif in 1999. Sharif went into exile after managing to cut a deal despite being sentenced to life in prison for endangering the lives of Musharraf and his co-passengers by refusing to allow their plane to land in Pakistan. Musharraf was away in Sri Lanka when Sharif dismissed the general and triggered the 1999 coup.

Tenures of Benazir Bhutto and most recently Iman Khan’s in April 2022 were cut short for displeasing Pakistan’s powerful military. Khan has vowed to rejoin a march on the capital Islamabad demanding snap polls after recuperating following a failed assassination attempt. He has blamed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, his internal security in charge, and an army officer for the attempt.

The march was seen as part of Khan’s attempt to prevent the Shehbaz Sharif-led 14-party coalition government from picking army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s successor. Khan vowed not to let him pick the new chief, insisting it will not be done on merit. The government has to name the replacement for Bajwa this month. In October, Bajwa denied speculation that he will seek a third term and announced he will retire a month later. 

The military has claimed Khan offered Bajwa a lifetime extension when the ex-prime minister faced a non-confidence motion in March. Khan is reportedly wary of a particular general and has sought to ensure he does not become Bajwa’s successor. He is also believed to have pushed for Faiz Hameed’s continuation as the spy agency Inter-services Intelligence head amid speculation that he wanted him to subsequently become the army chief. This is believed to have been among the reasons for Khan’s falling out with the military. 

Nawaz Sharif appointed Bajwa in November 2016 by superseding four officers. He later accused Bajwa of pressuring the judiciary when the politician was convicted of corruption in 2017 and disqualified from holding public office. Sharif also blamed Bajwa for helping Khan come to power. Khan is now blaming the military for reinstalling the Sharifs. 

Khan has emerged as a tougher nut to crack than Nawaz Sharif, whom Zia handpicked at 31 as a minister in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab. Sharif rose to first become the Punjab chief minister and then a three-time prime minister. Sharif emerged as a bitter critic of the military’s role in politics after the 1999 coup. But hardly anything seems to have changed. Khan poses a much stiff challenge to the military’s domination as perhaps Pakistan’s most popular leader since Bhutto. His party is also Pakistan’s only national party unlike Sharifs, who are confined to Punjab. 

But any real challenge to the military’s domination, which is linked to a series of events triggered after a new Tory party’s rise to power in London in the late 18th century, is easier said than done. The rise changed the way the British Empire looked at India, the jewel in its imperial crown.

India was critical to the goal of making Britain the world’s sole superpower and keeping rival imperial powers like the French under check. For Tories, the Empire’s expansion was key to realizing the dream of a new British century. Beyond expansionism, the Tories sought to pull out British subjects in Asiatic territories from the ‘darkness’ they thought they were long sunk in.

Missionaries used this as an opportunity in India to propagate ‘the rationality embodied in Christianity’ and to challenge what they thought was the ignorance and ‘superstition’ of Asian religions. The policy of the British in India of not just ruling but also redeeming and diffusing among Indians ‘the light of Truth’ through the imposition of British laws, religion and values’ helped the missionaries. The British sought to annul ‘local laws which offended Christian sensibilities’ as part of the redemption project.

The reformist zeal stoked anxieties among Indians about a threat to their religious and social norms. By the 1850s, fears created an explosive situation amid growing political and economic grievances. India was sitting on a powder keg when the British introduced Enfield rifles with cartridges c4greased with pig and cow fat in the army, sparking the 1857 rebellion.

The Indian soldiers saw the cartridges, which had to be bitten off before use, as confirmation of the British disregard for their religious beliefs. To make matters worse, the cartridges offended both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. Pigs are mainly scavengers and abominable for Muslims. Islam forbids pig meat. Hindus consider the slaughter of cows as sacrilegious as they are considered sacred. 

The British ignored objections to the cartridges. They added insult to injury by imprisoning soldiers who refused to use them. In May 1857, the anger boiled over in Meerut, where Indian soldiers attacked British officers to free their imprisoned colleagues before marching 60 km to Delhi. The soldiers hoped to end British rule under 82-year-old Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s guidance. 

As many as 7796 of 1,39,000 Indian troops revolted with civilians joining them at many places making it ‘the largest and bloodiest anticolonial revolt against any European empire in the nineteenth century.’ The British responded with brute force and 1400 unarmed people were cut down in Delhi’s Kucha Chelan alone. Delhi, a city of half a million, was left ‘an empty ruin.’

The revolt fleetingly threatened to end British rule before it was quelled. It also prompted a shift in the way India would now be governed with the transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown. The change in the British Indian Army’s composition was among the lasting changes the revolt led to.

Until 1857, a bulk of soldiers were drawn from the so-called upper-caste Hindu communities of what are now Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states in eastern and northern India. They were the mainstay of the rebellion while Punjabi and Gurkha soldiers remained loyal to the British and helped them recapture Delhi. This led to a major shift in how soldiers were recruited thereafter. 

The Britsih would prefer soldiers from what they designated as ‘martial races’ of Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the modern-day Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Punjab, much of which is part of Pakistan now, accounted for fewer than 10 percent of British India’s population. It provided more than half of the army recruits in the post-1857 revolt and until 1947. 

With the NWFP and much of Punjab becoming a part of Pakistan in 1947, the newly-carved nation out of the Indian subcontinent ended up receiving one-third of the British Indian armed forces. It was by far the biggest share of resources Pakistan got from British India. Pakistan in 1947 accounted for 21 percent of British India’s population and 17 percent of its revenue base.

India’s armed forces were twice as big as Pakistan’s in 1947, making security the key concern of the newly-created country’s founding fathers. Pakistan’s founders feared an existential threat from India and would allocate as much as 75 percent of their first budget in 1948 for defence.

The size and resources allocated to Pakistan’s military helped it emerge as the strongest institution while the political leadership was weakened by the back-to-back losses of its founding fathers. In September 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah died over a year after Pakistan’s creation. His successor, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated three years after Jinnah’s death in October 1951. 

Pakistan’s civilian leadership floundered in the face of the leadership vacuum after Khan’s murder. The constitution of the nascent country could only be finalized almost a decade after its creation in 1956 as a weak political leadership ended up entrenching the military in politics.

The military has ruled for 34 out of Pakistan’s 75-year existence and managed to create resources to maintain its autonomy. In the noughties, the military possessed hotels, shopping malls, insurance companies, banks, farms, and an airline among its assets worth over $10 million because of its financial autonomy and say in policymaking.

The military jobs remain the most attractive as it takes care of soldiers and their families while they are in service. It also offers retirees jobs, land grants, and pensions five times higher than civilians. Cantonments have services for ordinary soldiers and their families of a quality unknown to average citizens.

British author Anatol Lieven writes that no wonder the cantonment is the image of paradise for the Pakistan military ‘with its clean, swept, neatly signposted streets dotted with gleaming antique artillery pieces, and shaded by trees.’ He notes the contrast between cantonments and civilian areas can be starker in poorer parts of Pakistan. The contrast, Lieven adds, is like between ‘the developed and the barely developed worlds.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Imran Khan’s Falling Out With Pakistani Military Follows Pattern Since 1960s

In 1963, military ruler Ayub Khan handpicked Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as his foreign minister at 35 before the young politician revolted against his mentor two years later for failing to capitalize on the gains in the 1965 war and ‘losing it with India at the negotiation table

Military ruler Ayub Khan handpicked Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as his foreign minister at 35 in 1963. Bhutto revolted against his mentor two years later. Picture courtesy

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Lieutenant-General Nadeem Anjum, the shadowy chief of Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), made a rare public appearance that too for an unprecedented news conference this week. What followed was even more without a precedent. He accused his ex-boss, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, of asking the country’s powerful military for ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ support for his government. 

The conference was organised a day before Khan was due to gather his supporters in Lahore on Friday and lead a march on the capital Islamabad, demanding snap polls. Khan has held rallies across Pakistan and swept by-polls since his ouster in April. He doubled down on his criticism of the military in the run-up to the march for allegedly plotting his removal in April and backing his opponents. 

Anjum claimed Khan was critical of the military because it refused to do illegal or unconstitutional things. He reiterated the military’s policy of staying out of politics and added this was the reason why Khan’s requests were turned down. 

Khan refused to back down and questioned why the military held an unprecedented ‘political presser’ if it is apolitical. He cautioned if he were to respond to it, it will damage the country, highlighting how badly Khan and Pakitan’s military have fallen out. 

Khan’s opponents have maintained the military, which has ruled Pakistan for over 30 of the 75 years of its existence, played a key role in bringing Khan to power by helping him get the support of smaller parties and independents when his party fell short of the majority in 2018. These allies parted ways with Khan and brought down his government in April.

Khan would claim to be on the same page with the military leadership and that the civil-military has never been as harmonious when he was in power and attacked his political opponents for allegedly maligning the armed forces.

His falling out with the military follows a pattern since the 1960s when Field Marshal Ayub Khan handpicked Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, son of a pre-partition Bombay provincial council member, as his foreign minister at 35 in 1963. Bhutto would revolt against his mentor just two years later for ‘failing to capitalize on the gains in the 1965 war and losing it with India at the negotiation table.’  

Bhutto is believed to have been among those who encouraged Ayub Khan, who became Pakistan’s first military ruler in 1958, to go to war with India in 1965 to cap his rule. Ayub Khan revived the economy, carried out agrarian reforms, provided stimulus to the industry, encouraged foreign investment, and state-backed capitalism to usher in what has been described as a ‘golden era’ after ending political turmoil.

The growth was significant. The international media also took note of it as The New York Times concluded in January 1965 that Pakistan might be on its way towards an economic milestone reached ‘by only one other populous country, the United States.’ London’s The Times in 1966 called Pakistan’s survival and development ‘one of the most remarkable examples of state and nation-building in the post-war period.’ It noted Pakistan was ‘considered to be one of the few countries at the time that would achieve developed-country status.’

The 1965 war ended up becoming the first in a series of events that derailed Pakistan’s steady growth. Bhutto is among those believed to have wanted to make the most of India’s humiliating defeat at China’s hands in the 1962 war. He was enraged when Ayub Khan agreed to a ceasefire. Bhutto would go on to form the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and became the country’s most popular leader thanks to his Left-leaning politics.

Bhutto joined a movement against Ayub Khan as it brought together parties and groups of all hues and crippled the country. Ayub Khan, who banned rightist Jamaat-e-Islami and also disliked the Leftists, was forced to step down in March 1969. He handed over power to General Yahya Khan, who reimposed martial law before elections were held in 1970. 

PPP swept the 1970 polls in West Pakistan while Awami League did the same in the country’s eastern wing (now Bangladesh). Bhutto’s subsequent refusal to share power triggered a civil war and led to Bangladesh’s creation with India’s help in 1971. Yahya Khan was soon forced to resign. Bhutto succeeded him as the chief martial law administrator, before assuming the role of president and then prime minister. Ayub Khan died unsung when Bhutto was at the peak of his power in 1974.

Bhutto thought he was playing it safe when he chose Zia-ul-Haq as army chief superseding seven officers. A diminutive man, Zia appeared to fit the bill for Bhutto as he did not come from any of the British-designated ‘martial races’ such as Pathans, Rajputs, and Jats, which have been the mainstay of the army in Pakistan. 

Zia’s four predecessors were Pathans and a Rajput from Pothwar, where a bulk of Pakistani soldiers have traditionally been recruited from. A refugee from India from the ‘non-martial’ farming Arian community, Zia is believed to have utilized every opportunity to impress Bhutto. He is once famously said to have put a cigarette after lighting it in his pocket upon seeing Bhutto as a mark of respect. Zia is believed to have taken it out only after Bhutto urged him to do so or else he would have ended up burning his pants.

Bhutto ended up burning his fingers by promoting Zia, who deposed him in 1977. Bhutto was executed two years later following a questionable trial on trumped-up charges even as three of the seven Supreme Court judges dissented from the confirmation of his death sentence. The three argued the prosecution failed to corroborate the testimony of its chief witness. They argued there was nothing in the evidence regarding Bhutto’s conduct that would not be ‘reasonably capable of an interpretation of innocence.’ 

Bhutto chose Zia despite his lack of experience in active combat. Zia virtually had no chance of getting the top army job. He was away in Jordan during the 1971 war, quelling a Palestinian revolt against King Hussein. During the 1965 war, Zia was involved in the less significant distribution of supplies and provisions. He was the junior-most lieutenant general when Bhutto made him the chief. 

Known as the least ambitious general, Zia made Bhutto believe he was a harmless refugee with no base of his own to mount a coup. Most Prime Ministers have been reluctant to appoint officers from Pothwar as army chiefs because of coup fears. Generals from the region are seen as most likely to carry out coups because of the support they are expected to have among their ranks, which may help them with the coordination needed to overthrow a government. 

Zia would handpick Nawaz Sharif at 31 as a minister in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab. Sharif went on to become the Punjab chief minister and prime minister before becoming a bitter critic of his benefactors. The Sharifs supported Zia as he restored to them the businesses Bhutto nationalized. Run-ins with the military cut short Nawaz Sharif’s first term as prime minister in 1993. He forced army chief Jehangir Karamat to quit after prevailing shortly during his second term. 

Sharif repeated Bhutto’s mistake of making Pervez Musharraf, a refugee from India, for similar reasons the army chief superseding two officers. The move backfired as Musharraf deposed and jailed Sharif. Sharif was later sentenced to death before he opted for exile. Sharif returned to power in 2013 and appointed Qamar Javed Bajwa as the army chief in November 2016, superseding four officers. 

Sharif would later accuse Bajwa of pressuring the judiciary to convict him of corruption in 2017, disqualifying him, and helping Imran Khan form the government in 2018. Sharif blamed Bajwa for his woes even as his party backed legislation in 2019 to grant Bajwa an extension after the Supreme Court suspended it saying howsoever high ‘you may be; the law is above you’ in a dig at the military. 

Pakistan has again come full circle with Imran Khan blaming Bajwa for installing Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, as the prime minister with the backing of almost all major political parties. The parties in the ruling coalition include the PPP whose charismatic leader Benazir Bhutto was a bitter rival of the Sharifs. While Benazir Bhutto was putting up a valiant struggle against Zia, the Sharifs were the military ruler’s closest allies.

Backed by the military to counter PPP, Nawaz Sharif’s rise in politics coincided with that of Benazir Bhutto, who inherited the PPP from her father after his execution and became the prime minister for the first time after at 35 in 1988.

Unlike all major players in Pakistani politics, Imran Khan, 70, had to earn his stripes. Khan formed his political party in 1996. He came come to power after close to two decades in the political wilderness. He got it in his late sixties unlike Bhuttos and Sharif, who tasted it in their 30s. Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari’s son, Bilawal, similarly became the foreign minister in his 30s after Imran Khan’s ouster. 

With Khan, Nawaz Sharif in their 70s, and the latter’s political heir, Maryam, showing a similar tendency for confrontational politics, Bilawal appears to be a dark horse if he adopts his father’s style of politics. Zardari, Pakistan’s shrewdest politician, played the ball and ensured the PPP government completed its term in 2013 while Sharif and Khan’s adversarial nature did them in.  

The military, whose claim of being apolitical cannot be taken at face value given how power dynamics are structured in Pakistan, is here to stay. And given the fluid nature of politics, it would prefer the Zardari style of politics of give and take in the longer run.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Imran Khan: Down But Not Out

Khan’s popularity has been unprecedented in Pakistan’s recent history and no politician has enjoyed so much public adulation perhaps since the emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1960s

Imran Khan arrives for a protest rally in May 2022. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED/AFP)

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Pakistan’s Election Commission has found former Prime Minister Imran Khan guilty of illegally selling gifts from foreign dignitaries and barred him from holding public office. The ruling came days after he won six of eight parliament seats in a by-poll he described as a referendum on his popularity. Khan’s popularity has been unprecedented in Pakistan’s recent history and no politician has enjoyed so much public adulation perhaps since the emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1960s. It has soared since he was ousted from power in April 2022.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has swept by-polls since his ouster even as almost all political parties joined hands to remove him from power and contested the elections jointly. His disqualification on technical grounds is likely to be overturned and he is expected to emerge stronger on the back of his promise to rid the country of corrupt dynastic politics.    

Khan has been pressing for snap polls and has kept up the momentum by addressing packed rallies across the country. He has maintained a 14-party coalition government of conservatives, secularists, centrists, and Leftists was installed to replace him at the behest of the United States (US) as he threatened to upend the corrupt system.  

The narrative has overshadowed Khan’s misgovernance and flaws. Khan is a national hero. A world cup-winning captain, he is considered Pakistan’s greatest cricketer ever. Khan is seen as a clean politician, who has built charitable hospitals and a university, unlike the traditional politicians perceived to have looted the country and stashed their ill-gotten money abroad. 

The coalescing of the 14 political parties to oust Khan has been a desperate attempt by the traditional dynastic politicians to save the status quo under which power has remained with two families over the last three decades.         

Shehbaz Sharif replaced Khan as the Prime Minister only because his brother, three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter, Maryam, were ineligible for the top post because of their conviction of graft. His government has suffered a credibility crisis as Nawaz Sharif has been accused of remote controlling it from the United Kingdom, where he has lived since 2019.

The elder Sharif has not returned since he was allowed to go to London for treatment on the condition that he will come back to serve his remaining prison term. Shehbaz Sharif, who too faces serious graft charges, and his Cabinet colleagues have frequently visited London to consult with Nawaz Sharif.  

Key members of the Cabinet have been away in London as Pakistan grappled with issues such as price rise and a faltering economy. The dire situation was accentuated when floods hit the country in August. One-third of Pakistan was submerged while over 1,400 people were killed and 33 million were displaced. The deluge coincided with a widening current-account balance and depleting hard currency. It was projected to cost $30 billion or 9% of Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  

In the middle of the crisis, the Sharifs chose to replace finance minister Mifta Ismail, a Wharton School-trained economist, with Ishaq Dar, a close family member, and a chartered accountant, after managing to ensure his return to Pakistan. Dar fled the country and was declared a proclaimed offender over corruption charges in 2017. He sought asylum in the UK after his passport was cancelled.

Top Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and government positions when it has been in power have remained with the Sharfs since military ruler Zia-ul-Haq handpicked Nawaz Sharif as a provincial minister in the 1980s. Nawaz Sharif handed over the reins of power to his brother in Pakistan’s biggest province of Punjab when he became the prime minister after serving as the provincial chief minister. He also handed over the control of his party to Shehbaz Sharif following his disqualification from holding public office over luxury flats the family owns in London. The flats have been alleged to have been brought through illegally obtained money through offshore holdings.  

Before Khan’s party managed to wrest power from the Sharifs in Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza, briefly headed the provincial government this year. Hamza, who also faces corruption allegations, is in charge of the party in Punjab, and Maryam is widely seen as the heir to Nawaz Sharif in national politics.

Pakistan’s politics has over the last three decades been all about dynasties with little commitment to ideology. It has mostly been the means to the end of making money. Asif Ali Zardari exemplifies the rot in Pakistan’s politics as much as the Sharifs. The one-time archrivals joined hands with 12 other parties to oust Khan. The coalition has parties of almost all hues and even those who have been accused of being foreign-funded for orchestrating unrest in Pakistan. It includes bearded maulanas as well as those who swear by liberalism.    

Zardari is seen as the main force behind the coalition, which was stitched together for his survival and to ensure the continuation of the status quo. He too has faced allegations of possessing offshore assets, murder, corruption, and smuggling.

After his wife Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Zardari took over Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) on the basis of a will she left nominating him as the party chief until their son, Bilawal, was old enough to assume the role. Bilawal, who was 19 then, is now Pakistan’s foreign minister. Zardari, a former president nicknamed ‘Mr 10%’ for the commissions he allegedly charged when Bhutto was the Prime Minister, hopes to see his son as the third Prime Minister from the family.  

Khan’s political opponents were desperate to remove him from power to continue with business as usual. The removal ended up making him more popular. His supporters see Khan’s disqualification as another attempt to prevent Khan from overturning the political status quo. This could make things for Khan’s opponents worse.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is also the only pan-Pakistan party. Khan’s victory in by-elections in constituencies in three of Pakistan’s four provinces underlined this again. His party also rules two of the provinces that account for over 70 percent of Pakistan’s population.

The two other major parties of the Sharifs and Zardari are confined to Punjab and Sindh. Khan has also shown the ability to rally people across Pakistan to bring the government to its knees. The by-election in October confirmed Khan soaring popularity since his ouster in April.

The Election Commission chose to call byelections in only eight of the constituencies, where Khan’s party was seen to be weak. Khan has also announced a long march to press for the demand of a snap national election after drawing tens of thousands at his rallies across Pakistan. He has also taken on the country’s military for conspiring to topple his government, highlighting the confidence he has amid his growing support base and how he may be down but he is certainly not out.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Geography, Pipe Dream: Bigger Odds India Overcame For Kashmir’s Accession

India was disadvantaged more geographically than demographically when Pakistan-backed irregulars marched from the tribal northwest to wrest Muslim-majority Kashmir in October 1947

The Pakistan-backed irregulars unsuccessfully planned to occupy Srinagar’s lifeline airstrip to prevent the Indian army from landing there before the snow closed the Banihal Pass days before the onset of harsh Himalayan winter in November. Wikipedia

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When the British left after dividing the subcontinent along religious lines in 1947, there was virtually no road, railway, or air connectivity between mainland India and the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The only all-weather road connecting the Kashmir Valley to the outside world led to Rawalpindi in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The road, which now connects the Valley to New Delhi via Jammu, passed through the 9,000 feet high Banihal pass that remained closed during winter. A tunnel through the pass was built only in the 1950s and the road is still not considered all-weather. The road via Jammu in 1947, too, connected Kashmir to Lahore and Sialkot in Pakistan’s Punjab.

India managed to get tenuous access to J&K via a dirt track intersected by the bridgeless tributaries and streams when Punjab’s Muslim-majority Gurdaspur district was awarded to it at the last minute. It was thus disadvantaged more geographically than demographically when Pakistan-backed irregulars marched from the tribal northwest to wrest Muslim-majority Kashmir in October 1947.

The irregulars planned to occupy Srinagar’s lifeline airstrip to prevent the Indian army from landing there before the snow closed the Banihal Pass days before the onset of harsh Himalayan winter in November. The plan was frustrated as an Indian army contingent managed to land in Srinagar on October 27, 1947, as the irregulars’ advance from Baramulla, over 50 km away, was impeded by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah-led National Conference, which backed J&K’s accession with India.

Mohammad Maqbool Sherwani, a member of the National Conference that hurriedly raised a militia to resist the invasion from the northwest, made the irregulars believe the Indian army had arrived on Baramulla’s outskirts. He forced them to change their strategy, which delayed their advance towards Srinagar. It was too late for them by the time they realised they had been bluffed and nailed Sherwani to death.

The delay gave the Indian troops the much-needed time as the equipment and reinforcements they needed reached Kashmir nine days after they landed in Srinagar. An all-out offensive that followed drove away the irregulars from the Valley while J&K acceded to India.   

A chance meeting between India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Abdullah in 1938 perhaps sealed Pakistan’s fate without Kashmir. The two met for the first time at the Lahore railway station, around five km from the place where the resolution for the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims of British India was adopted in 1940.

Abdullah, 33, who founded the Muslim Conference in 1932, accompanied Punjab Congress leader Mian Iftikharuddin to meet Nehru during a layover en route to Peshawar. They got along quickly so much so that Abdullah ended up accompanying Nehru. Abdullah gravitated to Nehru’s social-revolutionary nationalism after their extended discussions in Peshawar.

Abdullah would convince his colleagues in 1939 to rename their party as the National Conference as per Nehru’s advice about the need to secularise their politics. The phraseology explaining the change was in contrast to Mohammad Ali Jinnah-led Muslim League’s 1940 Lahore resolution, which called Indian Muslims a nation by any definition. The resolution sought a separate homeland encompassing Muslim-majority areas including Kashmir. Choudhary Rahmat Ali coined the acronym ‘Pakistan’ in 1933 with the ‘K’ standing for Kashmir. 

The condition of Muslims in J&K was much worse than that of their coreligionists in Bengal and Punjab, the two big provinces that became the mainstay of the Pakistan Movement. The socio-economic conditions of the majority of Muslims in Bengal and Punjab helped the movement take root there in the 1940s when the Hindu Dogra kingdom had ruled J&K for almost a century and reduced its Muslim majority to the status of serfs. 

Abdullah burst onto the political scene as an embodiment of anger over Muslim exclusion from positions of power, jobs, and education. The Dogra rulers discriminatory policies dashed first his hopes of becoming a doctor and later a bureaucrat despite his eligibility and good academic record. Abdullah’s politics changed under Nehru’s influence when the Pakistan movement gathered steam as the Muslim League raised the spectre of post-independence Hindu-dominated India.

The traction for the movement coincided with Abdullah’s rising popularity as communists within the National Conference ranks authored Naya (New) Kashmir manifesto in 1944 promising land redistribution. The pledge capped Abdullah’s rise as the messiah of deprived masses while support for Pakistan’s creation grew in other Muslim-majority areas. 

The pledge became the basis of Abdullah’s politics in the 1940s which made Nehru, a socialist, his natural ally. The alliance proved crucial in depriving Pakistan of Kashmir. Jinnah could do little to bolster support in Kashmir. He was left with no allies after National Conference’s creation. The organisational strength of Abdullah’s party gave India the much-needed edge when the Dogra kingdom collapsed as the Pakistan-backed irregulars were on their way to its summer capital Srinagar.

Hari Singh, the last Hindu king until October 1947, believed Kashmir could remain independent and maintain ties with both India and Pakistan. He ignored Nehru’s requests for accession to India as he pursued his pipedream. Jinnah banked on Kashmir’s Muslim majority and dependence on western Punjab, which became a part of Pakistan, for ensuring the accession as per his wishes. 

Kashmir’s political future hung in balance when Hari Singh fled to Jammu as the irregulars closed in on his capital, making the Srinagar airfield pivotal to both sides. Armoured cars and gun carriers arrived by road nine days after the first Indian planes touch down in Srinagar. The National Conference, meanwhile, played an important role in fending off the invasion and rallying the public against it.

The Muslim League could do little with virtually no structure to mobilise the public or block the airstrip. Abdullah, who did everything to neutralise the remnants of Jinnah’s ally Muslim Conference, was flown to Delhi on October 25, 1947, to devise the Indian strategy to repulse the invasion. Women were among hundreds of Abdullah’s volunteers, who joined the National Conference militia and assisted the Indian army in Kashmir.

Nehru relied on Abdullah’s popularity to retain J&K as its accession to India was subject to a referendum, which was agreed upon after a ceasefire to end the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. Abdullah, who argued for India’s legitimacy over Kashmir at the United Nations, endorsed the accession even as virtually the entire Muslim population of the Jammu region of about half a million was displaced or butchered in the run-up to the accession. 

Abdullah negotiated autonomy for J&K except in defence, foreign affairs, and telecommunications until his ties with India’s governing Congress soured within a few years. Abdullah antagonised powerful Hindu traditionalists within the Congress, including Vallabhbhai Patel, when the Kashmiri leader tried to end the dispossession of the J&K’s Muslims as per Nehru’s assurances. Abdullah formed a Land Reform Committee in April 1949 to distribute land to tillers as per his pledge in the Naya Kashmir manifesto, believing he could implement it in line with Nehru’s socialist policies. 

Kashmiri Brahmins, or Pandits, accounted for less than five percent of Kashmir’s population but owned over 30% of the land and had a lot at stake to let Abdullah get his way. Patel’s tried to stall the land reforms but Abdullah managed to restrict land holdings to distribute the land among Muslims and so-called untouchables in the Jammu region while trying to placate the Pandits, who refused to take kindly to the reforms.

The differences that began over the reforms snowballed as Patel rushed top Intelligence Bureau (IB) operative B N Mullick to Kashmir in August 1949 to plot Abdullah’s removal. IB agents penetrated the National Conference to divide its ranks for the ouster of Abdullah, who was placed under surveillance. Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the precursor of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), separately aligned with the Praja Parishad, which Hari Singh apparently financed to launch a violent campaign against Abdullah.

These groups were livid over the land reforms and the end of the monarchy, which conformed to the Hindu idea of kingship. Kshatriya and Brahmins, which are at the top of the hierarchical caste system, helmed with Dogra state while Muslims were virtually reduced to mere outcasts. Abdullah, who upended the region’s social structure, somehow managed to finalise the Delhi Agreement in July 1952, which recognized Kashmir’s autonomy.

BJS leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee launch an agitation with the support of Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad against the accord. Nehru, a Kashmiri Brahmin, chose to dump Abdullah as the situation became too hot to handle. On 9 August 1953, Abdullah would be summarily dismissed and arrested at midnight.

Abdullah’s humiliation polarised J&K on religious lines as Muslims saw his unceremonious ouster as an attempt to reverse their empowerment. The Pandits wanted to see the back of Abdullah, whose short-lived rule threatened their grip over levers of power. Their hold increased greatly under the Dogra rule through land grants and their preference for government jobs.

Abdullah’s ouster marked a dramatic reversal of his fortune six years after he helped India overcome the impediments to accession—geography, Hari Singh’s pipedream, and demography—after neutralising the idea that Hindus and Muslims are separate nations. His purge marked the beginning of engineered politics in Kashmir and the installation of a series of clients as rulers sustained through patronage networks, corruption, and strong-arm tactics. It has been a slippery slope since. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Indian Muslim Couple Pioneered Women’s Empowerment Via Education

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh Movement was for modern Western–style education based on a rational outlook and opposition to blind adherence to tradition

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When Sheikh Abdullah and his wife, Wahid Jahan, resolved to empower women by educating them in Aligarh, a dusty town in northern India, they knew how daunting the task would be. Hindus and Muslims both opposed the idea, fearing western education, which was first introduced in far-off British-ruled coastal centers, would lead to ‘immorality’.

But the couple persisted and started Aligarh Girls School defying all odds. The school went from strength to strength and would in 1937 be upgraded to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Women’s College when the literacy rate among India’s women was just three percent. The college came into being almost two decades before New Delhi’s premier Lady Shri Ram College was founded.

Years later, Abdullah spoke with a sense of triumph and pride about their labour of love and realisation of their dream in form of the college. Addressing a gathering of the students of the college, he said education had the same bright effect on them as silver polish has on pots and pans when they came out of the darkness after innumerable odds. He underlined that educated girls illuminated their society.

The couple was part of AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh Movement for modern Western–style education based on a rational outlook and opposition to blind adherence to tradition. Educating women became their lifelong endeavour. The Muslim Educational Conference, a platform for mobilising masses to promote education, formed a department for promoting women’s education in 1898. The idea was also promoted through Aligarh Institute Gazette.

In December 1902, Abdullah, who was among Sir Syed’s close associates, was made in charge of the women’s educational project and a special ‘Aligarh Monthly’ issue was published the following year for the purpose.

Educated at AMU, Abdullah, who was born in Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir, started the journal ‘Khatoon (woman)’ for the promotion of women’s education in 1904 and founded Female Education Association the same year to promote his cause and provide support to institutions working for it.

Bhopal’s ruler, Begum Sultan Jahan, provided a shot in the arm for the project when she offered Abdullah a grant for the Aligarh Girls School to take off with five students and a teacher on October 19, 1906. Science and social science were part of the first syllabus, making Abdullah among the pioneers of female education in India. Abdullah was duly awarded Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian, in 1964 in recognition of his contribution, which puts him in the league of the founders of India’s first women’s college, Calcutta’s Bethune College (1879) and Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College (1886).

Aligarh Girls School was also the first for Muslim girls in north India. Abdullah’s daughter, Rashid Jahan, was among the students who honed their rebellious streak there. Rashid Jahan chose a radical path as a communist and a rebel. Her personal life and the literature she produced were ahead of her times. A gynecologist, who was among the first Muslim women to study medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi, she spotted khaddar sari with sleeveless blouse and short hair. She would travel to far-off places to treat the poor.

Rashid Jahan’s lifestyle and ideas were rare for women of her generation in the first half of the 20th century. She attacked female seclusion, patriarchy, and misogyny and wrote about bodies with the exactness that only a doctor with knowledge of human anatomy would. She influenced iconic Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Marxist ideas. Her husband Mahmuduzzafar was Amritsar’s Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College principal while Faiz taught English there.

Rashid Jahan was one of the authors of a polemical collection of stories ‘Angaarey (embers)’ which triggered outrage in the 1930s with its attack on British colonialism and religious conservatism. ‘Angaarey‘ was banned in March 1933 but would lead to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association. The association revolutionised Urdu literature and attracted people such as poets Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, and iconic Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai.

Rashid Jahan would inspire Indian and Pakistani feminist Urdu writers to explore forbidden subjects such as sex. Chughtai was Jahan’s junior at the Aligarh school. Her ‘Lihaaf (quilt)’, which humorously dealt with lesbianism and the sexual desires of women, also triggered a storm and prompted British colonialists to charge Chughtai with pornography.

Lihaaf’ portrayed alternative sex in 1941 two decades before second-wave feminism. Her portrayal of a woman’s conditioning vis-à-vis her body had no parallels in the West. The feminist subversion of patriarchy by Chughtai, who went on to become South Asia’s top feminist after literary grounding at the Aligarh school, with ‘Lihaaf’ predated Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ by five years.

Her work draws as much attention as her Western peers in almost every department where South Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Feminist/Gender Studies, and South Asian literature are taught, according to Chughtai’s translator Tahira Naqvi. Naqvi believes Pakistani poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz derived inspiration from Chughtai’s bold and uninhibited writing style. Described as one of Urdu fiction’s pillars, Chughtai also influenced the likes of writer Hajra Masroor and novelist Bano Qudsia.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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