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

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 dawn.com

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

Lack Of Ideological Fidelity Helped Imran Khan’s Rivals Oust him

Most political parties in the united opposition have been defined largely by political expediency, which made it easier for them to come together

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Shehbaz Sharif, 70, is all set to be elected as Pakistan’s next Prime Minister following Imran Khan’s ouster. A three-time chief minister of the most populous Punjab province, Shehbaz Sharif is the younger brother of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was allowed to go to the UK in 2019 for treatment but has not since returned to serve his prison term for corruption. Shehbaz Sharif, who also faces serious graft cases, is the joint opposition’s prime ministerial candidate. He was nominated for the post since his brother and his political heir, Maryam Nawaz, are ineligible for the post because of their disqualification following conviction of corruption. Shehbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza Shehbaz, too faces corruption charges. He is expected to take over as Punjab’s chief minister. 

Shehbaz Sharif was asked to take on the mantle of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N), the second-biggest party in the national assembly, when his brother was disqualified over corruption charges linked to the leaked documents that showed his children owned properties in London. An investigation into the Sharifs’ assets followed. It emerged Nawaz Sharif also withheld his Dubai-based employment in the nomination papers for the 2013 elections.

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In an article in the Independent following Sharif’s ouster in 2017, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid noted it ‘could bolster a culture of accountability and uproot the dynastic politics epitomized by the Sharif family.’ But another return of the Sharifs has proved dynastic politics has deep roots in Pakistan, where no political party actually has any real commitment to ideology. Most political leaders have shown little ideological commitment. They mostly inherit leadership and end up passing it on to their children. Kinship and patronage networks have more salience. The Sharifs have been in and out of power since the 1980s and have repeatedly survived thanks to a mastery of these networks, which permeate every aspect of society. Kinship plays an important role in voting patterns. A Gallup survey in 2008 showed that 37 percent of rural and 27 percent of urban voters attended community meetings to decide whom to vote for.

The Sharifs belong to the influential Amritsari-Kashmiri community. They have built their alliances with other communities such as the Arains. The Arain-Kashmiri alliance has been so formidable that except for two, all mayors of Lahore since 1947 have been from these two communities. The Sharifs have also stitched other similar alliances. They also have a business empire and base among traders in Punjab, where around 60 percent of the country’s population is concentrated.

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In a 2012 article, Pakistani journalist Amir Mateen wrote that the Amritsari Kashmiris virtually run Lahore and their political influence extends even farther. He wrote that Sharif’s family has encouraged pockets of Amritsari Kashmiri power in every major city of central Punjab. Kashmiris have always held key Cabinet posts in Sharif’s government. His move to name fellow Kashmiri Ziauddin Butt precipitated the coup that cut short his second term in power in 1999. The deep pockets and business empire of the Sharifs allow them to nurture kinship and patronage networks for an assured base, which has helped them make repeated comebacks.

The ideological flexibility of the Sharifs has also helped them. Nawaz Sharif started as a protégé of military leader Zia-ul-Haq, whose conservatism makes him the most hated ruler among the liberals. Nawaz Sharif has transformed from the darlings of the conservatives three decades back to that of liberals now. He has cultivated a favourable image among the liberals including through his continuous advocacy for better ties with India and supporting the minority rights.

In 2017, Nawaz Sharif chose a Hindu temple complex in Punjab’s Katas Raj to warn hardliners against preaching animosity while calling hate-mongering unlawful. He promised the welfare of minorities and reaffirmed his belief in equal citizenship at a function following a Hindu ritual at the centuries-old complex associated with Shiva. In December 2016, Sharif re-named a centre at Pakistan’s best-known university after Nobel laureate Abdus Salam from the Ahmadiyya community, which has been persecuted in the country. Sharif’s government got the Hindu Marriage Bill passed in September 2016. In November 2015, Sharif attended a Diwali function that began with the recitation of Hindu and Muslim prayers and promised Hindus he will support them even if their oppressors were Muslims. Sharif’s government also executed Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer over alleged blasphemy.

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Sharif is known as an infrastructure-obsessed and pragmatic businessman-politician, who has given Pakistan perhaps the best network of motorways in the region. He liberalised Pakistan’s economy in the 1990s. Sharif’s pragmatism had him join hands with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) despite a bitter history of adversarial politics in the 1990s.

Former President Asif Ali Zardari, who now helms PPP, has been known as ‘Mr Ten Percent’ for the deals he cut for contracts when his wife Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister. He defines the idea of politics as an art of the possible. Zardari has been jailed over corruption, smuggling, and murder charges. But he has also continued to remain relevant thanks to a separate set of kinship alliancesThese ties favour traditional parties. They are stacked against politicians such as Imran Khan, who has commanded little sway in villages, where kinships are a bigger factor. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani polity is largely bereft of any real ideology with power the end for most political parties and means for making money. Nawaz Sharif continued denying owning flats in London but has been staying in one of them since 2019.

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Zardari, who played a key role in stitching together the alliance against Imran Khan and has also been accused of offshore assets, was handed over PPP’s leadership on the basis of the will Benazir Bhutto is believed to have left before her assassination. Their son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is most likely to be PPP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next elections. He will be the third Prime Minister from his family if he is able to get the post.

Khan’s obsession with holding traditional politicians accountable had almost all political parties, including PML (N) and PPP, close ranks to bring him down. The united opposition of assorted parties even included Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, which has been accused of being funded by foreign intelligence agencies to orchestrate unrest in Pakistan’s northwest. Most political parties in the alliance have been defined largely by political expediency and that is why it was easier for these parties to coalesce despite identifying themselves as conservatives, secularists, centrists, leftists, etc.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of Pakistan’s biggest conservative party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), best exemplifies this expediency that helped him remain part of the power structure for over two decades despite a limited base. Imran Khan’s ascension pushed him into the political wilderness in 2018. Rehman earned the ‘Maulana Diesel’ sobriquet in the 1990s when he cut a diesel franchise deal with Benazir Bhutto in return for support after an ugly campaign to prevent her from becoming the Prime Minister in the name of Islam. He stoked anti-American sentiments but in private lobbied US envoy Anne Patterson for American support for his prime ministerial ambitions. At a dinner Rehman hosted for Patterson in November 2007, an aide of his told the envoy that all ‘important parties in Pakistan had to get the [American] approval.’

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In a leaked 2007 cable, Patterson wrote Rehman is known for ‘wily political skills.’ She added she was told Rehman’s ‘still significant numbers of votes are up for sale.’ Patterson wrote Rehman enjoys ‘being courted by both [military ruler Pervez] Musharraf and [Benazir] Bhutto and sees himself increasingly in the lucrative position of being kingmaker’, if not the Prime Minister. Patterson added Rehman wanted to be ‘more engaged with the US’ and to lobby the Congress and American think tanks. She wrote Rehman appeared worried about whether the US would deal with him if he became the Prime Minister. He cautioned Patterson ‘not to put all the eggs’ in Bhutto’s basket. Months later, Rehman got his brother a lucrative ministry in the PPP government that was formed in 2008.

Given the track record of his opponents, Khan’s allegations of an American plot to oust him will have resonance and keep him in contention for a comeback despite his governance failures and mismanagement of the economy.  

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

From Rubber-stamping Coups To Activism: Highs & Lows Of Pakistani Judiciary

Pakistan’s judiciary has over the decades managed to stand out by exerting a check on the executive and the military establishment

Picture courtesy Usman Ghani (Wikipedia)

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Like much of the non-western world, Pakistan’s experiment with democracy has been deeply flawed. A lack of separation of powers, the lifeblood of any real democratic set up, has been among the reasons for it. Yet Pakistan’s judiciary has over the decades managed to stand out by exerting a check on the executive, the military establishment and filling another crucial gap in the basic democratic spirit—protection of minority rights. It covered itself in glory again when the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s dissolution of the parliament was unconstitutional. The ruling came days after Pakistani national assembly’s deputy speaker cited an alleged US-backed attempt to oust Khan and stalled a non-confidence motion, which he was set to lose in the face of a united opposition.

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The deputy speaker’s move helped Khan recommend the dissolution of the assembly and call for fresh polls. It has been widely seen as an attempt to prevent Khan’s opponents from taking power to roll back measures such as online balloting rights to overseas Pakistanis, who are mostly seen as Khan’s supporters. Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial overruled the moves and scheduled the voting on the no-confidence motion for Saturday. He called Khan’s advice for the dissolution of the assembly contrary to the Constitution and ruled it has no legal effect. If Khan loses the no-confidence vote, the opposition is expected to nominate Shehbaz Sharif as the prime minister. Khan’s successor can hold power until August 2023. The opposition has backed early elections but said it will do so after passing legislation to undo changes such as the introduction of electronic voting machines for the next polls.

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Pakistan’s judiciary has had an unenviable record of legitimizing military rulers under the ‘doctrine of necessity’, which was not considered when the Supreme Court ruled against the blocking of the no-trust vote against Khan. The opposition welcomed the verdict saying it buried the doctrine, which has been blamed for harming democracy in Pakistan. Courts have relied on the doctrine to legitimize governments under the essentially invalidated constitution. According to Mark M Stavsky, a professor emeritus at New York University School of Law, the doctrine ‘provides a justification for otherwise illegal government actions taken during an emergency. …courts argue that any constitution implicitly recognizes the necessity defense. Consequently, the courts may legitimize even the most extreme measures on the ground that they are necessary to save the state.’

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Pakistan’s judiciary earlier played a key role in military ruler Pervez Musharraf’s removal from power when he clashed with it in 2007 after sacking chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The sacking triggered protracted lawyers’ protests, which prompted Musharraf to suspend the constitution and impose a state of emergency in November 2007. Dozens of top judges were placed under house arrest before the constitution was restored in December 2007. Three months earlier, Justice Rana Bhagwandas, who went on to become Pakistan’s first Hindu and second non-Muslim chief justice, was among the three dissenting judges who asked Musharraf to relinquish his army chief’s post when he was allowed to contest the presidential election.

In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled the imposition of the emergency was illegal after Musharraf was forced to step down. Four years later, he was charged with high treason for imposing the emergency before a special court in 2019 found Musharraf guilty and sentenced him to death for subverting the constitution while he lived in Dubai. In an analysis, Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the American think tank Brookings, noted the sentence was unlikely to be carried out even if it was upheld. She nevertheless called it an unprecedented ruling against a former army chief. ‘…it serves as an unmistakable blow to Pakistan’s powerful military,’ she wrote. Musharraf was earlier banned from leaving the country before receiving permission to travel abroad on medical grounds in 2016. He has not returned to Pakistan since.

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Chief Justice Asif Khosa in early 2019 allowed the special court to go ahead with Musharraf’s trial without his presence and paved the way for his conviction. The special court censured Musharraf for delaying, retracting, and evading the trial. The Pakistani military reacted strongly to the verdict, which was expected to work as a deterrent against the military coups. It said it stands by Musharraf. It expressed ‘pain and anguish’ and added a former Army chief, the head of the Joint Chief of Staff Committee, and the President, who has served the country for over four decades and fought wars for the country’s defense, can never be a traitor. The military maintained the trial was concluded ‘in haste’ and without Musharraf’s presence.

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A month before Musharraf was sentenced, the Supreme Court suspended army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s extension with chief justice Khosa noting: ‘Howsoever high you may be; the law is above you.’ The remark was seen as a dig at the military. Afzal noted there was little question that Khosa, who retired days later, was aiming to assert power. She added it was continuing a trend of ‘an activist, powerful judiciary in Pakistan, but one that is meaningfully pushing back and taking on the military in this way for the first time.’ The verdict in Bajwa’s case forced Imran Khan’s government to amend the law to grant the extension. 

In October 2012, the Supreme Court dealt the military another blow when it ordered criminal proceedings against another former Army chief General Aslam Beg and Lieutenant General Asad Durrani. This came years after former Pakistan Air Force Chief Air Marshal Asghar Khan moved the court in 1996 against spy agency ISI for illegally financing a campaign to influence the 1990 election that allegedly tilted the scales in favour of an alliance against Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Durrani, the then ISI chief, admitted to spending millions to influence the election, which brought Nawaz Sharif to power. He confessed to doing so at the behest of the then army chief, Beg.

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The 2012 verdict came when the country’s military was facing its worst crisis since 1971 following its failure to detect Osama bin Laden’s presence right under its nose near Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst in Abbottabad, where military officers are trained. American commandos took bin Laden in a raid deep into Pakistan territory on 2 May 2011. Amid all this, ISI found itself caught in a flurry of cases. The Supreme Court ordered it in February 2012 to produce seven suspected militants in its captivity since 2010. The agency had a tough time explaining the custodial deaths of four detainees. The court refused to accept the detainees were terrorists and demanded an explanation.

Even in the darkest chapter of Pakistan’s judicial history related to former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution following a questionable trial on trumped-up charges, three of the seven Supreme Court judges dissented from the confirmation of the death sentence. The three, including Justice Dorab Patel, a Parsi, argued the prosecution failed to corroborate the testimony of its chief witness and that there was nothing in the evidence regarding Bhutto’s conduct that would not be ‘reasonably capable of an interpretation of innocence.’

Alvin Robert Cornelius, a Christian who went on to become the fourth and one of the longest-serving chief justices of Pakistan (1960-1968), similarly showed the courage by swimming against the tide in 1954. He was the sole dissenting judge when the Supreme Court upheld Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad’s 1954 dismissal of the Constituent Assembly. The verdict is seen to have altered the course of Pakistan’s history and sealed the fate of democracy by marking the beginning of military’s role in politics.

Pakistani judiciary’s pushback began decades later in May 1993 when the Supreme Court overturned President Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s move to dismiss Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government on corruption charges. The court ruled the dismissal and dissolution of the national assembly were ‘illegal and unconstitutional.’ It ordered the restoration of both the government and the legislative branch. The Washington Post called the decision historic, noting the court has never before decided against Pakistan’s ruling establishment. Chief Justice Nasim Hasan Shah, who turned down a request to appeal the decision, noted he believed the president, who was seen to be close to the military, acted “in a fit of anger” when he dissolved the government. The court’s 10 to one ruling was seen as a major boost for Pakistan’s democracy when the President had the power to dismiss elected governments.

In January 2021, the Supreme Court intervened when a mob burnt a Hindu shrine in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It directed authorities to reconstruct the century-old Samadhi of saint Shri Param Hans Ji Maharaj. Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed earlier took notice of the attack in December 2020 and ordered top officials to visit the shrine and submit a report. He also directed the removal of encroachments from temples across the country and action against officials involved in them.

The court’s intervention ensured 109 people involved in the arson were arrested and 92 police personnel, including top officers, were suspended for ‘cowardice and negligence’ in preventing the attack. Ahmed pulled up the authorities and said ‘suspension was not enough’ while ordering the recovery of damage from the arsonists. In 2012, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry took note of a newspaper column highlighting the problems of Pakistani Hindus in the absence of a Hindu marriage registration law and paved the way for the passage of a law for it. The law enshrined conditions for valid marriages and specified documentation to be used to verify marital status. It made valid consent of adults aged above 18 must for registration of Hindu marriages and banned polygamy. The law has a clause that allows termination of marriages if one of the partners converts to another religion.

The Peshawar high court In 2011 ordered the reopening of the 160-year-old Gorakhnath temple ahead of Diwali. The court said stopping religious activities at a place of worship was against all laws decades after a bulk of Hindus left Peshawar for India following Pakistan’s creation in 1947.

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

Pakistani Leaders Have Been Disliked In India but Sharif Is An Exception

Three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his friendly approach towards India, which began in the 1990s when he came into his own after starting his career as military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé

Narendra Modi and Imran Khan at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan in 2019.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Cricket has been among the few common grounds through decades of mostly hostile ties between India and Pakistan, which have fought four wars over the 70 years of their existence as nation-states. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s greatest cricketer ever, once epitomized the potential of sport in bridging divides. A debonair sportsman, Khan enjoyed a fan following in India that no Pakistani could now dream of emulating.

A part of Khan’s appeal stemmed from his background. Khan came from the upper-class westernized elite, which have admired the idea of India that its secular and democratic founding fathers articulated. The admiration was reflected in his early days as the Prime Minister until it perhaps became clear to him that India has fundamentally changed under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rule.

The BJP leadership has no time or inclination for the niceties of their secularist predecessors. It has reshaped India to the extent that there are now no common grounds between the two countries. Khan was particularly intemperate towards India after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 and the prolonged siege of the region. In his fiery speeches, he repeatedly referred to the origins of the BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He highlighted at international fora how RSS drew inspiration from the Nazis in the 1940s and linked it to the situation of India’s 200 million Muslim minority.

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Khan’s belligerence brought him into the crosshairs of BJP-RSS’s well-oiled cyber warriors, and much of India’s media allied to the country’s ruling establishment. His critics, including Khan’s second wife, were given generous space and airtime to essentially dig out dirt on him and project him negatively much like Indian opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Khan was now no exception and has joined the long list of Pakistan politicians, who have been seen as villains in India. The list includes Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto. 

Pakistani leaders are more unpopular in India when they are in power. Jinnah tops the list of villains in India as Pakistan’s originator. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is known in India for talking about a 1000-war and for nurturing Pakistan’s atomic programme for parity with India. He vowed to make the bomb even if they had to eat grass. Benazir Bhutto is blamed for her role in the insurrection against India in Kashmir in the late 1980s. She was back in the news in India after a speech for her on Kashmir featured in a controversial Indian film accused of stoking hatred.

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In a speech at the UN announcing the end of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto resolved to fight for his country’s honour and blamed India for aggression. Bhutto warned they have the resolve, the will to fight for a ‘righteous cause’ irrespective of Pakistan’s size and resources. Benazir Bhutto, who was also articulate and western-educated like most of her predecessors and Khan, resorted to rhetoric against India in her early years of politics before India ceased to be relevant to electoral politics in Pakistan. Unlike them, three-time prime minister and Khan’s archrival Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his conciliatory approach towards India.

Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, replaced Khan as the Prime Minister in April 2022. He was expected to continue Sharif’s conciliatory approach to India but has had little breating space as Khan’s popularity has soared since his ouster. Khan has swept by-polls and taken to the streets demanding fresh polls. India will prefer to see Khan out of power even as New Delhi has no direct influence over Pakistan’s domestic politics.

Modi flew to Lahore to meet Sharif in 2015.

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Sharif’s friendly approach to New Delhi began in the 1990s when he came into his own after starting his career as military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé. Zia, who is seen to be the architect of anti-India insurgencies in Kashmir and the Indian side of Punjab, handpicked Sharif and ensured his rise as a national leader while he was still in his 30s. He tried to replicate his success against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the US help in Kashmir and Punjab.

Zia’s protégé Sharif sought to turn his mentor’s policy towards India on its head and went on to sign the Lahore Declaration with his Indian counterpart, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan to sign the pact for peaceful co-existence years after his BJP led a movement for the demolition of a 16th-century mosque, which triggered one of the worst episodes of anti-Muslim violence and left thousands dead.

Sharif has repeatedly denounced the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan, which was fought months after the signing of the declaration. He maintained that the Pakistan Army planned the war without his knowledge and continued his conciliatory policy while he was in exile after his removal from power following a military coup in October 1999. Sharif backed unilateral visa-free travel for Indians ahead of the 2013 polls in Pakistan. He also called for demilitarisation of the world’s highest battlefield—Siachen Glacier—while linking his quest for peace with India to Pakistan’s prosperity. 

In its manifesto, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N) promised special priority to a peaceful settlement of outstanding issues with New Delhi while proposing to connect India with Afghanistan, Iran, and other energy-rich Central Asian republics via Pakistan. PML (N)’s promises came even as Islamabad saw India’s presence in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul in 2012 with suspicion and accused New Delhi of using the Afghan territory to stoke separatism in Pakistan.

Sharif said he can even visit India without an invitation after his victory in the 2013 polls, which he saw as an endorsement of his conciliatory approach towards India. Sharif called his quest for peace with India ‘the cardinal principle’ of his foreign policy in his Independence Day speech in August 2014.

Months earlier, Sharif flew to New Delhi to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after the Indian leader was voted to power for the first time. He ended a tradition of visiting Pakistani leaders by refusing to meet Kashmiri separatists as per the wishes of his hosts.

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Sharif even developed a good personal rapport with Modi, who has used anti-Pakistan rhetoric to win elections since his days as a provincial leader in the western Indian state of Gujarat. This ensured a short-lived turnaround in the bilateral ties when Modi flew to Lahore to meet Sharif in 2015. Modi embraced Sharif at the Lahore airport’s tarmac before they walked hand in hand. The meeting held out hope for better ties. 

Sharif and Modi risked the meeting despite much baggage. Modi was banned from entering the US until he became the Prime Minister a year earlier on the grounds of violating religious freedom over his alleged role in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the chief minister. Sharif’s risk was also greater as he hosted Modi in the absence of his national security advisor and foreign ministry officials. He drew flak for his contempt for institutional procedures as Pakistan is said to have no record of the meeting.   

Sharif’s attacks on Pakistan’s military establishment have gained him much admiration in India. They have earned him laudatory coverage in the Indian press, which largely sticks to the state’s line on defence and foreign affairs. The Indian media has amplified his criticism of Pakistan’s army’s leadership as part of a campaign against Imran Khan’s government. They have echoed the line that the army propped up Khan and had a role in the removal of Sharif, who was disqualified in 2017 after his family was found to have bought properties in upscale London through illegally obtained money through offshore holdings.

Sharif has been portrayed as a champion of democracy even as he repeatedly failed democratic tests during his time in power by slandering his rival, Benazir Bhutto, in the 1990s with organized campaigns to malign her. Jemina, Imran Khan’s first wife, faced a vicious anti-Semitic campaign allegedly at Sharif’s behest in the 1990s. Sharif harassed the media and got journalist Najam Sethi arrested. He influenced the judiciary to get his rivals convicted. His party attacked the Supreme Court. Sharif has also faced criticism for promoting dynastic politics and nepotism.

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