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

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

Frenemies: Indian & Pakistani Military Men Who Shared Close Affinity

Top Indian and Pakistani military officers shared much affinity in the early years of India and Pakistan as nation-states having trained and served together in the British Indian Army before 1947

Sam Manekshaw (1), who led the Indian Army in the 1971 war with Pakistan, and Muhammad Musa Khan (2), the Pakistani Army chief from 1958 to1966, were part of the first batch at Dehradun’s military academy.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Indian Army chief General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri responded rather approvingly when American academics Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph asked him about Ayub Khan’s 1958 coup against President Iskander Mirza in Pakistan. He thought Khan must have felt obliged to move in and ‘put things right’ finding Mirza playing ducks and drakes with the country’s political situation. Chaudhuri’s assessment two years before he led the Indian Army in the second India-Pakistan war over Kashmir in 1965 echoed Khan’s claim of having been forced to act and getting drawn into politics to prevent Pakistan from descending into political chaos. 

The opinion was significant as the two knew each other well. Khan and Chaudhuri were batchmates at British Royal Military College in Sandhurst and among many top Indian and Pakistani military officers, who shared much affinity in the early years of India and Pakistan as nation-states. These officers trained and served together in the British Indian Army before Pakistan’s creation in 1947 and were among a group of tightly knit cadets chosen for training at Sandhurst from 1919 following a selection process based on shared features. 

Most of these officers came from the so-called martial races and families seen to be loyal to the British. They were thought to be compatible with British values and norms and were concentrated in a few platoons to overcome distress from being away from home in unfamiliar surroundings and for accommodating the biases of the British.           

Mirza, who retired from the army as a Major General and was the scion of an aristocrat Bengal family, was also trained at Sandhurst. He served in the British Indian Army and was part of the 17th Poona Horse before becoming a joint secretary in the Indian defense ministry in New Delhi. After Pakistan’s creation, he served as its first defense secretary. Like other Indians at Sandhurst, he spent a year with a British regiment after training before his posting to an Indian regiment. 

The Indian officers trained at Sandhurst were sent to eight Indanised units or a 10th of the total number of battalions. This was due to British prejudices about serving with Indians and doubts about the leadership abilities of the Indians. In his book Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence, Steven Wilkinson writes the links as such between these Indian officers were much tighter than if they had been spread across all the units of the army at the beginning of their careers. 

Ten Indian officers trained at Sandhurst were commissioned from 1920 to 1929 into just one of these eight units, 1/14 Punjab Regiment, which was later merged into the Pakistan Army in November 1947. Wilkinson writes these officers ate and drank as well as trained, often went on leave, and served in the field together. By 1951, six of them were in service in the Indian Army with one retiring the year before because of ill health. They included three of India’s 22 major generals. On the Pakistani side, their batchmates included Ayub Khan. The officers forged close bonds during training at Sandhurst and at staff colleges as well as operations during the Second World War.

Sam Manekshaw, who led the Indian Army in the 1971 war with Pakistan, and Muhammad Musa Khan, the Pakistani Army chief from 1958 to 1966, were part of the first batch at Dehradun’s military academy when training began there in 1932.

In Manekshaw’s obituary in 2008, Pakistani columnist and fellow Parsi Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote about having heard much about the Indian military leader from his friend, Attiqur Rahman, a Litunent General in the Pakistani army. Manekshaw and Rahman served in the British Indian Army as young officers on the Burma front. In February 1942, Manekshaw asked Rahman to leave his pistol so that he could shoot himself after getting wounded in Burma. Cowasjee quoted Rahman telling Manekshaw not to be silly and that all would be well. It was a close call with the surgeon attending to him almost giving up. He wrote Rahman and Manekshaw did not meet again until 1945 when the latter was one of his instructors at the Quetta Staff College, which became the Pakistan Army’s institute for training mid-career officers after 1947.

Gen Mohammed Yahya Khan, who led Pakistan in the 1971 war, was also a good friend of Manekshaw and the two were part of British Indian Army chief Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck’s staff in 1947. Cowasjee wrote Yahya Khan offered to buy Manekshaw’s motorcycle for Rs 1,000 which he promised to send from Pakistan but failed to do so. Manekshaw is quoted to have said after the 1971 war that Yahya Khan ‘never paid me the Rs1,000 for my motorbike, but now he has paid with half his country’, referring to Bangladesh’s creation.

Cowasjee wrote when he met Manekshaw he told him that Yahya Khan had never forgotten the debt, but never got around to it while offering to pay back the Rs 1,000 with interest on his behalf. ‘No, no, said the field marshal [Manekshaw], Yahya was a good man and a good soldier. We served together. There was not one mean or corrupt bone in his body. Your politicians are as bad as ours. Yahya was condemned [after the 1971 war] without being heard. After he was put under house arrest at the end of December 1971, up to his death in 1980, he clamoured unceasingly for an open trial. Why was he condemned unheard?’ Cowasjee quoted Manekshaw as saying.

Many of these officers maintained such cordial ties despite continuing hostilities between the two countries. Asghar Khan, who led the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and came to be known as its father, spoke to Indian veteran Squadron Leader Dalip Singh Majithia days before his death in January 2018. In October 2017, Asghar Khan phoned his Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) roommate Randhir Singh to offer condolences over Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh’s death. 

In the 1940s, Arjan Singh and Asghar Khan were batchmates. They maintained their relationship despite heading two adversarial military forces. Their bond also helped avert an all-out war following an India–Pakistan skirmish in March 1965 in Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch. Asghar Khan would pick up the phone and speak to Singh. He urged Singh not to get the IAF involved as PAF would be forced to respond if the latter did and end up broadening the theatre of war. Singh was convinced and prevented a full-scale conflict before Pakistani incursions into Kashmir in 1965 triggered a full-blown war later that year. 

These bonds also helped save the lives of Asghar Khan and his family when they were caught in the middle of the bloodbath subcontinent’s division into India and Pakistan triggered in 1947. Khan was the chief flying instructor at RIAF’s Advanced Flying Training School in Ambala on the Indian side when the violence began. His successor at RIAF, Wing Commander Nair, convinced Asghar Khan against taking a train across the newly-created border. ‘Wing Commander Nair did us a good turn and saved our lives,’ Asghar Khan wrote in his book, My Political Struggle. Nair would get in touch with PAF chief Air Vice-Marshal Allan Perry-Keene to help arrange a plane for Asghar Khan and his family’s evacuation to Pakistan.

In 1965, Ayub Khan offered to release K C Cariappa, who was taken as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down on the last day of the war that year, as a special gesture since the Indian Air Force officer’s father, General Kodandera Madappa Cariappa, was the Pakistani military leader’s senior. Ayub Khan directed Pakistan’s envoy to India to meet General Cariappa, the first Indian commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, and brief him about his son’s condition. General Cariappa, who was later conferred with Field Marshal rank, instead asked the envoy to look after all the captured Indian soldiers. 

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

Guru Nanak: Eternal Unifier, Guiding Light As Bigotry Becomes Order Of Day

Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In August 2019, tensions escalated between India and Pakistan when New Delhi stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status to take full control of the Himalayan region, which the two countries have claimed in full since the end of the British colonial rule in 1947. Islamabad reacted to the change in the Muslim-majority region’s constitutional status by downgrading diplomatic ties with India amid a lockdown and a communications blackout to prevent protests over the sweeping changes and sweeping restrictions. The ties between the two countries deteriorated months after they were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when Islamabad retaliated against an Indian airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama. 

Meanwhile, the construction of a corridor to provide visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at the last resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, in Pakistan continued unhindered. It was finished and inaugurated within a year ahead of Nanak’s birth anniversary in November 2019. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, participated in the inauguration ceremonies of the corridor on either side of the border as the two countries, which have fought four wars, found a rare common ground amid fraught relations.    

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Nanak remained a unifier even as ties between India and Pakistan were at their lowest ebb. High-ranking officials of the two countries, who had been avoiding each other like plague, rubbed shoulders with each other at the inauguration of the corridor on the premises of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib on the Pakistani side. Centuries after he passed away, Nanak remained an uniter. Nothing symbolises it more than the gurdwara, which stands at the place where Hindus and Muslims, who revered Nanak equally, are believed to have found flowers under a white sheet when they arrived for Nanak’s last rites. Muslims buried a part of the sheet and flowers and built a mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. Hindus put their share in an urn and interred it. 

Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism. The composite culture Nanak contributed significantly to is being torn apart with Muslims at the receiving end of bigotry passed off as nationalism for their erasure with full state patronage. Nanak’s family was Hindu and his association with Muslims was much deeper than is widely known. His teacher was a Muslim and the first to understand his spiritual prowess. He called Nanak a blessed and gifted child and attributed his superior intelligence to it.

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Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, was the one to prevail upon Nanak’s father and his employee, Mehta Kalu, to allow Nanak’s otherworldly pursuits. While Nanak wandered with holy men, Kalu wanted him to focus on his education. Bular was also the first to report miracles which indicated Nanak’s holiness. Bular, who became Nanak’s first devotee outside his family, is said to have witnessed a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun while he was sleeping under the open sky. He saw this as a sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular also reported how the shade of a tree remained on Nanak even when the position of the sun changed while he slept. He rushed to tell Kalu Nanak was an exalted person upon seeing this. 

Bular was totally devoted to Nanak and convinced Kalu that his son was a man of God. He dedicated much of his land to the Guru. Gurdwara Janam Asthan, which stands at the place of Nanak’s birth, and much of the city around it is located on the land Bular bequeathed to Sikhism’s founder. Rai Hadayat, a 17th-generation descendant of Bular, led Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s family has continued a tradition of leading annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s anniversaries in Nankana Sahib in what is now Pakistan. Bular’s descendants are the custodians of the bequeathed land, whose revenues are spent on the welfare of the Sikh community and the maintenance of their places of worship in Nankana Sahib. Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh bestowed the Rai Bahadur title on Bular’s descendant, Rai Issa Khan, a fellow Bhatti Rajput, and made him a revenue collector in recognition of his family’s contributions to Sikhism. 

In May 2018, the Shiromani Gurdwara ParbandhakCommittee (SGPC), which manages Sikh places of worship, acknowledged Bular’s ‘immense contribution’ to Sikh history and erected his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum. The SGPC unveiled another Muslim Nawab Rai Kahla’s portrait at the museum in July 2017 for sheltering Nanak’s spiritual successor, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1705. Kahla ruled a small principality in Punjab when he offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb’s decree. Guru Gobind gave Kahla a holy pitcher known as Ganga Sagar, which holds water despite its asymmetrical holes, and a sword as a token of gratitude. Kahla’s descendants have preserved the relic, which they took to Pakistan in 1947 after they were uprooted from the Indian side of Punjab at the time of the Partition in 1947. It has remained in the custody of Rai Azizullah Khan, a former Pakistani lawmaker, since 1975.

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The courage Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, the ruler of Malerkotla in what is now the Indian side of Punjab, showed in speaking out against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, in 1705, ensured his kingdom remained untouched in 1947 when the subcontinent’s division triggered violence. The violence left around a million dead and triggered a virtual exchange of populations between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Punjab. It damaged the centuries-old coexistence and continues to cast a long shadow. But Malerkotla has remained untouched by the upheavals. It remained the Indian Punjab’s only Muslim pocket while the rest of the region was emptied of Muslims in 1947. It continues to be an exception even amid the fresh wave of violence against Muslims thanks to what is seen as Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla. Guru Gobind is believed to have blessed the nawab that ‘his roots shall forever remain green’ when he learnt about his stand against Zorawar and Fateh’s execution.

Baba Bulleh Shah, a Muslim saint and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, also spoke out against the Mughal highhandedness. He was a friend of the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur and hailed Tegh Bahadur as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was executed. The saint earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims for Aurangzeb’s attitude towards the Sikhs. He followed in Nanak’s footsteps and promoted inter-religious harmony. Nanak in fact travelled to Arabia in the 16th-century with his Muslim companion, Mardana, for inter-religious dialogue, which provided him deep insights into Islam. In Baghdad, Nanak stayed with a Muslim saint. A courtyard at the tomb of the saint in Baghdad commemorates Nanak’s stay in the city. 

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The Muslim descendants of Mardana, known as rubabis, performed kirtans or devotional songs at Amritsar’s Golden Temple for generations before partition ended the tradition. They began the practice at the instance of the ninth Sikh Guru Guru Tegh Bahadur as Mardana played a musical instrument called rubab as Guru Nanak sang his poetry. Baptized Sikhs alone have since 1947 been doing kirtans as partition tore apart Punjab’s syncretic culture. But syncretism remains integral to Sikhism, whose scripture Guru Granth Sahib includes the writing of Muslims including Baba Farid. Guru Arjan, who compiled the first edition of the scripture and had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, is widely believed to have invited Mian Mir, a Muslim saint, to lay the shrine’s foundation in Amritsar. 

Muslim holy men such as Farid, whose picture adorns the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan and is among revered Muslim figures in Sikhism, also made vital literary contributions. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha and contributed to Punjab’s syncretic culture until the revivalism in the 19th century weakened it. But Nanak has remained a guiding light, who in poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s words ‘awakened India from a deep slumber.’ Iqbal hailed Nanak as ‘mard-e kaamil [perfect]’ in a poem about him. Iqbal lamented ‘our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]’; did not recognise the worth of that ‘jewel of supreme wisdom’. In another poem, Iqbal paired Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti and wrote: ‘The land [India] in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.’

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