Oct 2022

Blows to good governance

Syed Badrul Ahsan charts the series of coups d’état that have weakened Bangladesh and Pakistan over the years, and their painful repercussions still felt to this day

A few months before Pakistan’s first general elections were to take place, more than a decade after the nation’s creation through the partition of India, President Major General Iskandar Mirza and army commander-in-chief General Mohammad Ayub Khan clamped martial law on Pakistan.

It was the earliest instance of the country passing into military rule, the ramifications of which were to be felt in the decades to follow. Ironically, in Bangladesh, the emergence of which was as much a protest against Pakistani colonialism as a rejection of army rule, the series of coups in Pakistan would be replicated, to the disappointment of its citizens.

Mirza and Ayub’s coup occurred on 7 October 1958. A mere 20 days later, Ayub and his fellow army officers removed Mirza from the presidency and forced him into exile in London. Mirza was never allowed back to Pakistan. When he died in November 1969, Pakistan’s second martial law government refused to permit his family to bury him in his homeland. Iskandar Mirza was eventually interred in Tehran, thanks to the efforts of Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s foreign minister and son-in-law of the Shah.

The 1958 coup would lead to an emasculation of democratic politics in Pakistan, with Ayub Khan, who would soon promote himself to field marshal, decreeing the Elective Bodies’ Disqualification Ordinance (EBDO), barring politicians from participating in politics. Additionally, all political parties were proscribed and innumerable cases were initiated, on various grounds, against political leaders.

Ayub’s rise– he subsequentlywent on record about having nurtured his political ambitions since 1954 – swiftly led to the growth of a crony culture in Pakistan. A civilian-military bureaucratic complex came to dominate the country throughout his decade-long rule, as, after Mirza’s departure, he took charge as Pakistan’s President.

Over time, this period led to a commandeering of politics by the military. The President at one point decided to don civilian raiment, thus luring a number of rightwing politicians away from the Muslim League. The breakaway faction that joined him, known as the Convention Muslim League, was an early instance of civilian politicians pandering to military rule and thereby deepening the presence of the armed forces in nearly every field of activity in the country.

fighting scenes during 1971 Liberation War
GENOCIDE: An estimated three million Bengalis were murdered by Pakistan’s soldiers in occupied Bangladesh

The Ayub Khan period caused a widening of economic disparity between then East and West Pakistan, two regions geographically separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory. The regime’s high-handed measures against popular anti-government protests, beginning in the early 1960s and moving well into 1969, finally led to the fall of Ayub Khan.

But the entrenched nature of the military in Pakistan’s politics was soon revealed yet again.Rather than handing over power to Abdul Jabbar Khan, the Speaker of the National Assembly elected on the basis of the regime-formulated constitution, Ayub made way for General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, the army commander-in-chief, to take power. Yahya’s arrival on the scene on 25 March 1969 was a repeat of October 1958.

Pakistan once again succumbed to martial law, though the new dictator promised to hold general elections on the basis of adult franchise. The elections, held in December 1970, led to an astounding victory by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League in the eastern part of the country. On a nationwide basis, the Awami League garnered 167 seats in a 313-seat National Assembly. Mujib was poised to take charge of the country in distant Islamabad.

That, of course, never happened. Within days of the elections, the Pakistan army, with the cooperation of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party – which had emerged as the leading opposition, with 88 seats – set about repudiating the results of the poll. The army and the PPP engaged in subsequently abortive negotiations with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League in Dhaka in March 1971.

Meanwhile, the dispatch of increasing numbers of soldiers and ammunition from West Pakistan to a restive East Pakistan were broad hints of the military’s readiness to act against the Bengali population. In the end, through Operation Searchlight, the Pakistan army launched a genocide in the province, whose independence as Bangladesh had been announced by Mujib on 26 March, shortly before he was arrested and flown to West Pakistan to be tried by a military tribunal on charges of waging war against Pakistan.

Ershad would preside over Bangladesh’s fortunes until a mass movement forced him from power in December 1990

An estimated three million Bengalis were murdered by Pakistan’s soldiers in occupied Bangladesh. The defeat of the Pakistan army in 1971, with the Bengali guerrillas of the Mukti Bahini waging strategic battles against it, and with the joint command of the Indo-Bangladesh forces liberating Dhaka in December of the year, was truly a comeuppance for Pakistan’s generals. Yahya Khan’s resignation and handover of power to Z.A. Bhutto on 20 December generated expectations in Pakistan that the military would withdraw, its humiliation complete after the rise of Bangladesh.Yet the military would stage a comeback in Pakistan with the waning of Bhutto’s authority in 1977.

But let us travel back to Bangladesh, where, on 15 August1975, renegade soldiers of the Bangladesh army led a violent coup,leaving Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 18 members of his family dead. It was a sheer travesty of history that Bangladesh passed under military rule when its very raison d’être had been its long struggle against the military dominance of politics in Pakistan in the pre-1971 era. The August 1975 coup was eerily familiar, minus the murders, to the two spells of military rule, up until that point, in Pakistan.

Three months after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination, a counter-coup by senior officers of the Bangladesh army in November 1975 dislodged the assassin-majors and colonels from power, along with the man they had installed as president. This second coup, led by Major General Khaled Musharraf, lasted a mere four days.

Intriguingly, within hours of Musharraf’s seizure of power and unbeknownst to him, the political leaders who had, in 1971, formed and presided over the Bangladesh government-in-exile, and who had, after Mujib’s murder, been arrested, were killed in the putative security of prison. The same soldiers who had enacted the assassinations in August were responsible for these new murders, before they flew out of the country.

General Musharraf’s coup collapsed on 7 November, when forces loyal to General Ziaur Rahman, the man Musharraf had replaced as army chief of staff, struck back. Zia emerged as Bangladesh’s new strongman, and Khaled Musharraf and his allies were murdered on the morning of 7 November. Zia would go on to exercise dictatorial authority over Bangladesh for more than five years, when a coup attempt, ultimately abortive, would cause his death in the port city of Chittagong on 30 May 1981.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Pakistan’s first elected leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. was marched to the gallows by the army on 4 April 1979

Ziaul Haq’s process of Islamisation left Pakistan wounded beyond measure

In Pakistan, the army’s humiliation in the 1971 war was soon wiped out by the Bhutto government’s decision to employ it in a suppression of democratic politics in the province of Balochistan. Thousands of Baloch youth were murdered or abducted by the military. For the first time since the surrender in Dhaka, Pakistan’s army found renewed confidence in its ability to influence governance. Under General Ziaul Haq, the army chief handpicked by Prime Minister Bhutto a year earlier, the soldiers seized power on 5 July 1977.

Bhutto was arrested, briefly released, then rearrested, to be tried on controversial murder charges by the Zia regime. Pakistan’s first elected leader was consequently marched to the gallows by the army on 4 April 1979. The narrative arc of Bhutto’s fall is curious: he was brought into politics by the army in 1958, raised to prominence by his role in the Ayub regime, was fully supportive of the genocide by the soldiers in Bangladesh, and was thendumped by the army.

Pakistan’s misfortune would not end with Ziaul Haq’s death in a plane crash in August 1988, for in October 1999 it was the turn of General Pervez Musharraf, the army chief at the time, to overthrow the elected government led by Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf would stay in power till 2008.

In Bangladesh, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, the army chief of staff, overthrew President Abdus Sattar, the President elected after Ziaur Rahman’s assassination, in a coup on 24 March 1982. Ershad would go on to preside over Bangladesh’s fortunes until a gathering mass movement forced him from power in December 1990.

The coups d’état in Pakistan and Bangladesh, taking their cue from October 1958, have consistently undermined politics and systematically struck down state institutions. Politicians without principles have, in more instances than one, hitched their wagons to dictatorial regimes and have thus impeded democratic progress in the two countries.

In Pakistan, back in 1963, Bhutto, at the time Pakistan’s foreign minister and secretary general of the Convention Muslim League, publicly suggested that Ayub Khan be made Pakistan’s President for life. In a moment of supreme irony, Bhuttoturned against his benefactor only three years later.

Ayub Khan’s donning of civilian raiment was replicated by General Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh when he formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in 1978. The Ayub legacy did not fail to influence Bangladesh’s second military ruler, General Ershad, who in his years in power gave shape to his Jatiyo Party.

Yahya Khan did not go for direct participation in politics, but he did something worse: his determination to have Bengalis submit to military authority led to the break-up of Pakistan less than a quarter century after the country’s creation. Ziaul Haq forced into politics a system which had no place for political parties. His process of Islamisation left Pakistan wounded beyond measure. Pervez Musharraf formed his own faction of the Muslim League after his departure from power.

The coup d’état launched by Iskandar Mirza and Ayub Khan in October 1958 was a precursor to the weakening and enervation of the state. It was the opening shot in a rolling back of the rule of law, due process and democratic aspirations in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Every coup in these two countries has led to the rise of a culture of impunity, with ramifications that were to be felt even when the coup-makers were replaced by elected civilian government.

October 1958, March 1969, August 1975, November 1975, July 1977, March 1982, October 1999 – each of these periods is symptomatic of the darkness which has periodically descended on Pakistan and Bangladesh.

These coups have upended the state. They have demonstrated in no uncertain manner how tinpot dictators can push the lives of millions into disaster and unfamiliar terrain, leaving a barren political landscape. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad