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Musharraf was a tale of caution for those who think military dictators can make Pakistan secular

Why Pakistani military dictators such as Musharraf, who died Sunday, couldn't bring secularism home.

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How do we look at General Pervez Musharraf and his legacy? H. C. Armstrong wrote in Grey Wolf that Kemal Ataturk was a dictator, so now, there would not be any more in Turkey. Musharraf, sadly, was no Ataturk.

I still remember where I was on 12 October 1999. It was a computer lab on College Avenue at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, US.  A friend of mine, a Pakistani American, came and told me that a coup had occurred in Pakistan. This is going to make Pakistan look bad, he said. I told him it was a good thing that Nawaz Sharif’s government had been sent packing. A debate ensued. Sharif, in 1999, was about to turn Pakistan into a full-fledged theocracy with his 15th amendment to the Pakistani Constitution. It already had theocratic undertones since 1973, and General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation had made it more so.

But Sharif’s government was going the extra mile.

Giving secular hope

Musharraf’s coup, as tragic and unconstitutional as it was, nevertheless stopped Sharif’s attempt to become ‘Amir al-Mu’minin’ — leader of the faithful. Of course, the latter, with his overwhelming majority in parliament, was fully empowered constitutionally to make such a change. For many – including students like me studying abroad — his attempt to consolidate power by turning himself into a modern-day caliph was a step too far. In Pakistan, things done in the name of Islam cannot be undone, try as one may.  Musharraf’s intervention, therefore, was welcomed even by democrats like Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf promised a return to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan — a liberal and progressive, Muslim-majority State. To bolster his credentials as a secular liberal, Musharraf spoke of Kemal Ataturk and the Turkish model. He also restored joint electorates, undoing the injustice that General Zia’s regime had done to minorities in Pakistan. His interior minister told an international publication that the new regime wanted to make Pakistan completely secular. There was an obvious backlash from the religious parties, and that is when our latter-day Ataturk began to retreat.

Also read: ‘Nawaz Sharif wants to soften heart of Generals’ — Why Pakistan is inviting ailing Musharraf back

Compromises begin

In 2002, he began to rely on traditional politicians, and with it, began compromises. That year, Musharraf removed the religion column (added by General Zia’s regime) from the passport. This change was quietly withdrawn, and the religion column was restored. The joint electorates that Musharraf had restored were also tampered with to ensure that the Ahmadi sect would remain effectively disenfranchised.

New electoral lists were drawn up where, despite Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims being on the same list, the Ahmadi sect was excluded and placed on a supplementary list. This was yet another retreat by the Ataturk wannabe. He now began to speak of a modern liberal Islamic Republic instead of a secular State. He was not the first one to have been “chastened” in such a manner. The country had first become an Islamic Republic in 1956. In 1962, Pakistan’s first military dictator — another Ataturk wannabe — Field Marshal Ayub Khan had renamed the country ‘Republic of Pakistan’, but thereafter changed it back to Islamic Republic a few months later. Islam just can’t be rolled back in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, Musharraf’s regime was marked by a number of positives. It was socially liberal, and much of the forced social conservatism that had been imposed on Pakistan since the 1980s was undone. Pakistan’s fashion and music industries boomed. Events such as mixed marathons became regular annual fixtures in cities like Lahore. The festival of Basant put Pakistan on the international map. Media also thrived, and there was mushrooming of TV channels. The level of discourse suddenly improved.

When I returned to Pakistan in 2002, I found it to be a hopeful place full of energy. Relations with India began to improve, and one would run into Indian tourists in the many bazaars of Lahore. This was despite the fact that Musharraf had been squarely and, perhaps, rightly blamed for the Kargil War by the Indians. Even the Kashmir dispute seemed to be heading towards some kind of resolution.

Musharraf’s downfall started in 2007. In March of the same year, he arbitrarily asked the Chief Justice of Pakistan to resign. When that did not happen, Musharraf sought to make him non-functional by suspending him. This led to countrywide protests by lawyers against the regime. While these protests were primarily non-violent, the regime pushed to repress them. In Karachi, things took a violent turn when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Musharraf ally, attacked lawyers and protesters, leading to gunfights and clashes on 12 May. The protests became known as the ‘lawyers’ movement’, or in Urdu, the “Adlia Bachao Tehreek (Save the judiciary movement)”.

Also read: The Great Damagers: Why Pakistan will debate which dictator harmed it more, Musharraf or Zia

In midst of a storm

Around the same time, a group of religious fundamentalists, harbouring foreign militants in Lal Masjid in Islamabad, began targeting Chinese businesses, especially massage parlours, for engaging in ‘un-Islamic’ activities. Earlier, the same group had taken over a children’s library in the federal capital, but the regime had not moved against them. With the Chinese now threatened, the regime acted. An operation was launched that summer where commandoes raided Lal Masjid and killed the ringleader of the group. There was a significant media frenzy after this. Claims were made that Musharraf had authorised the use of chemical weapons against seminary students at the Lal Masjid, killing young female students of Jamia Hafsa (the seminary attached to the mosque).

These claims were patently untrue, but they caught on like wildfire. Musharraf’s regime found itself in the midst of a storm. The lawyers were already up in arms on the streets along with major political parties. Now, the religious Right joined the bandwagon. The Chief Justice was restored in July, and in October, the regime allowed Benazir Bhutto to come back to Pakistan. In November, Musharraf imposed a state of emergency and sent the Supreme Court packing. Only those judges willing to take a fresh oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order were allowed to remain, and they were obviously loyal to the regime.

To make matters worse, on 27 December 2007, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi, not far from the military headquarters. Even though a terrorist group claimed responsibility, public opinion, by and large, blamed Musharraf. There was already resentment in Balochistan over the assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti, the veteran Baloch leader, in 2006. All these factors and the newly elected Pakistan Peoples Party government forced Musharraf out of power in 2008, bringing to a close nine years of military rule in the country.

Pakistan Army is different

Musharraf turned out to be a cautionary tale for those like me who supported him in the initial years.  A military dictator in Pakistan can never be another Kemal Ataturk because the Pakistani army is structurally different from the Turkish army because it was not involved in the struggle to build Pakistan. A lawyer politician schooled in British parliamentary tradition, not a military general, founded Pakistan. There is no other way but for parliamentary democracy and civilian supremacy in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, one shudders to think what would have happened if the 15th amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution had gone through. Already an Islamic Republic, the move would have given the federal government – especially the prime minister — unlimited powers when it came to the imposition of Islam on the Muslims of Pakistan. It was a terribly worded amendment, and while it did speak of the exemptions of non-Muslims from any such laws or executive actions, the potential damage would have been irrevocable.

Thankfully, even Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), when they came back to power in 2013, never tried to revive that disastrous idea. Musharraf’s military coup, while tragic and grotesque, helped save us from becoming an outright theocracy.  Hopefully, such drastic actions will not be needed in future.

Yasser Latif Hamdani is an advocate of the high courts of Pakistan and author of ‘Jinnah: A Life.’ Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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