Early in the spring of 1972, the embers of national disgrace glowing across what remained of Pakistan after the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Singing and Dancing Girls Association of Lahore gathered to protest. For weeks, the media had been blaming the disaster on sex workers who debauched military ruler General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. Lurid stories circulated about The Proper Channel, a sex worker who could broker military postings for a fee. Foreign agent Firdaus, diamond-draped Kausar, the infamous General Rani: Failure wore everything, or nothing—except military fatigues.
“Far from the general impression,” responded Inayat Begum, the irate grand-dame of the famed Hira Mandi courtesan district in Lahore, “exactly opposite to the truth.” “From all available accounts, the role of the singing and dancing girls, or so-called prostitutes, in ruining General Yahya was marginal. The real culprits were the so-called good-family women and highly-placed begums.”
Last week, an investigation by journalist Ahmed Noorani revealed that the family of soon-to-retire Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa amassed assets—mainly urban lands—worth a staggering $56 million through his six years in office.
Elsewhere in the world, the exposé might have provoked a scandal. This particular scandal, though, has long stood in the sunlight—conducted by the husbands of good-family begums. Even as Pakistan has slowly descended into an economic crisis, military officers have been given taxpayer-funded land allocations worth millions of dollars. The long roster of properties General Bajwa’s family owns in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad are his, by right.
Together with networks of military-owned conglomerates that produce cement, breed horses and milk, and run educational institutions, the military rests on a gargantuan system of patronage. Like the country’s political parties—dominated since independence by landed and commercial elites—the military is an interest group.
Even though prostitutes and sex-crazed Generals were easy targets to take the fall for the defeat of 1971, the military had long been hollowed out by institutionalised corruption. That process began long before the war and continues unchecked. For Pakistan’s Generals, love of their motherland comes second to love of land.
Also read: ‘This is what you call independent’ — Imran Khan praises India resisting US on Russian oil import
The new feudal order
Little official documentation exists on the military’s land and business interests. There is just one authoritative book, by scholar and ThePrint columnist Ayesha Siddiqa. The scale of the land grants was staggering. General Ayub Khan—who seized power from then President Iskander Mirza in a 1958 coup, Pakistan’s first—received 247 acres of agricultural land on leaving office in 1969, as well as a sprawling residential home in Islamabad. The Generals who lost the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Muhammad Musa and Umrao Khan, received similar grants.
From official disclosures made by former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, it is known he received eight commercial and residential properties, as well as agricultural holdings. Former Army Chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, his successor, received at least 90 acres of agricultural land.
Toward the end of the 19th century, battered by the great rebellion of 1857, imperial Britain set about laying social foundations for a loyal native military. The tool it chose for this social engineering was a system of new irrigation canals running across then-arid Punjab, creating what were called ‘Canal Colonies.’ The empire provided patronage to clan chieftains through the grant of lands and military contracts. These elites, in turn, ensured order and raised soldiers.
Entire villages that refused to enlist to serve in the First World War, historian Tahir Mahmood has recorded, were evicted from their lands, and women were separated from husbands and sons until the men fell in line. For soldiers who agreed to serve the empire, pay, pension and land were on offer. In 1912, 10 per cent of colonised land was reserved for the military.
The system consolidated under Ayub’s regime. Social scientist Raymond Moore, writing in 1967, recorded that “over 300,000 acres of land have been made available in the Sind [Sindh], plus rich acreage along the Indian frontier.” For Major Generals and above, there was an allotment of 240 acres, while Brigadiers and Colonels were entitled to 150 acres. Lieutenant-Colonels received 124 acres, Majors and Lieutenants 100 acres, and Junior Commissioned Officers 64 acres.
Even this benevolence couldn’t win Ayub the loyalty of his military, divided down the middle by an anti-government movement spearheaded by then-to-be Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Led by Yahya, a new military junta evicted Ayub from office.
A culture of excess
Like the old feudal order, the new praetorian landlords fostered a culture of sexual excess. The official Hamoodur Rahman Commission, which investigated Pakistan’s role in the 1971 war, contains evidence of unexplained visits from the wives of senior military officers. The reason the report was long suppressed, scholar Carol Christine Fair suggests, was because it would have revealed Yahya “had a penchant for cuckolding officers in every one of Pakistan’s armed forces.” This would have been more humiliation than a defeated army could survive.
The scholar Hassan Abbas has recorded that Yahya, to celebrate the construction of his new villa in Peshawar, threw a drunken party where the guests all ended up with their clothes off. The naked Yahya insisted on driving home the naked Shamim Husain—the country’s ambassador to Austria, who he affectionately called Black Pearl.
Later, he almost sparked off a diplomatic incident, locking himself up with his favourite courtesan Aleem Akhtar—known as General Rani for her power within the military—while the Shah of Iran waited.
From the Borgias to the Kennedys, though, many effective rulers have demonstrated deplorable sexual conduct, emerging none the worse for it. The General succeeded in handling the years of secret diplomacy leading up to the China-United States detente of 1970. The real challenge before him was not his peccadillos, but political ones. And Yahya appeared to have a real road map to address those.
To defuse the social tensions that brought him to power, Yahya promised Pakistan its first real democratic elections. There had been none from 1947 to the 1958 coup, and Ayub had imposed what he called Basic Democracy, with limited electorates.
East Pakistan politicians won the right to rule Pakistan in those elections. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wouldn’t countenance sharing power—and thus pushed Pakistan down the road to civil war.
Following his house arrest in 1972, Yahya lived in a villa in Rawalpindi—now home to the famous Beaconhouse school—but does not appear to have amassed large properties or assets. “Not even his worst enemy could say of Yahya that he robbed his country or its people,” the grand old man of Pakistani journalism, Ardeshir Cowasjee, recorded.
Author Lawrence Ziring famously described Yahya as “the chairman of a board of a ruling corporation that already had a large number of stockholders.” These included the factions that formed the military junta itself, but political parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Earlier, Ayub chose to exercise power through the institutions of bureaucratic power, not the military itself. The regime became mired in regrettably colourless scandals, involving, among other things, the meteoric rise of the General’s son, Gohar Ayub, as an industrial oligarch.
General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who took office by deposing Bhutto in 1977, imposed a grim, new puritanism on Pakistan—but expanded the Pakistan Army’s control of wealth by pushing investments into non-military businesses. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other military institutions became widely involved in drug-running to fund jihadist causes—the money washing across Pakistan’s civic life.
From 1965 to 2003, the military handed out a staggering 2,303,706.5 acres of irrigated land to its personnel, Siddiqa has recorded. In 2002, the government also enabled the formation of the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), which made housing and commercial plots available to officers at knocked-down rates.
From the rank of Major, officials become eligible for DHA plots, heavily subsidised by sales of acquired land to private parties. As Colonels, they are entitled to another plot, and rising to Brigadier, up to two residential and commercial plots. Lieutenant-Generals are entitled to irrigated land worth almost a billion rupees, while those who serve as Corps Commanders get half as much more, along with DHA plots for each year in the saddle.
This system of land accumulation does not exist independently of Pakistani politics. The Generals are just the leaders of the largest organised political force, exercising their influence to ensure their privileges will be protected. Former Prime Ministers Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, among others, have accepted military primacy—in return for help securing elected office, albeit under terms defined by the Generals.
General Bajwa’s personal fiefdom is curiously enmeshed with the story of his close friend and loyal retainer, Sabir “Mitthu” Hameed. Hameed, a once small storeowner in old-town Lahore, allegedly leveraged his Bajwa connection to gain advanced information on where DHA projects would be built. Hameed, the story goes, would cajole and coerce landowners to sell to him. Then, he would swap his land for a share of saleable DHA residential and commercial plots. The relationship culminated in the marriage of their children.
Economist Shahid Alam called this the “feudalisation of the urban upper classes, [which] has proceeded via three roads; alliances of marriage; acquisition of agricultural lands, with or without quid pro quo; and the rapid urbanisation of the rural élite.”
From The Proper Channel and General Rani to today, these three elements have worked to bind the corruption of the military and civilian elite. Former bar-dancer Farahat Shehzadi allegedly used her relationship with former PM Imran Khan and First Lady Bushra Bibi Khan to engage in influence-selling operations.
The judiciary has fitfully pushed back against military land acquisitions. In 2006, the Supreme Court ordered three kanals of land seized from a small peasant—part of 33,866 acres of land given to the army by the Punjab government in 1993—to be returned. Last year, the Islamabad High Court stayed the acquisition of land from two widows for a DHA project. Frustrated by DHA commercial operations in Karachi, former Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmad had even mocked the military, saying that it sought to “encroach on the entire sea, all the way to America, and plant their flags there.”
For Pakistan, this means suffering the crushing weight of its praetorian guard—too flabby to fight off threats emerging from jihadists along its north-western borders.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)