Those cheering the death penalty for the former dictator need to exhale
Pervez Musharraf (Photo: Getty Images)
There are not many people in Pakistan who like General Zia-ul-Haq.
There are not many people in Pakistan who do not like General Pervez Musharraf.
Both have much in common but there is not much that makes one unidentifiable from the other. What makes one indistinguishable from the other, other than subversion of constitution, is the factor associated with most military dictators in history. Both had absolute power for as long they ruled.
My earliest memory of Zia was the dislike my mother had for him for his coup against her favourite politician, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1977. In a strange twist of time, my earliest memory of Musharraf is also connected to my mother. On October 12th, 1999, I was talking to her with something boring playing on TV when suddenly I noticed that my cellphone was without signal. Six months pregnant, other than the wellbeing of my unborn child, there wasn’t much that interested me. The dead phone made me sit up. I had no prior experience of a national suspension of cellphone service and the dead signals didn’t seem ominous. They were.
The then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Pervez Musharraf had overthrown the government of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
What ensued was a national drama so enormous that it stunned Pakistan, shaking its collective head. Not again. Sharif with an overwhelming majority in the centre and in Punjab, the biggest province of Pakistan, was secure, and smug.
The reason why I don’t remember much about the next three months was the unexpected passing away of my mother on November 6th. The worst tragedy of my life was followed by my biggest happiness ever: birth of my son in January 2000. As Pakistan was coming to grips with the reality of another coup, my life moved in ways that changed everything. I didn’t care what was happening beyond the four walls of my room. Much happened. But to me the coup and its immediate aftermath became a hazy kaleidoscope that had one colour: khaki. Not again.
His voice was all over. His assertiveness. And his pronouncement of the crime Sharif had committed. Musharraf in the time of pre-twenty-four-hour TV boomed from the low-quality PTV transmissions, camouflaging in hurt righteousness, the hugeness of his action with his condemnation of Sharif’s actions that were the catalyst to the October 12th coup. As if life could be that simple. Or a coup.
After Sharif’s removal, Musharraf addressed the nation. Just like Zia in 1977. Musharraf was conciliatory: “The armed forces have no intention to stay in charge longer than is absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish.” Musharraf was also enraged: “Despite all my advice, they tried to interfere with the armed forces, the last remaining viable institution in which all of you take so much pride and look up to at all times for stability, unity, and integrity of our beloved country.”
“They” couldn’t be pardoned.
Musharraf accused Sharif of a plot to remove him from his post of COAS and endangerment to his life. Sharif was jailed and sentenced to life imprisonment. He left Pakistan to go into exile to Saudi Arabia in 2000.
Musharraf allowed Sharif to go into exile, and created an environment in which Benazir Bhutto saw no other option but to leave Pakistan.
On December 17th, 2019, the news of a special court’s verdict of death sentence for Musharraf, retired general and former president, living in exile, made national and international headlines. Musharraf had ‘been found guilty of Article 6 for violation of the Constitution of Pakistan.’ It was the legal culmination of the 2014 treason case against the former general. It is the first verdict of its kind against a former COAS.
Most of Pakistan consider the idea of Musharraf being a traitor and disloyal to Pakistan preposterous. That would be many of even those who hold him responsible for many bad things.
Pakistan, shocked at the unprecedented move of a civil court awarding a former highest-serving military official the death sentence, would be, for a while, trying to make sense of the symbolism of the decision. There are no half-measures in Pakistan. The conspiracy of hijacking of a plane, Sharifs’ seven-year exile, Musharraf’s eight-year rule, his self-exile, Sharif becoming the prime minister for the third time in 2013, Sharif’s court-disqualification in 2017 and jail in 2018, Sharif going to London for treatment in 2019 while serving a seven-year sentence, and Musharraf’s death sentence, there is never a dull moment in the Greek drama of Pakistan’s power dynamics.
The seventy-six-year-old Musharraf’s professional life reads like a Shakespearean dizzying, heroic tale juxtaposed with multiple Machiavellian plots and sub-plots.
Born in New Delhi on August 11th, 1943 to a career diplomat, Musharraf spent the first few years of his life in Karachi where his family migrated to after 1947. From 1949-56, he lived in Turkey where his father was posted as a diplomat. In 1964, having joined the army, he graduated from the Army Command and Staff College, Quetta. He also studied at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London.
Musharraf is a veteran of two Pakistan-India wars: 1965 and 1971.
In 1999, the misadventure of Kargil happened. Many soldiers on both sides died. Pakistan and India, recent entrants of the nuclear club, reached the dangerous point of an all-out war until the intervention of the US. Musharraf’s name became synonymous with the debacle of Kargil, which was told in different words in Pakistan and India.
In October 1998, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed Pervez Musharraf as the COAS. In October 1999, Musharraf overthrew Sharif. A déjà vu of what Zia did to Bhutto almost two decades ago. Not much had changed. The ‘upright’ fauji standing up against a ‘corrupt’ elected prime minister, Pakistan was back to martial law.
On October 14th, 1999, Musharraf declared a state of emergency with the issuance of a Provisional Constitutional Order. In 2019, Pakistan is a unique country with almost three decades of military rule in its seventy-two years of existence.
Musharraf of moderate views did many things. While promising not to have a long military rule, he suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament and established the National Security Council, comprising civilian and military dignitaries. He promised reforms for the betterment of economy and eradication of corruption.
In June 2001, after removing the then President Rafiq Tarar, Musharraf became the self-appointed president. Now Musharraf was the COAS, chief executive and president of Pakistan. The new position would have been a guarantee of Musharraf’s secure placement in a civilian dispensation.
In July 2001, governments of Pakistan and India were scheduled to meet for a discussion on the one issue that is the basis of all issues between Pakistan and India: Kashmir. India’s Prime Minister in 2001 was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Pakistan and India, despite Kargil, understood and accepted the imperativeness of an uninterruptible dialogue to move forward. In 2004, Musharraf was instrumental in initiating a peace accord with the then BJP Government in India, which ‘led to a reduction in tension’.
The opposition parties filed a case in the Supreme Court. Musharraf promised to “return the country to democracy before October 2002.” Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid was formed in 2002. Musharraf was its unofficial head. Pakistanis, in general, liked Musharraf.
Musharraf was in power until 2008. Much happened between 1999 and 2008. The series of events that affected Pakistan’s psyche, in ways positive and negative, and that shifted its civilian-military structural equilibrium, would have caused a weaker country to have an implosion. Pakistan survived it all.
A few months after Musharraf’s self-crowned presidency in 2001, 9/11 happened. The world divided into America and its friends and foes. Pakistan became an unwilling but a vital ally in the US’ War on Terror with Washington’s ultimatum of ‘hundred per cent with us or hundred per cent against us’. The Pakistan-US love-hate relationship renewed, a narrative of ‘good’ and bad’ Taliban evolved, and Afghanistan turned into a battleground. George W Bush described Musharraf as a “strong defender of freedom”.
Musharraf promised to change Pakistan for the better. One of his key initiatives was the permission for establishment of private TV channels. The man who had no qualms about locking up politicians and dissidents ensured the freedom of media. A new class of power players emerged: the ‘mighty’ talk show host.
The other important achievement of Musharraf was decentralisation of power and empowerment of untried leadership with genuine grassroots credentials. The local bodies government system strengthened hitherto unrepresented groups to work for the underprivileged sections of society.
The economy boomed. It was a heady mix of US military aid, IMF and World Bank loans, remittances and middle-class consumer credit. Things improved. At the growth rate of six per cent, Pakistan was flourishing, people were happy, and the business community admired Musharraf. In 2019, there are many who reminisce about the good old days of the prosperous Pakistan during Musharraf’s tenure.
Literacy rate in Musharraf’s tenure rose nine points. Madrasa reforms were introduced after his 2002 crackdown on madrasas.
Unlike Zia, Musharraf never tried to turn Pakistan into a theocracy. Musharraf, like Bhutto, wore ‘well-cut suits, drank whiskey and enjoyed a cigar’.
The Independent wrote in 2008: ‘When it suited him [Musharraf] he could warn of the threat of Islamist terror emanating from inside the country and argue that his leadership was essential not only for the people of Pakistan but for the safety of the West. Yet when he needed to reach out to Islamist parties for his own domestic political needs, he did so. It ensured that he received unprecedented political support from the US and Britain, to the extent that, for many years, critics of Washington’s backing of a dictator were told there was no ‘Plan B’. He retained this support right to the end. After last February’s election in which Musharraf’s parliamentary allies were defeated, the US and Britain urged his opponents not to force his resignation. In the past ten days, those same allies have been negotiating his exit package.’
The War on Terror created Frankenstein’s monsters. There were multiple assassination attempts on Musharraf. On December 14th, 2003, a bomb missed his motorcade in Rawalpindi. Musharraf, in his autobiography, relates the story of the blast causing his car to fly into the air. The next attack was on December 25th, 2003, when on the same road trucks wired with bombs rammed into his car. Fourteen people were killed. In July 2007, his plane was fired on when it took off from a military airfield in Rawalpindi.
Despite Musharraf’s statements of a ‘three-phase transition to democracy’, it was only at the end of 2007 that he resigned from his post of COAS. The uniform strengthened his presidency. In 2002, he oversaw and won an election that could hardly be termed free and fair in the absence of main opposition leadership and politicians in jail. The new government was made up of pro-Musharraf folks.
Sacking of the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March 2007 was the first major blow to Musharraf’s impenetrable power monolith. Holding the judiciary in high esteem to be an independent entity, most Pakistanis strongly reacted to Musharraf’s move. The Supreme Court reinstated Chaudhry. Musharraf clearly had no idea what time had in store for him.
One of the biggest stains on Musharraf’s credibility as a ruler was his handling of the Balochistan crisis and the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti. ‘The chief of the Bugti tribe and former governor and chief minister of Balochistan was killed in a military operation on August 26, 2006 after a prolonged conflict with General Musharraf.’
The other dark question mark that is still hovering over Musharraf is his alleged negligence vis-à-vis provision of proper security to Benazir Bhutto after her return to Pakistan in 2007. Bhutto was assassinated on December 27th, 2007. Her party and many others blamed Musharraf for her death. In August 2013, Musharraf was indicted in connection with Bhutto’s murder.
In October 2007, ‘Musharraf was re-elected to a second five-year term by the country’s lame duck parliament. But the Supreme Court said that while the election should go ahead it retained the right to invalidate the decision. A few days before the court was expected to rule against him, Musharraf pre-emptively declared a state of emergency.’
That is the subversion of constitution that in December 2019 has resulted in the death sentence for Musharraf.
Musharraf, after losing in the 2008 elections, went into a self-exile.
Musharraf stated at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival: “The state is being run into the ground at the moment… and the people are again running to the military to save the country. So it is a dilemma for the current army chief: should we do something unconstitutional to save the state or should we let the state go down and uphold the constitution?”
In the 2013 elections, Musharraf contested and lost. Musharraf went back to his life in London and Dubai.
In 2018, Musharraf was reportedly diagnosed with a rare disease, amyloidosis. The disease, as per his party representatives, made him grow “rapidly weaker” while “weakening his nervous system”. In November 2019, the news of the deterioration of his health and hospitalisation in Dubai made headlines. Pakistanis prayed for Musharraf’s health.
As expected, Pakistan Army’s response, as that of many Pakistanis, to the capital punishment verdict for Musharraf by a three-bench special court is that of grief and anger. DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted Pakistan Army’s response: ‘The decision given by special court has been received with lot of pain and anguish by rank and file of Pakistan Armed Forces. An ex-Army Chief, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee and President of Pakistan, who has served the country for over 40 years, fought wars for the defence of the country can surely never be a traitor. The due legal process seems to have been ignored including constitution of special court, denial of fundamental right of self defence, undertaking individual specific proceedings and concluding the case in haste. Armed Forces of Pakistan expect that justice will be dispensed in line with Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan.’
From Zia to Musharraf, much has happened. And I’ve said much over the years. Hearing about the Musharraf verdict, this is what I thought:
Being categorically against capital punishment, I do not laud any death verdict. But the verdict against General Musharraf is historic in its symbolism: law is the same for all. I’ve always said that Musharraf must face a trial in Pakistan, but I don’t condone death for him or anyone. All those cheering the death penalty for Musharraf need to exhale and sit down. The same court awarding the same verdict to one of their favourite politicians would be called draconian and brutal. I have no issue whatsoever with a fair trial, be it of a military dictator or an elected prime minister. My objection is to capital punishment that I oppose in all cases.
Some people do bad things thinking they are doing it all for a greater good. I don’t condone their actions, but much as I hate what they did, I don’t think they ever thought that any of their acts was detrimental to Pakistan. And despite his act of the subversion of Pakistan’s constitution, I share the sentiment of countless Pakistanis: General Pervez Musharraf is many things but he is not a traitor. His many actions warrant punishment, but his loyalty to Pakistan is unquestionable. In principle.
The General in His Cul-De-Sac ~ by Siddharth Singh