Issue 240 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


Iron fist in a velvet glove

Unjum Mirza spoke to Mike Marqusee, activist and author, about what now in Pakistan after the coup
Pervez Musharraf

The military has ruled Pakistan for over half the country's 50 year existence. Each time it has always claimed to have taken power in the interests of civilians, against corruption and for the restoration of democracy. Does the recent coup led by Musharraf differ in any way?
On a road in southern Punjab I saw an official government sign with a revealing message: 'My Dear Countrymen. Army will never disappoint you like the past. Pervez Musharraf.' The army is keen to present the latest coup as something new. It has announced an agenda of social and political reform. This must be the first military dictator to talk as if he's just left an NGO seminar on civil society and development. What may be new this time is not so much the soft sell as the fact that so many of the intelligentsia, as well as a section of the NGO leadership, are willing to buy it. Further down the social scale, scepticism is stronger. The coup was not, initially, staged in defence of the interests of Pakistanis against the increasing lawlessness and arrogance of the Nawaz Sharif government, but in order to stop Nawaz Sharif from replacing Musharraf as army chief--something Sharif, as the elected prime minister, had every right to do.

The deformation of politics in Pakistan is a result not of too much, but too little democracy. Even when elected governments have been in office, the military has carefully circumscribed their field of action. Many of the country's chronic problems can be traced to its door. It has funded, promoted and armed the right wing religious factions, has been complicit in the drugs trade, and has siphoned off half the national budget for decades. The culture of patronage and corruption which Musharraf now inveighs against is very much the creation of several decades of army influence.

Now the military is aiming to micro-manage the whole of Pakistani society. Military officers have been installed at the top levels of a wide variety of institutions, from district and municipal administrations to the railways, the water and power development authority, universities, airlines, the cricket board. It also proposes to institutionalise 'economic monitoring'--ostensibly to stem tax evasion--while pursuing the classic IMF 'restructuring' agenda. This was the policy pursued by both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The only difference now is that the military can pursue it without being inhibited by concerns about electoral unpopularity. In the short run, that has meant increases in furnace oil (a staple commodity), the imposition of a general sales tax, a hike in railway fares, and substantial job losses.

Nawaz Sharif's continued attack on ordinary Pakistanis' explains the muted response to the coup and his subsequent arrest. What was the response of the other opposition parties, Bhutto's PPP or Imran Khan's Tahriq-I-Insaf?
The two major political parties--the Bhutto-led PPP and the Sharif-led PML--are both exhausted and widely distrusted. Initially, apart from the PML, which the army had chucked out, only the Pakistan Labour Party unequivocally denounced the coup. Now that Musharraf has said explicitly he will never return power to either Sharif or Bhutto, and any return to civilian rule has been postponed to the indefinite future, the PPP, PML and a number of regionally-based parties are calling for an end to military rule. Imran Khan's Tahriq-I-Insaf has joined the right wing religious parties in calling for 'accountability first, then elections'. This is echoed by a substantial section of the intelligentsia, who argue that there is no point in a return to democracy unless the army first cleanses the country of 'corrupt politicians'.

Tensions and armed conflict over Kashmir will continue under Musharraf

The army has launched a high profile 'accountability' drive, and has arrested several hundred politicians from the major parties. Obviously a serious, impartial and transparent accountability drive is needed in Pakistan--but that is not on offer from the military. In the first place, the military itself, as well as the judiciary (which processes the accountability drive), has been explicitly excluded from investigation. Secondly, the process is arbitrary and authoritarian. Accused politicians are being detained for long periods without charge, and when they finally get to court the burden of proof falls on them--they are required to prove their innocence.

These are show trials (the biggest and best publicised being Nawaz Sharif's trial in Karachi, which could lead to a death sentence). Although the victims of the show trials are themselves some of the most rotten exploiters in Pakistani society, trials of this nature will only further brutalise the administration of 'justice' in Pakistan. The spectacle of the army--the least accountable force in Pakistani life--leading a crusade against unaccountable politicians (many of them longtime clients of the military) is already wearing thin. Following the assassination of Sharif's lawyer, and the recent attempt to charge his wife with high treason, the iron fist is showing through the velvet glove.

Up until now the PML and PPP have been reluctant to launch any mass agitation against military rule. This is principally because they are not sure anyone would heed their call. Their actions in government over the last decade profoundly eroded their own social bases. Socialists should clearly defend the civil rights of the PPP and PML politicians, and their rights as parties to contest elections. But we should not look to them for a lead in resisting military rule.

Musharraf likens himself to the secularist leader Ataturk in Turkey in the 1920s. The Islamicists supported the coup. However, tensions are surfacing with the talk of the Talibanisation of Pakistan, and in the army a growing number are influenced by the Islamists. What is the actual strength of the Islamists, and is it likely to grow in influence?
Musharraf is being promoted, at least in the west, as a liberal secularist. However, what counts is the movement in the top army leadership as a whole. Here the wind is to the right, and hardline Islamicists occupy many of the key positions around Musharraf. Musharraf himself made a speech calling for the uniting of all the jehadi groups--armed right wing religious fundamentalists--under one command to prosecute the war against India in Kashmir. Over the years of the Cold War, and the long conflict in Afghanistan, the army and the jehadi groups became intertwined in a symbiotic relationship. It is only under military rule that Islamic fundamentalism has flourished in Pakistan. It was military dictator General Zia who disenfranchised religious minorities and instituted Shariat law. When ordinary Pakistanis have been given the chance they have voted overwhelmingly against fundamentalism--the right wing religious parties have never captured more than 7 percent of the vote. In Pakistan popular Islamic tradition is secular and tolerant--and highly sceptical about the pretensions of orthodox mullahs. That's why these groups and their sponsors in the army focus so heavily on the Kashmir question. AR Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, calls Kashmir 'the last refuge of the scoundrel'--in both India and Pakistan. The more the India-Pakistan conflict hots up, the stronger the hand of the Islamic right. It is conceivable that Musharraf could be replaced by a hardliner. It is also possible that he could simply drop the secular mask. The longer the military rule, the greater the danger of Pakistan's 'Talibanisation'.

What is the present state of any working class opposition to the military regime?
So far, the people at the base of Pakistani society have been largely quiescent--but that should not be mistaken for approval of the coup. People are worn down by the cycle of dictatorships, and by the abject failures of the civilian politicians. The bulk of the trade union leadership is making only the most guarded criticisms of military rule, if that, and the intelligentsia is utterly disorientated. But the activists I spoke to were quite clear that the military's designs on the people of Pakistan were malign, and they were preparing themselves for a long period of struggle. Already there are signs of resistance--protests against job losses and privatisation--and the women's movement is certainly not cowed. There is some tentative regroupment among the left. At a protest against job losses in Karachi, the army and police baton-charged demonstrators and arrested political leaders. As you say, Pakistanis have a tradition of struggle from below, and that's sure to surface again in the future. I think the military's response could be brutal in the extreme. This time, however, the regime will lack a Cold War shield and will be more vulnerable to pressure from an international solidarity movement. So we have to prepare here too.

With Pakistan under military rule and India led by the BJP, a Hindu chauvinist organisation, how have ordinary Pakistanis and Indians responded?
Apart, possibly, from the Cuban missile crisis, it's unlikely that we have ever been closer to nuclear war than at the moment. Before the Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999, there had never been major conventional air-and-land combat between two nuclear weapons states. And before the coup nuclear weapons states had always been civilian ruled. Not so in Pakistan today.

Ironically it has been the civilian politicians on the Indian side of the border who have been the most bellicose. Vajpayee, the prime minister, has repeatedly warned Pakistan that it shouldn't expect India to wait to be attacked before 'defending itself' with nuclear weapons. The presence of a military dictatorship across the border strengthens the Hindu right within India, and the bellicose statements from India strengthen the Islamic right within the military regime.

My impression is that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis want the normalisation of relations with India and a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir question. In India the situation is worse. Anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim sentiments are now dominant among the elite and have penetrated large sections of the population. Nonetheless, there is a growing movement against nuclear weapons in India. A coalition of social activists, trade unionists and intellectuals is campaigning against India's nuclear course and build links with likeminded people in Pakistan. There is hope that the drive towards nuclear war can be stopped by a challenge from below.
Mike Marqusee is a member of Aaj Kay Naam, a London-based campaign against military rule in Pakistan. Ph: 020 7813 4508/020 8986 7661. Email: Website:

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