General Hussein Muhammad Ershad came up with some interesting observations about the 1982 military coup d’etat in Parliament the other day. He informed the nation that he had not been willing to seize power and that he had gone out of his way to make sure that democracy functioned undisturbed in the country. But then, it was none other than President Abdus Sattar who prevailed on him to take charge of the country and set things right. Ershad added that at the time Sattar happened to be presiding over a corrupt government. Indeed, all the ministers in the government, led by the BNP of course, were corrupt and President Sattar was desperate about a change to be brought about in the situation. He wanted the army to come in and deal with the mess created by the politicians.
And so it was that General Ershad stepped in, to save the country from imminent disaster. His goal, he told all those lawmakers arrayed around him, was to return the country to democracy and go back to serving the nation as army chief of staff. But, of course, since no political party — not the Awami League, not the BNP, not the Jamaat-e-Islami — was willing to help him arrange fresh elections in 1984, he was compelled to hang on, form his own political party, the Jatiyo Party, and call for elections in 1986. In other words, the entire responsibility for the coup which took place on Mar 24, 1982 lay with President Sattar and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In similar fashion, the responsibility for the nine-year rule that Ershad foisted on the nation must be borne, if his words are to be taken seriously, by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia and all other political figures who refused to give him a helping hand in restoring democratic governance in the country.
Are we surprised at Ershad’s revelations? Given the legacy of military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh, two countries that once were part of a whole, wholesome, united India, it is not hard to imagine the real mindset of the men in uniform who have periodically and viciously sent democracy, however tenuous, packing through their vaulting ambitions. You recall General Mohammad Ayub Khan, the man who felt no embarrassment at declaring himself a field marshal and who as early as 1954 began toying with thoughts of seizing power in Pakistan. It was naked ambition at work and it would be a matter of time before Ayub Khan would seize the state. He and Iskandar Mirza put Pakistan to shame on 7 October 1958 by imposing martial law in the country. A mere twenty days later Ayub elbowed Mirza out, put him and his Iranian wife Nahid (poached from an Iranian naval attaché based at Tehran’s embassy in Karachi) on a plane bound for London and turned himself into Pakistan’s sole strongman.
Ayub Khan had little respect for politicians. Deep hate was there in him for democracy. And yet, in what would down the years turn into a cliché, he kept promising Pakistanis a democratic government they could all take pride in. In the event, it was his own brand of democracy — in the form of 80,000 Basic Democrats empowered to elect the country’s president and national and provincial assemblies — that he came forth with. In a nation of more than a hundred million people straddling the two wings of the country, only 80,000 men and women possessed the right of adult suffrage. Obviously, the system could not survive, as the popular unrest which overtook East and West Pakistan between late 1968 and early 1969 was to demonstrate so well. Ayub went and with him went his version of democracy.
Ayub Khan and HM Ershad seized power because they found corruption rampant among politicians. But that did little to stop them from corrupting politicians a little more, assuming we take their earlier presumptions seriously for a while, through bringing a fairly good number of them on board as props for their illegitimate regimes. The result was to prove disastrous for these politicians, for when their masters, in this case Ayub and Ershad, fell, it was their reputations that went through further decline. No politician who has been associated with military regimes has ever been respected, not in Pakistan, not in Bangladesh. You can think here of men like Manzur Quader, Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, Mushahid Hussain and SM Zafar in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, among politicians who were never able to regain their earlier rather fairly good reputations, because they were associated with military rule, have been Korban Ali, Abdul Halim Chowdhury, AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, Shah Azizur Rahman, Moudud Ahmed, Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury and plenty of others.
The heritage of military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh has been one of disaster, both for the dictators who seized the country and for the country itself. General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan should never have been permitted to replace Ayub Khan in March 1969 when Abdul Jabbar Khan, the Speaker of the National Assembly, was around. Yahya Khan’s ambitions came in the way and soon Ayub could not but hand over power to the army chief. And do remember that Yahya Khan was one of the military officers who, at Ayub’s behest and at gunpoint, forced General Iskandar Mirza to hand over the presidency to Ayub and fly off into exile in late October 1958.
In his first broadcast to the nation on Mar 26, 1969, Yahya Khan promised to create conditions conducive to democracy — his words — through general elections. He kept his word, up to a point. But when adult suffrage threw up results showing the Awami League emerging as the party of governance in Islamabad, neither Yahya Khan nor the Pakistan army nor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who constitutionally was poised to be leader of the opposition in the National Assembly) felt happy about the outcome. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, they decided, could not be allowed to take charge as Pakistan’s first elected leader. The result was disaster. Exactly two years to the day, following Yahya’s seizure of power, on 25 March 1971, the Pakistan army launched its genocide in the country’s eastern province. And precisely two years to the day, following Yahya’s promise of democracy for Pakistan, on Mar 26, 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, majority leader in the newly elected National Assembly of Pakistan, declared East Pakistan as the independent republic of Bangladesh.
Military rule saps a nation’s energy. It corrupts life to no end, for societies and nations. It leaves politics in disarray and pushes citizens to extremities of despair. It seeks to humiliate politics, tries to pin on politicians the label for everything that goes terribly wrong with society. Ayub Khan belittled politicians; Yahya Khan repudiated election results rather than have a legitimate civil government take over; Ziaur Rahman scandalized us all when he forced President ASM Sayem out of office and barred, through the infamous Indemnity Ordinance, the trial of the assassins of Bangladesh’s founding father; Ziaul Haq undermined everything of decency in Pakistan; Pervez Musharraf came down from the skies, literally, to push democratic rule in Pakistan to new stages of darkness; and Hussein Muhammad Ershad interrupted the course of democracy through his coup, leaving a nation wallowing in darkness and despair for close to nine years.
In all these instances, it was left to the political classes, once these strongmen passed from the scene, to step forward once again and sweep the detritus of extra-constitutional rule away.
And do not forget that no politician holding power ever asks a general or an army to throw him or her out of office and ‘save’ the country.