State of Emergency: A personal history of Pakistan on the brink

By Moni Mohsin

It was December 2007, and General Pervez Musharraf had declared a state of Emergency in Pakistan. He suspended the Constitution, banned all independent television channels, and sacked the country’s senior judiciary. The streets were thronged with protestors raising their fists and chanting, “Go, Musharraf, go!”
In London I took part in a protest outside the Pakistani High Commission. It was a smallish demonstration, mainly comprising Pakistani undergraduates at the University of London. We chanted slogans against the General and called for a return to the rule of law. Then a student in a beanie took the microphone and sang a poem. Written by Faiz, the great Pakistani poet who spent four years in jail under General Ayub Khan’s martial law, the poem, “Hum Dekhain Gay”—“We Shall See,” has become an anthem of resistance for the people of Pakistan. As I stood on that chilly pavement and listened to the young man’s full–throated voice, I was filled with profound sadness. More than twenty–five years ago, I had sung this very song on the streets of Lahore. I, too, was an impassioned student then, and I, too, had protested the tyranny of a military dictator. I, too, had believed that that would be the last martial law we would experience.

Though outraged by General Musharraf’s strong–arm tactics, Pakistanis were not despondent. The economy was strong and foreign investors looked favorably upon Pakistan as an emerging market. A national election was in the offing, and Benazir Bhutto, emerging from years of exile the leader of Pakistan’s largest and most popular political party, had returned to contest it. Though religious extremists had dug into the Tribal Areas in the north, Benazir vowed to flush them out and, with American backing, end their reign of terror. Relations with India were calmer and more open than even before. There was everything to play for.

Today that optimism has vanished. A civilian government replaced Musharraf, but Pakistan faces economic collapse: rampant inflation, unbridled capital flight, and a nose–diving rupee. Benazir Bhutto is dead, killed by the very militants she had pledged to eradicate. Islamist insurgents have annexed chunks of Pakistani territory abutting Afghanistan. A bitter civil war has made refugees of 200,000 civilians. The army, fighting its own people, is demoralised and divided. The same Pakistanis who were agitating on the streets last November are afraid to step out today; roadside and suicide bombs have killed and maimed thousands in the last year. Pakistan has reached a tipping point. How and why did it unravel so fast?
Pakistan’s problems are not new. Established in 1947 as a homeland for the Muslims of the Subcontinent, its Islamic and secular identities have been in conflict ever since. In Pakistan’s sixty–year history, a corrupt, self–serving ruling class of land owners; a crooked bureaucracy; a boom–and–bust economy; long–simmering tensions with India over Kashmir; and a huge, powerful army that regularly enlists in coups have repeatedly thwarted progress. I do not recall a sustained period of peace, stability, and prosperity during my lifetime.

I was born during General Ayub Khan’s martial law. I was a child when General Yahya seized power in another coup and presided over the dismemberment of Pakistan. I was a teenager when General Zia–ul–Haq imposed his martial law, hanged the elected Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and ushered in Islamism. By 1999 when General Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and sent him into exile, I had married and moved to London.

I remember vividly the 1971 war with India that led to the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. I remember the air sirens, the black–outs, the sound of strafing at night. I can see the L–shaped trench in our back garden, hear the whoosh of low–flying fighter planes and remember the solemnity of our driver’s face as he announced that we were sure to defeat India because he had seen a mighty silver scimitar shimmering in the dawn sky. And I recall with absolute clarity the day my ten–year–old elder brother ran across the garden toward me, screaming, “We’ve surrendered! We’ve lost! We’ve lost East Pakistan!”

Of Zia–ul–Haq’s martial law which began in 1977, my memories are of an altogether different order. On the day the mustachioed general arrested Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and assured the nation that he would hold elections in ninety days, I was attending the wedding of a family friend. In the midst of the festivities, a child shouted at the assembled guests, “Come and watch! There’s a soldier inside TV!” Zia stayed for eleven years.

I was one of many who expressed quiet relief when Musharraf seized power in 1999.

Until his plane fell out of the sky in 1988, he brutalized an entire nation. He banned political parties and jailed activists. He had journalists who did not toe the military line flogged. Having ousted a populist leader, Zia used Islam to bolster his appeal. Only painters of Qur’anic calligraphy and anodyne landscapes were allowed to exhibit in public galleries. He shut down movie theatres, declared dancers obscene, and silenced poets. Female newscasters on television were forced to cover their heads, and secular music and television programs were replaced by Qur’anic recitals and interminable debates among bearded ulema (scholars) on whether it was a sin to be left–handed and if the name Mohammed could be abbreviated to Mohd without displeasing God.

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