A reformer on horseback
By S. Akbar Zaidi
IN the first Pakistan, the one that existed before it lost its eastern wing in 1971, President General (later self-elevated to field marshal) Muhammad Ayub Khan’s decade from 1958 to 1969 was foundational in numerous critical ways and set the direction for Pakistan for years to come. It gave rise to models of military dictatorship, to US dependence, regional imbalances and the over-centralisation of government.
Often known as the ‘Decade of Development’, as ‘Pakistan’s Golden Years’ of a ‘Socially Liberal Military Dictatorship’, Pakistan’s first military dictator laid the foundations of a capitalist economy under military rule. This resulted in numerous economic and social contradictions, which played themselves out, not just in the 1960s, but beyond, where Ayub Khan’s rule created the social and economic conditions leading to the separation of East Pakistan, and to the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s awami inqilaab.
Unlike most generals who have led Pakistan’s armed forces since 1969, all who have claimed they have absolutely no political ambitions, Gen Ayub Khan very early in his career made it clear that he wanted to play a role in framing Pakistan’s destiny, and not just as its commander-in-chief (C-in-C). He had ambitious aspirations right from the early 1950s when, in 1951, Ayub became the country’s first Pakistani army chief under prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan with, what Shuja Nawaz in his monumental Crossed Swords calls, “all the qualities of a political soldier”.
Less than two months as C-in-C, Ayub was asked by the prime minister to help deal with an alleged conspiracy by a group of leftists along with a host of senior military officers, who wanted to overthrow the government in what is since called the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.
With the absence of any semblance of political leadership following the assassination of Liaquat in 1951, the Pakistan Army, along with a string of bureaucrats, began to emerge as the only organised and stable institution in the country. The army saw first blood when martial law was imposed in parts of the Punjab on March 8, 1953.
There were many changes of leadership in the first few years of Pakistan’s existence, when pro-US Mohammad Ali Bogra was made prime minister in 1953, and in 1954 the serving C-in-C of the Army became part of the cabinet as defence minister.
Ayub was Pakistan’s only serving head of the army who had the experience of being in a civilian cabinet prior to running the country. Over the subsequent four years or so, before he eventually took over power in a coup in October 1958, some decisions were made by the various governments of that time, which were to have an impact on events after 1958. Pakistan became part of the US-led alliances in the region to counter communism and the threat from the Soviet Union.
Becoming part of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation in 1954 and the Baghdad Pact in 1955, Pakistan chose a path of dependence which has continued until recently. Domestically, to deal with the perceived threat of East Pakistan’s majority, to counter ‘provincialism’, the One Unit in West Pakistan was created. An overly centralised system of governance with concentration of power, largely in the hands of the military and bureaucracy, with US interests in the region, set the stage for the years to come.
As governments continuously changed hands, both in East and in West Pakistan, it was clear that despite the constituent assembly framing a constitution in 1956 finally promising the possibility of elections, the military stepped in to take power in October 1958 declaring martial law. The Aligarh-educated, Sandhurst-trained Ayub was a representative of his age, of a tradition like so many other ‘men on horseback’, with justification found in academic literature endorsing the modernisation mission of authoritarian leaders, almost all from the military. This point is important and is often overlooked, but the 1950s and 1960s in what we now call the global south, were a time of modernisation, economic growth without regard to inclusiveness, and, with few exceptions, often under the guidance of ruthless military dictators.
There is a very long list of social and economic reforms undertaken by the Ayub regime, which are striking, resulting in extensive social engineering. All military governments since, ruling with an iron fist lasting a decade or a little less, have done the same.
Ayub’s achievements are numerous and some specific ones are worth citing. Since ‘democracy had to be taught’ in accordance with the ‘genius of the people’, what better way to start than at the grass roots, at the local panchayat level. Hence, the system of Basic Democracies — elected representatives in constituencies were given the task of local development.
The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, still considered one of the most progressive sets of family laws compared to many Muslim countries even 56 years on, gave, at least on paper, some protection to women allowing them far greater rights, raising the marriageable age, requiring greater documentation to file for divorce, or for men to seek permission from their existing wife if they wanted a second marriage.
Pakistan’s family planning laws under Ayub were the most advanced for their times and such interventions drew a great deal of criticism from religious groups who considered them unIslamic. To show how different times were then compared to how they have changed since 1977, Ayub was even able to drop the name ‘Islamic’ from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, albeit eventually having to give in to pressure from the ulema and religious political leaders, particularly Maulana Maudoodi.
Economic growth in Pakistan during much of the 1960s was stellar, and on Jan 18, 1965, the New York Times wrote that “Pakistan may be on its way towards an economic milestone that so far has been reached by only one other populous country, the United States”, a view which was endorsed by the Times from London a year later, stating that “the survival and development of Pakistan is one of the most remarkable examples of state and nation-building in the post-War period”.
Clearly, high growth rates, but exclusively in Punjab and in Karachi, and not in East Pakistan, gave rise to such praise. Distributive issues were unimportant in the economic policies advocated by the Harvard Advisory Group which ran Pakistan’s meticulous Planning Commission. In fact, this was a time when ideological pronouncements based on the ‘social utility of greed’ and ‘functional inequality’, were encouraged.
Following large-scale land reforms undertaken in 1959, the Green Revolution in agriculture in central Punjab changed the social and economic relations of production permanently. Growth rates, both for agriculture and for industry, were often in double digits. Ample US aid and assistance helped build dams, roads and other infrastructure. Pakistan was on the road to economic progress.
Politically, of course, this was, not surprisingly, a repressive regime. Political leaders were imprisoned, political parties were banned, dissent was not tolerated, newspapers were censored and taken over, and Ayub’s regime continued to be opposed by nationalists from West and East Pakistan, as well as by Maulana Maudoodi’s Jamaat-i-Islami. Yet, Ayub sought some form of public legitimacy as all military dictators have been forced to, lifting martial law in 1962 following the implementation of a presidential-form constitution.
Ayub now set his sights on being an elected soldier-president, a model which later generals were encouraged to emulate. In January 1965, Field Marshal President Ayub Khan was ‘elected’ president of Pakistan by an electoral college composed of Basic Democrats, who had been patronised under a system of grants and development funds since their own elections in 1959.
Many historians and observers believe, that had he allowed free and fair elections to take place, expanding the electoral franchise, his opponent Fatima Jinnah, who despite a rigged system gave him a hard fight, might just have won.
The year 1965 was also, of course, the year when Ayub Khan’s downward slide began. The war with India in September, on which much has been written in recent years by historians, has raised questions on strategy, intention and tactics, and whether Pakistan actually ‘won’ the war. The role of Pakistan’s foreign minister, a young, charismatic and ambitious Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, has also been scrutinised by historians, suggesting that Bhutto led Ayub into a military disaster, and was to gain political mileage after the Tashkent Declaration, parting ways with Ayub to become his main opponent.
There is little doubt that Ayub Khan’s Decade of Development, which his government was celebrating in 1968 at a time when opposition to his regime was mounting, changed Pakistan’s social and economic structures unambiguously. There is little doubt that there was economic growth, but given the ideological drivers of this growth, regional and income inequalities grew very sharply, giving rise to a political category of the super rich, called the ‘Twenty-two Families’, a metaphor for accumulation and corruption.
The growth model followed by Ayub gave rise to manufacturing and industrialisation, the growth of a working class, agricultural wealth created by the Green Revolution in the Punjab, and the emergence of what were later to become Pakistan’s middle classes. It was many of these disenfranchised social groups under Ayub that gave Bhutto the support to create his Peoples Party and bring about a social revolution, while in East Pakistan, these same contradictions gave impetus to Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League.
It was not only inequality amongst individuals which increased, but on account of the Green Revolution, and due to capitalism’s own locational logic, central Punjab and Karachi developed far more than other parts of the country, particularly East Pakistan, which had always felt deprived and exploited.
With the Punjabi-Mohajir bureaucracy and a Punjabi military dominating politics and economics in an overly centralised state, East Pakistan’s politicians and population felt completely marginalised. The policies of the Ayub era, both economic and political, led in 1966 to Mujib asking for more rights, including the right to universal franchise for all Pakistanis. A centralised military government, now located in its new capital Islamabad, failed to pay heed to calls for inclusion and participation. Signs of what was to come were clearly evident.
Ayub’s decade unleashed a process of social and economic change, created economic and social contradictions for socialist and nationalist politics to emerge, and also helped modernise many institutions and policies.
All this was done with complete support from the US until the 1965 war when American policy was rethought with regard to South Asia. Most importantly, Ayub’s decade of military dictatorship brought the military into politics, and created a pattern which was replicated, albeit with different ideological underpinnings, in very different eras and global and regional circumstances, in 1977 and 1999.