Martial Laws in Pakistan

By Jahangir, Asma | Economic Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview
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Martial Laws in Pakistan

Jahangir, Asma, Economic Review


When martial law was imposed for the first time in Pakistan, I was only six years old and too young to realise how it would change and shape my future life. My mother was taken in by the euphoria. She happily believed that it would put an end to smuggling, put away the corrupt forever and turn Pakistan into a stable and prosperous country. My grandfather, Maulana Salahuddin, a scholar and journalist, was aghast at my mother's reaction while my father, a government servant, decided to quit his job and join politics. Subsequently, he was elected to Ayub Khan's Basic Democracies and eventually decided to join the opposition in the parliament. My early memories consist mostly of his long speeches on complicated issues such as fundamental rights and adult franchise.

These ideas were important to him. In response to our irritation with his preoccupation, he would say that playing a part in securing these rights was the best gift and legacy he could leave for us. We were told to be patient since freedom never just dropped from the heavens, unlike charity, it could only be won through perseverance. We waited for our legacy, utterly unaware that decades later, we would still be promising the same to our children.

The movement against Ayub Khan started with Fatima Jinnah's decision to contest the presidential elections against the dictator. I was in primary school when my father was arrested under the Defence of Pakistan Rules. Hundreds of students and political activists were hauled up across the country and sent to different jails. My father was in Bannu jail. He liked Bannu because he felt the political culture in the Frontier was more democratic. We could not meet him till the Lahore High Court ordered his production. The building which houses the LHC, now all too familiar, was daunting at first appearance. But the children of the detainees loved it. After all, we all met our fathers there after months of separation. The press was heavily censored in those days and therefore, the courtroom was bursting with people. All those who had been detained wanted to make long political speeches in the court for the benefit of those present rather than the bench.

Ayub's regime ended with huge rallies demanding his resignation. Shahida Daultana, Sarah Hizami and I organised a female students procession. My first step in activism, it gave me an opportunity to learn how such protests were managed. We went hoarse chanting slogans - girti hui divaron ko aik dhaka aur do (give a final push to crumbling walls). It actually seemed to be happening. We all thought that Ayub would go and democracy would prevail. Little did we know that the last push was being planned at the GHQ, while round-table conferences were being held at the Presidency, ostensibly to transfer power to a civilian leadership. As usual, some of the politicians sold out to the army.

I learnt a few lessons too. Democracy meant the right of every individual to have access to a court of law, which ought to be independent. Laws could not be made by an individual. It was our right to legislate and duty to respect legislation. More importantly, I realised that human dignity demanded that tyranny be resisted with firmness.


The next martial law promised free and fair elections. They did take place, but the results were unexpected and a civil war ensued. Once again, the people of West Pakistan sided with their establishment and the army. They wanted the army to teach the East Pakistanis a good lesson, once and for all. The Bengalis made the fatal mistake of asking for their right to rule themselves. Once again, my father was arrested for writing an insolent letter to the CMLA, in which he criticised the army operation in East Pakistan and equated it with "waging war" against Pakistan. Many of our close friends genuinely believed that the letter was an act of treason. In fact the entire country went through a phase of believing that raising your voice against a massacre of your own citizens amounted to treachery.

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