“Are elected governments regarded as inconvenient guests?”

Thirty years ago, troops rolled into Islamabad and took up positions around ‘key installations’ and buildings in the Capital. Just over an hour later, around 5 pm, the elected government had been dismissed and the National Assembly dissolved. Benazir Bhutto, who had been prime minister for just twenty months, was sent packing. 

Two years before that particular dismissal, another prime minister, Mohammad Khan Junejo, had been dismissed in a similarly humiliating manner: while he was addressing a press conference on his return from a foreign tour, the journalists there started leaving and hurrying over to the presidency where they had been told they would hear some big news. There the president, General Ziaul Haq had announced dismissing the government. Junejo was also sent packing without completing his term.

By the time Bhutto was dismissed on August 6, 1990, General Zia was dead but the idea that elected civilian leaders could be unceremoniously dismissed had become something of a conviction in the minds of General Zia’s army leadership. In the eleven years between 1988 and 1999, five governments were toppled in this manner: Junejo, Bhutto, Sharif, Bhutto, Sharif. Of these PMs, Sharif and Bhutto were popularly elected, Junejo was elected in Zia’s non-party based polls but even though he had been handpicked by the general, he refused to be a puppet PM and once in office, began making all sorts of decisions to try to establish civil supremacy. Bhutto would later be assassinated while campaigning in a bid to be elected a third time while Sharif, though later able to be PM yet again, was forced to step down in a haze of allegations regarding his wealth and offshore accounts. He was charged, convicted and incarcerated. 


Talking to various people about the 1990 dismissal brought to the fore just how difficult a time this was for civilian politicians to function in government. The main problem was, of course, a hostile establishment — a military and bureaucracy steeped in the Zia era thinking who regarded these elected politicians as troublesome outsiders, to be allowed into government for as long as they could be tolerated — and booted out as soon as they started trying to assert themselves or do anything at all that was not in line with what the forces wanted. The way in which elected leaders were treated as intruders and interlopers — almost as enemies — is instructive. Kamran Shafi, who was Butto’s press secretary at the time, recalls how her speechwriter Farhatullah Babar had to go out and get her speech printed from elsewhere because obstructive bureaucrats refused to sanction ink for a printer. It was such a hostile environment that everything was a struggle and there was a feeling that half of the administration and the staff were actually working against the PM and the government. 

Benazir Bhutto came to power after a long period of incarceration and exile following the overthrow and execution of her father by General Zia, and she was always regarded with distrust by the military establishment but what is very interesting is that any PM (of any political hue) who tries to be a PM and implement any policy that challenges defence interests in any way is similarly despised and disposed of.

Here, the example of Nawaz Sharif is very interesting: groomed politically and elevated during the martial law years, Sharif was the generals’ man in Punjab, extremely useful to the ‘powers that be’ as a cunning and aggressive opponent to Bhutto. However, once he came to power and tried to assert his own authority, Sharif suffered the same fate as Bhutto and he was sacked unceremoniously.

His ‘mein dicatation nahin loonga’ (I refuse to take dictation) speech from April 1993 is a classic expression of this tussle between elected and martial forces in Pakistan. Unfortunately, that speech has disappeared from the archives and everywhere else. In his second stint as PM, Sharif actually fired the chief of army staff, one General Musharraf, and he replaced him with General Ziauddin Butt. The footage of the relevant ceremony was shown on only one PTV news bulletin because then Sharif’s government was overthrown and Pakistan Television Centre, taken over. While the video footage of the installation of the new army chief also disappeared, this process of enforced disappearances was actually quite useful in controlling the narrative.

But what is important now is to try to prevent key chapters of the country’s political history from being disappeared from the records and erased from public memory. What happened in the 90s in Pakistan is, to some extent, still happening now.

Because the idea that elected prime ministers are just short term visitors or inconvenient guests still prevails as does the process of constantly destabilising and smearing political governments. To fill in the gaps, we need to speak to people who were witnesses to key events, we need to question official histories and we need to search try to understand — through people’s experiences — how certain systems actually work.