In the summer of the year 2000, General Pervez Musharraf arrived at the concluding session of a conference of South Asian media professionals in Islamabad. He had been invited by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) to speak before the journalists who had come from the member states of SAARC. He delivered his speech and then the whole group, including the general, sat down to lunch.
Musharraf had only months earlier seized power in Pakistan from the elected government of Nawaz Sharif. Images of soldiers of the Pakistan army scaling the locked gates of the television centre in Islamabad flashed through my mind as I watched Musharraf speak and then have lunch with all of us.
I was part of the Bangladesh delegation to the conference. And it was my second visit to Pakistan (the first being in December 1995 for a similar conference) since the emergence of Bangladesh in late 1971.
At one point, we in the Bangladesh delegation decided to go up to General Musharraf, who at that point ruled Pakistan as Chief Executive and was yet to assume the mantle of President, to exchange greetings. He was happy to know that we were from Bangladesh, informing us that he recalled the days when he served as a junior army officer in what used to be East Pakistan.
The moment he said that, we fired off a question at him: In which year did he serve in Pakistan’s former province? Obviously, we were curious to know if he had played any role in the genocide committed by Pakistan’s soldiers in occupied Bangladesh in 1971.
To our question, General Musharraf with somewhat of alacrity reassured us that he had served in East Pakistan in 1967 and after the completion of his assignment had not gone back to the erstwhile Pakistani province. We were reassured, exchanged pleasantries with him, then shook hands with him before moving back to our table for dessert.
Now that Pervez Musharraf is dead from prolonged illness at the age of seventy-nine, there are the many images of him and of the policies he shaped and practised which come back to the mind. When he seized power in October 1999, he was only following in the steps of the three dictators -- Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan and General Ziaul Haq -- who had preceded him.
But then, the manner of Musharraf’s coup d’etat was rather unique in that he literally came down from the skies (he was returning from a military-related conference in Colombo when word reached him that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had dismissed him from his position as Chief of Staff of the Pakistan army) and sent the Sharif government packing.
It was an ugly way of seizing a state. But, of course, all politically ambitious soldiers demonstrate a high degree of ugliness -- and that is to pin the blame on politicians for everything that goes wrong with the state -- while ejecting civilian governments out of office.
Certainly, the method employed by Nawaz Sharif to dismiss Musharraf was none too pleasing or decent. It was a strange, indeed opportunistic way of getting an officer out of the way. Who could have known that the officer, armed with support from his fellow officers, would hit back hard and have the Prime Minister himself lose his job?
Musharraf ruled Pakistan for eight years, times which were remarkable for the many changes wrought in the country’s history. Sharif was put on trial before being sent off into exile in Saudi Arabia; Benazir Bhutto, an endless thorn on his side, would return home in 2007 only to be assassinated; the veteran politician Nawab Akbar Bugti, unhappy with army operations in his native Balochistan, would perish when the cave in which he and some of his followers were holed up in 2006 collapsed with soldiers relentlessly bombarding it.
General Musharraf, for all the sweet talking he gave vent to regarding Pakistan’s relations with India, never forgave Delhi for the humiliation Pakistan’s army was subjected to in Bangladesh in 1971. That was a basic reason behind the stealthy manner, stealthy because he did not keep his Prime Minister in the loop, he employed in making that disastrous assault on Kargil.
When the Indian army hit back -- and it hit back with force -- Musharraf licked his wounds. Scores of his own soldiers lay dead on those cold heights. An embarrassed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was given an earful by President Bill Clinton when he went to the White House.
But, yes, General Pervez Musharraf, once the 11 September attacks in the United States came to pass, swiftly took on the role of a pragmatist. He heeded President George W. Bush’s warning and decided to be with Washington in the war on terror.
Over the next few years, Musharraf was an important ally of the US administration in much the same way that earlier Pakistani dictators cultivated close ties with successive American administrations -- Ayub Khan with Kennedy and Johnson, Yahya Khan with Nixon and Ziaul Haq with Reagan.
And yet pragmatism was not on display when General Musharraf exercised dictatorial fiat to dismiss Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Chaudhry did not take it lying down and would come back to office through a powerfully orchestrated movement by lawyers. Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency did little to intimidate Chaudhry or the country’s judiciary.
Musharraf’s final embarrassment was his regime’s failure to ensure adequate security for Benazir Bhutto. Her return to Pakistan from exile in Dubai in October 2007 was marked by bomb blasts which killed hundreds of those welcoming her home in Karachi. Two months later, after a rally in Rawalpindi, Bhutto was murdered. Security for the former Prime Minister was conspicuous by its absence.
In his post-dictatorial years, Pervez Musharraf was the recipient of humiliation in Pakistan. He formed the All-Pakistan Muslim League in the hope that he could ride back to power at the elections. The party made no impact on the popular mind. Musharraf was placed under arrest, tried on charges of treason and sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently overturned.
The general’s final years were spent in Dubai, where illness got the better of him. Born in Delhi four years before the partition of India, Musharraf was the first, and so far only, Urdu-speaking general to take charge of the Pakistan army. His years in power, like those of his three military predecessors, were a waste, a rude interruption to moves toward the inauguration of a democratic space for the people of Pakistan.
Like Ayub, Yahya and Zia, Pervez Musharraf will pass into oblivion -- for history is never kind to men who commandeer the state, who try playing God before their nations.
Syed Badrul Ahsan writes on politics in South Asia.