Op-ed: Significance of October 27
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
What happened on October 27, 1958, had a far-reaching impact on Pakistan’s politics and society. It marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the military and pushed the political forces to the periphery of the political system
Forty-five years ago, on October 27, 1958, the military take over staged by General Muhammad Ayub Khan reached its logical conclusion. The then President (Major General) Iskandar Mirza was removed from his office unceremoniously and dispatched to Quetta. Later, he was allowed to leave for London where he died in 1969.
Ayub Khan assumed the presidency. The cabinet that had taken oath as the prime minister’s cabinet less than 24 hours earlier was sworn in again as the presidential cabinet, and Ayub Khan appointed General Muhammad Musa Commander-in-Chief of the army in his place. This was a courageous decision to quit the command of the army on assuming the presidency. No other army chief has ever repeated this act. Two military rulers, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, continued to hang on to this office after military rule ended and the constitution was restored.
The first coup in Pakistan was executed smoothly by General Ayub Khan on President Iskandar Mirza’s initiative in the early evening of October 7, 1958. The chiefs of the air force and the navy were summoned to the President House and informed of what the two leading figures in Pakistan’s power structure planned to do that evening.
A couple of days before the coup, Iskandar Mirza informed the US ambassador to Pakistan that he planned to assume all powers because if he did not do so, Ayub Khan might take over. He was however confidant that Ayub Khan would be on his side for the take-over. The ambassador was given October 8 as the date for the take-over.
Within four days of the military take-over, US President Eisenhower (an ex-General himself) sent a letter to Iskandar Mirza endorsing the coup, and a member of his cabinet visited Pakistan before October 27.
Iskandar Mirza realised soon after appointing Ayub Khan as the Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) that his position as president had become redundant. He was so used to manipulating power that its loss was not acceptable to him. He tried to retrieve the initiative, which annoyed the ruling generals who then forced him out of office. In his autobiography, Iskandar Mirza has denied conspiring against Ayub Khan while the latter was on his first visit to East Pakistan as the CMLA. However, most analysts of Pakistani politics question the credibility of Iskandar Mirza’s denial. With Iskandar Mirza’s removal on October 27, 1958, Ayub Khan emerged as the most powerful leader. The Supreme Court endorsed his take-over under the ‘doctrine of necessity’.
October 27 is an important date for two additional reasons. First, one year after the assumption of power, on October 27, 1959, the presidential cabinet decided to confer the rank of Field Marshal on Ayub Khan. Second, the military government announced the plans to introduce Basic Democracies as a new system of local government to introduce democracy at the grass roots.
October 27 thus marked the assumption of absolute power by the military top brass. It also set in motion the top commanders’ agenda for shaping the politico-social processes on the basis of the military ethos of centralisation, unity of command, discipline and order.
By 2003, military intervention in politics and exercise of state power by the top brass of the army has become established practice. However, the basic difference between 1958 and 2003 is that the evaluation of the role of generals in politics has changed.
When the first coup took place in Pakistan, the military’s assumption of power was viewed as a positive development that was expected to facilitate modernisation and the long-term prospects of democracy. The late 1950s and the early 1960s was the era of the Cold War and the coups in Pakistan, Burma, Turkey and some African countries were judged against this backdrop. As the leaders of the coup were pro-West, they were welcomed by the US and the academia described the military as the major instrument of development, modernisation and democratisation.
The perception of the role of the military changed in the 1970s and the 1980s because, by that time, enough data was available on the performance of military regimes in Asia and Africa. The general consensus among the scholars was that military regimes do not necessarily perform better than their civilian counterparts.
Political failures facilitate assumption of power by generals but military regimes are unable to remedy the weaknesses of social and political processes and institutions. Military regimes are part of the problems that cause political degeneration and decay and are viewed as a major obstacle to developing viable participatory institutions and processes. The political institutions they set up reflect management rather than participatory perspectives and cannot accommodate participatory pressures in a diversified society.
Ayub Khan’s military regime established the practice of replacing military rule with a carefully tailored political system that ensured the continuity of policies and some key office holders in the post-military rule period. Ayub’s strategy of civilianisation of military rule has, by now, become a textbook for Pakistan’s military rulers who are changing over from military to civilian rule.
The steps in this process include introduction of local government, uncontested referendum to elect the head of military regime as a regular president, a carefully managed general elections, and cooption of a section of the political elite to establish a civilian government on the terms set out by the ruling generals.
Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq, and Pervez Musharraf have pursued these strategies to turn their military rule into civilian and constitutional rule without losing the political initiative. The only exception was Yahya Khan whose military regime collapsed in the aftermath of Pakistan’s military debacle in the then East Pakistan in December 1971.
The practice of assigning lucrative government and semi-government jobs to retired and serving military (mainly army) officers by the Ayub’s military regime was a key strategy of successor military regimes to keep the military officers satisfied. Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf expanded material rewards and benefits of power for military personnel, turning them into a privileged elite in Pakistan.
In Ayub Khan’s view, the military was integral to the security and stability of Pakistan. Zia and Musharraf expanded these notions and sought a constitutional role for the military for input to decision making at the highest level. Ziaul Haq proposed the establishment of a National Security Council (NSC) in 1985 to provide a constitutional cover to the expanded role of the military. He withdrew this proposal as a part of the arrangement for the approval of the 8th Constitutional amendment by the parliament.
Musharraf revived and expanded the NSC proposal. He refused to give in to the demands of the political leaders to scrap the NSC and restrict his position and powers in the post-military rule political order.
Musharraf and the top generals want to keep the political initiative in their hands and do not want to give a free hand to the political leaders. This undermines the prospects of the current political arrangements enduring in the long-term.
During the Ayub Khan era, the intelligence agencies kept tabs on the opposition political leaders and those who were viewed as a threat to the regime. Now, some of the intelligence agencies are actively involved in politics. They manipulate the weak and fragmented political parties to create a pro-government political coalition. Pakistan’s politics cannot be fully understood without taking into account the role of the intelligence agencies.
What happened on October 27, 1958, had a far-reaching impact on Pakistan’s politics and society. It marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the military and pushed the political forces to the periphery of the political system. These trends are now firmly established, although the political opposition challenges them.
Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst