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August 5, 2019

South Asian politics in the 1970s


August 5, 2019

Up until now, in the five earlier parts of this series we have discussed the politics of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the 1970s. We have seen how Mujib, Bhutto, Indira, Daoud, and others were removed and how state organs and institutions acted and responded in some similar and some contrasting ways.

What are the conclusions that we can draw and what are the lessons in this, if any, for students of history, politics, and sociology?

Perhaps, a major conclusion is that democracy and politics are not easy to master. Democracy emanates from politics and if politics is mutilated, democracy is also mauled in the process. When states and governments behave violently or intolerantly often in the name of national integrity, societies too become violent. What was common among Daoud, Bhutto, Indira, Mujib, and Taraki? They did not tolerate opposition. Had they allowed the opposition to function, perhaps the result would have been different.

When Sardar Daoud took over power in 1973, he could have initiated multi-party democracy. Instead, he opted for one-party rule and tried to crush his political counterparts in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Had he understood that political diversity is the essence of democracy, some initial steps towards stabilization could have been taken. The same applies to the PDPA: the dominant Khalq faction did not tolerate their own comrades from the Parcham faction and tried to eliminate or expel them, resulting in the rapid depletion of their own cadre.

Mujib fought for democracy in united Pakistan, but in his separate country, Bangladesh, he tried to crush all political opposition. He concentrated power in his own hands and in the hands of his family members. Just like Daoud in Afghanistan, Mujib in Bangladesh introduced a single-party system by banning all other political parties. He imposed curbs on the media, and curtailed the power of the judiciary, resulting in his personality cult and hero worship. When that happens, it doesn’t take long for the hero to be labelled a villain by the same people who hailed him or her as a hero.

Bhutto, though his struggle for democracy was much shorter than that of Mujib’s, was arguably slightly better than Mujib. Bhutto did not establish a one-party system as Daoud and Mujib had done. Bhutto did not ban most newspapers as Mujib did in 1975. Bhutto’s Federal Security Force was apparently less ruthless than Mujib’s National Security Force, though they both targeted the opposition. The same applies to corruption: the PPP in the 1970s was ostensibly less corrupt than the Awami League (AL) had become in Bangladesh.

Indira Gandhi in India was somewhere in the middle. She did not opt for a one-party system as Mujib did nor did she dissolve the main opposition party as Bhutto had done with the NAP in Pakistan. Indira did not initiate a case such as the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case, which was initiated by Bhutto against the main opposition; nor did she call the main opposition traitors and foreign agents. But Indira had empowered her son as the second in command as Mujib had done with his sons. Bhutto didn’t do that.

In all, if we see closely, both Bhutto and Indira were ready to learn; as became evident when Bhutto agreed to negotiate with the opposition. Towards the end, Bhutto was a changed person and had he been given time he would have learnt more to coexist with the opposition. As mentioned earlier, democracy and politics are difficult to learn and it takes time for a society to accept both as a social mechanism. I am tempted to give here examples of Benazir and Nawaz Sharif who both showed evidently more maturity in their later years.

As for the other actors in the South Asian Drama, the army in India kept away from politics and the political processes took their course. Hence, we see a continued political process which, at times, is prone to produce the likes of Modi. In Afghanistan, the armed forces staged a coup that was dubbed a revolution but resulted in a countercoup. The same happened in Bangladesh – coups and countercoups. In Pakistan, the coup of General Ziaul Haq was devastating for society.

Non-political interventions resulted in more damage and deteriorating law and order than was the case previously. Another result was ethnic, religious, and sectarian divide among the people – who were forced to opt for identities other than political.

The judiciary was subdued by Bhutto, Indira and Mujib alike. It can be argued that in Bangladesh and India the judiciaries were seen to regain some space. In India, the mutilations of the constitution at Indira’s behest were soon reversed by the judiciary and parliament. The same happened much later in Bangladesh. In Pakistan, amendment after amendment was introduced and then undone – and then reintroduced.

So, lesson number one is: the political process must continue and political forces should learn from their mistakes. If institutions and individuals realise they have erred on the way, there is no harm in acknowledging and correcting themselves.

We may conclude by saying that the executive, the judiciary and the legislature are all important but the judiciary has much more on its shoulders. When the executive violates human rights, it is the judiciary that should come forward. Had the judiciary played its due and independent role in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan in the 1970s, the political trajectory of this region would have been much different.

Violations of human rights do more harm than good to national integrity and stability. If the judiciary infringes upon executive functions it oversteps its authority and, in the process, matters are made worse. If the legislature passes laws that harm both the judiciary and the executive, or harm the interests of the people, especially of religious minorities, the result is strife and insecurity. The bottom-line is that some learning should take place; if it doesn’t happen we keep moving in circles, as we, for the most part, kept doing for the past seven decades.

This review of the 1970s ideally should have included China and Iran too, as they also went through revolutionary changes in the late 1970s; but I leave that to another series of articles.


The writer holds a PhD from theUniversity of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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