On a cool winter day in 1999, I started walking towards St. Patrick’s High School from Rainbow Center, Saddar. Although it was a short walk there were several contingents of Army commandos, rangers, and police.
Close to the school gate I was asked for my school ID when though I was wearing the uniform and then finally, I went inside. I was confused about all this, as were other students.
Then the reason for all this security became clear. Newly self-appointed Chief Executive of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf had come to his alma mater to meet his former teachers and school administrators. Among them was Father Todd who had been a strict disciplinarian when Musharraf had been a student at Pats. It was a proving to be rather tense affair, the most powerful man was in the school with all the trappings of power.
Then the Chief Executive turned to Father Todd and lightly said, “You used to cane me till I could barely sit. You can still do it.” Father Todd guffawed, we all laughed, and Musharraf pointed his stick like a gun towards us. The ice was broken. The Chief Executive was showing himself as a man of the people.
Years passed; events happened. 9/11 made Musharraf the darling of the West. The pariah was suddenly popular. On the MIT campus the word “Musharrafic” came in vogue for a short while, loosely meaning to go from an extreme bad state to an extreme good one through no action on one’s own part. Agra led to high hopes, only to be dashed on the issue of Kashmir which has held hostage the fate of people of two nations. The 2002 “elections”, war on terror, liberalization of media, “enlightened moderation”, the India-Pakistan cricket series, and more.
Another winter day in Karachi. In 2004 the inaugural All Pakistan Musical Conference was being held at the National Academy of Performing Arts. The most famous names of classical music were assembled from all over the subcontinent. Imran Aslam was holding forth against military rule, a group of journalists hanging on to his word. I was listening, riveted.
A child of the Zia days, I was firmly against any dictatorship, but it seemed fellow thinkers were in minority. Pakistan was going through an economic boom, Karachi was developing, the people seemed hopeful and happy.
The musical event was reaching a crescendo. The singer on the stage just started a famous ghazal when an organizer briskly walked and urgently whispered to her. “I have been told that a special guest is on his way,“the singer said.
“This is his favorite ghazal so will be performed when he is here. I shall sing another song for you.” Knowing looks were thrown around. But ultimately inaccurate. We thought the “special guest” is Sindh Governor Ishrat-ul-Ebad as the Governor House was right next door. We were wrong.
I was sitting near the front and suddenly felt the people behind me starting to stand up. They started clapping. Then whole throng of thousands parted to let a man through. It was the President. Responding to greetings with military precision he made his way to the front and sat close to the stage. Then apologized for interrupting the program and was soon humming and swaying with the ghazal that had been promised him.
The people were excited, they seemed happy, they seemed hopeful. A populist military dictator. Maybe they wanted a benevolent despot. They certainly seemed to have one.
Years passed. Economic slowdown. New army chief. Steel mill. Iftikhar Chaudhry. Protests. Lawyer’s movement. Benazir’s death. New government. Impeachment. Failed launch of party. Death of the political dream. Courts. Exile. The Musharraf chapter was closed. Probably forever.
Another winter day in 2017, this time in Dubai. I was to interview Musharraf for a book.
We met in his comfortable but unassuming apartment in Dubai, I starchy in a business suit, he sporty in a golf outfit. I was told by his staff that I had 30 minutes, the “President” has tee off soon. We talked for a good two hours. Childhood, Karachi, the presidency, successes, failures, regrets.
Most of the regrets were about what was already public: NRO, the mishandled situations, the reference, the forced political alliances. Some were off the record. He was candid and had retained a sense of humor, handy for a former President now in exile.
Then again, that has been the fate of many of Pakistan’s rulers so perhaps it was not so strange.
I reminded him about his cutting response to an Indian journalist in Delhi who had boasted that India can walk over the border any time. “Fine, but just remember that our nuclear weapons have not been made for Shab-e-Baraat”, was his response which resulted in peals of laughter. I told him I was against dictatorships, but the invoking of “Shab-e-Baraat” was a smooth touch, very Urdu-speaking in its esoteric irony. You can take the man out of Nazimabad but cannot take the Nazimabad out of the man.
Years passed. Prosecution. Sentencing in absentia. Reluctance to face the wrath of the courts in person. The fading from public eye quickened. The era had long finished. Now even the shadows were lengthening and lightening.
The news of ill health would be blasted on news channels, each trying to outdo the other in announcing “breaking news”. Some would declare him dying, even dead. I cannot imagine what his family would go through. Now it’s over. The channels finally have their breaking news.
On April 19, 1951, General Arthur MacArthur said in a speech to the Congress quoted the lines from a ballad by Gene Autry, “Old soldiers never die–they just fade away.” MacArthur was wrong, old soldiers fade but they do die. The Musharraf era was flawed and left wounds on the country. It had its supporters, it still does, but like many things the legacy is complex and imperfect.
However, there is no denying the fact that it was an era, book-ended by the coup on October 12, 1999, down to the final exile on March 18, 2016. There have been four governments since he hung his uniform, civilian and hybrid. But it is hard to think of them as epochal.
Musharraf continues to drive extreme viewpoints. Many Karachi-wallas remember him for the development that took place in his tenure. Many Karachi-wallas remember him for the mayhem on May 12, 2007. Some people remember him for the GDP growth. Others remember him for the long-term damage done by laissez-faire economic policies.
Some remember him for the opening up of media. Others for the damage done by an unfettered media. Some remember him for the liberalization of society. Some remember for his alliances with the religious parties. Some remember him for the war against terror, some for the drone attacks.
Some remember him for a good relationship with the west, others remember him for dragging Pakistan into their war. Some remember him for the peace initiatives with India, others remember him for Kargil.
Some remember him for exiling the dynastic political elite, others remember him for allowing them back into politics.
Some remember him for coming into power, some remember him for overstaying in it. Some remember him for Lal Masjid, others also remember him for Lal Masjid. It is paradoxical, it can be oxymoronic. But it did define an epoch.
Love him or hate him, many remember General Pervez Musharraf (retired). Some will continue to do so.
The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners
The writer is an independent researcher and author of 'Unravelling Gordian Knots'. His Twitter handle is Sibtain_N
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