Benevolent dictatorships?

Published: May 12, 2010
The writer is an independent social researcher (

The writer is an independent social researcher (

In a recent TV talk show, veteran journalist Hasan Nisar propounded the theory of benevolent dictatorship as the panacea that would resolve Pakistan’s numerous problems of governance, terrorism, loadshedding and inflation afflicting Pakistan. Quite apart from the fact that the phrase ‘benevolent dictatorship’ is an oxymoron, this kind of argument reflects a naive understanding of history. A brief look at our four ‘benevolent dictators’ and their legacies is enough to convince even the most simple-minded among us that reliance on a saviour to release us from our agonies is a seductive but dangerous national fantasy.

Our first saviour, Ayub Khan, increased centralisation and authoritarianism in the 1962 Constitution thereby engendering feelings of resentment and deprivation in East Pakistan which was treated like a colony and its citizens as second-class Pakistanis. The central government often took steps which it said were consistent with the ‘national interest’ but the fact was that the same ‘national interest’ invariably coincided with the interests of the West Pakistani elite. The per capita income disparity between the two wings was 30 per cent at the time of Ayub’s takeover and rose to 61 per cent by the time he departed.

Severe income disparities even within West Pakistan resulted from a massive concentration of wealth in a very few hands. Voices against inequality were raised but the Press and Publications Ordinance was passed to muzzle the media. All human rights were suspended and student unions were banned. His system of Basic Democracies ensured that there was absolute centralised control over the population, exercised through indirectly elected assemblies at the mercy of an all-powerful president. The Constitution of 1962 created the Council of Islamic Ideology to judge whether laws conformed to a particular version of religion. In order to win elections against Fatima Jinnah, he had the ulema declare that a woman could not be head of state in Pakistan. To top it all, Ayub Khan took Pakistan into the 1965 war with India with devastating consequences.

In the short time allotted to the second benevolent saviour, Yahya Khan, Pakistan lost half its territory and the majority of its population in 1971. The mass genocide in former East Pakistan and the widespread rape and violence, are sources of permanent embarrassment. The refusal to transfer power to the duly elected Awami League on account of its demand for maximum provincial autonomy shows the mind-set of our ‘benevolent’ tyrants.

As a nation we have been unable to undo his legacy of our third dictator, General Zia. Terrorists, extremists and murderers run amok in our cities and villages, and discriminatory laws against women and religious minorities, introduced during his facile Islamisation drive, still remain on the statute books. The judiciary, educational curricula and the media remain distorted through his introduction of Shariat courts, hate material and a war mongering mind-set. And this time again we lost territory in the form of Siachen glacier.

The fourth saviour was hailed and welcomed as a liberal democrat by a naïve civil society, a clueless donor community and a misguided intelligentsia. Even before his ascendance to the throne of absolutism, he had shown his ‘prowess’ in the Kargil misadventure, nearly sparking off another war with nuclear-armed India. His seven-point agenda, which included accountability and provincial harmony, lies in tatters with accountability totally reversed through the infamous NRO, and the latter destroyed through the militarisation of Balochistan and the kidnapping and murder of Baloch activists and leaders. Pervez Musharraf decimated the judiciary, incarcerated and baton-charged lawyers and civil rights activists, and admitted diverting the anti-terror funds from the US towards India.

We need land reforms and wealth redistribution to usher in just democracy; not more saviours, benevolent or malevolent.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 12th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • May 12, 2010 - 12:59AM

    As a nation we are impatient with the weak governance of political governments and yearn for the steady martial hands of a “benevolent dictator”. Initially, the trains run on time, everyone gets a kick up their backside. Orders are passed an instituted and it seems that the state functions like clockwork. However, it is only a small segment of society that benefits in the long run. Each spell of military rule has been coupled with high inequality and consumption that sows the seeds of discontent.

    Those people who call for the military or a government with a firm grip on the yolk of power are the handful of beneficiaries rather than the vast majority of the country who are further marginalized in society as they loose the ability to articulate their local concerns through a political voice (regardless of how effective or ineffective politicians may be.

    Its amazing that some people would openly advocate the disfranchisement of their fellow citizens for supposed gains.

    Both political and military governments have made the same mistakes, while the military is considered the lesser of two evils. Both forms of governments have abused human rights, both forms of governments have gone to the IMF cap in hand, both forms of government partner with the industrial and mullah elite to further their control, both indulge in undemocratic practices, and the list goes on. Recommend

  • Fakhar
    May 12, 2010 - 1:30AM

    Thanks Dr Rubina Saigol for highlighting this issue and exposing Mr Hasan Nisar. For people like Hasan Nisar the dictators are always benevolent. Such statements are considered deposit in the intellectual bank of tyranny and multiply with unimaginable interest rate and transacted in the shape of expensive plots and what not for these shameless journalists.He should apologise to his viewers for insulting them by making such irresponsible assertion.Since politicians seem united against any adventurism now such calls are coming from certain journalists who have started a new brand of journalism-that is khaki journalism. Recommend

  • faraz
    May 12, 2010 - 2:27AM

    Why would a general disturb the status quo? Army is the main benificiary of the system currently in place, it is itself a major part of the problem. Welfare of the people isnt possible without changing the security oriented policies persued by the army. A welfare state would put an end to the privaleges enjoyed by the army. Thus, a revolutionary general would first have to target the army, before taking on other institutions of the state. Revolution through military dictatorship is just not possible.Recommend

  • cheema
    May 12, 2010 - 4:24AM

    democracy is needed not mafioso raj voted in by the people Recommend

  • Khan
    May 12, 2010 - 11:37AM

    Favouring a benevolent dictatorship is nothing more a case of complete mediocrity of intellect.
    People like Hassan Nisar should ask themselves: How does one guarantee that a dictator once he takes power will be ‘benevolent’? After all one cannot chose him as by definition a dictator imposes his views upon the populace unilaterally.

    A dictator can be harsh and ruthless – a Stalin, a Mugabe or a Saddam Hussain – and could use his powers to slaughter thousands, or impose an intolerant strain of religion – such Zia-ul-Haq. Or else he could be mentally unbalanced like Idi Amin (or Jean-Bédel Bokassa who, proclaimed himself Emperor of Central Africa in 1976.

    The best solution for the likes of Hassan Nisar is to ship him off to Zimbabwe where he can attempt to teach Robert Mugabe his ideals of a benevolent strong man. If he returns bodily intact, he should count himself most fortunate.Recommend

  • Faiz Siddiqui
    May 12, 2010 - 11:58AM

    We are very unfortunate nation that even after 63 years we have not been able to decide what should be our system of governance, still we are engaged in a debate whether Pakistan should be an Islamic state or securlar. Whether there should be a one-man rule or a democratic one.
    Secondly we become fadeup immediately with our rulers, we dont have patients. What I have observed, urban educated class really have always been in favour of military rule, as they feel comfortable with it.
    Democracy and democratic system (bad or good) should be allowed to run in any shape,than people will judge them and hold them accountable through vote.

  • Ammar
    May 12, 2010 - 12:34PM

    Hassan Nisar basically is a confused man, trying hard to look like an intellectual. This confusion has further been fueled by the commercialization and animation of his infamous (among sensible people) writing effort captioned as ***Choraha***. The thing is that privileged class in Pakistan is not ready to give people their right to rule. We will have more episodes of same kind of nonsense in near future.Recommend

  • Mansoor Khalid
    May 12, 2010 - 12:48PM

    People who propose a dictatorship as a solution to over problems are nuts. Unless you make sure public participation in national decision making, you will never have a liberal and a society aware of its role in politics.Recommend

  • ali
    May 12, 2010 - 1:03PM

    His views are just too amateurish to take seriously. He should take a long tour of Balochistan, FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to realise what any form of dictatorship has done there and whose remnants are still active doing what they do best: destruction and division.

    I agree with some of his views on the failure of our society and false pride, but these statements of his have made him lose credibility completelyRecommend

  • Dr. Altaf ul Hassan
    May 12, 2010 - 1:06PM

    This is profoundly disturbing,humiliating,insulting and disgusting as well for pakistanis who have always opted to reflect their opinion through ballot box.The dilemma of our bankrupt pseudointellecuals is that they cry for democracy during dictatorship and adovacate dictatorship during democracy.I call this intellectual corruptionRecommend

  • ali hamdani
    May 12, 2010 - 2:53PM

    Do we really have any more space for them in the country?? Not really. We want a liberal society which will help us stand shoulder to shoulder with other developed countries. We cant have dictators and eliminate the common man as that will give free hand to more terrorism.Recommend

  • Zulfiqar Haider
    May 12, 2010 - 3:04PM

    Any one elected on the will of the nation should be given a chance and that would be the best thing to do.Recommend

  • AA
    May 12, 2010 - 4:24PM

    Hasan Nisar is not bad all the time. But he is a bit of a loose cannon. That is what he was when he pleaded the case for “benevolent dictatorship”.Recommend

  • Cheema
    May 12, 2010 - 6:57PM

    we need to be ruled by the current lot (AZ and NS) for a while, only then will majority ask for another strongman. Enjoy so called democracy without food and power for a while :).Recommend

  • Meekal Ahmed
    May 12, 2010 - 9:32PM

    Dr. Saigol,

    An excellent article except for your take on Ayub Khan. He made mistakes to be sure but he was the first and last person who actually built and nurtured institutions. I have given just two examples in an article that I have submitted to this esteemed paper: the Planning Commission with Ayub Khan as its Chairman and PIA under Nur Khan and then later Asghar Khan. Two world-class institutions, respected, emulated and praised and the best in the developing world.

    I am sure you remember those times well. Look at them now! What a fall there has been, my countrymen. Recommend

  • Dr. Ghulam Murtaza Khuhro
    May 12, 2010 - 9:35PM

    Present variant of democracy is not an ideal or even a satisfactory system, nevertheless, any kind of dictatorship cannot be a substitute to it. In fact, if ‘ mediocre intellectual ’ is articulate and audacious, he/she poses a very painful challenge for prudent people and can play havoc to public opinion. And now a days, we have more than enough of them.Recommend

  • May 12, 2010 - 9:56PM

    There is no such thing as democracy in Pakistan. For democracy you need democrats. Unfortunately the unqualified persons sitting in assemblies and parliament are far from that – thanks to the feudal system. Hundreds of thousands of acres given to them by the British was nothing but a reward of their loyalty to the Raj which is a shame. The worst things that the British could do to us was the creation of this treacherous class in the presence of which democratic system cannot work in Pakistan.

    The so-called benevolent dictators were in a position to easily do away with the feudals but instead they opted to muster their support to stay in power for longer periods of time. To expect any good from the usurpers is like living in fools paradise.

    The key to our problem is justice and proper education – the education which is capable of awakening the people to enable them to stand against injustice.Recommend

  • Ammar
    May 13, 2010 - 11:43AM

    The key to our problem cannot be materialized as we can only manage to extend 2 percent for Education and health for obvious reasons. British had established a bureaucratic and fudal system to manage their colonies across the world and everybody knows that this system is still in place in our country. The change we can observe is that bloody darkies have elevated to the level of ‘BLOODY CIVILLIANS’. And the bloody civilians don’t deserve to get more than 2% for their health and education. Do they?Recommend

  • M. Shahbaz Butt
    May 13, 2010 - 1:45PM

    in this talk show the views of Hassan Nisar about current government and democratic situation in Pakistan shows there is something secret behind nisar’s views who was talking about “benevolent dictatorship”.Nisar again welcoming a new dictator, it might be from establishment or from some where else.
    but i agree with Nisar’s views about current condition of Pakistan we must need a strong and unbiased ruler. Recommend

  • samina
    May 13, 2010 - 5:24PM

    we need a strong, honest and patriotic leader. Recommend

  • Fakhar
    May 13, 2010 - 10:40PM

    @ Meekal Ahmad
    Most of the time your comments are sensible but never knew that you are fan of self aclaimed Field Marshal Ayub about whom Quaid e Azam had remarked he should not be promoted beyond Brigadeer. Please read some history how Fatima Jinnah was mistreated by Ayub and ultimately killed.Seeds of sepration for cultivated by Ayub in East Pakistan. So called green revolution was outcome of the research and seeds of American scientists.Millions of square kilometers large tract of land called Aksai Chin were given to China by him.Do you remember what the hell his sons Akhter Ayub and Gohar Ayub did to karachiites during referendum between Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah and Ayub?This corrupted Local Bodies System is also his legacy that he used to win the refrendum by threatening, bribing and influencing members of basic democracies. Do you know who were those twenty families who accumulated wealth and all resources were concenterated in their hands? Do you know who was qudratullah shahab who established Writers Guild to mallow down the criticism of Ayub by writers? Do you know who was Altaf Gauhar the architect of infamous Press and Publication Ordinance that suppressed freedom of press and take over of progressive papers limited that published excellent English and Urdu newspapers Pakistan Times, Mashriq and Imroz.Please read some history of journalism too. Who sold Pakistani rivers to India under Indus Basin Treaty? You have mentioned the Planning Commission of Pakistan and PIA. Planning Commission of Pakistan’s five year plans are in the libraries and do some research about wider gaps between planning and implementation.This commission is directly responsible for our poor economic performance over the decades.Most of its economists were more sincear to IMF, World Bank and richest of the country.For sixty years they told you that Pakistan is Agricultural country and look at your agriculture sector that you have to import fertilisers, seeds,agro machinery and tractors.Air Lines are not symbol of progress for a country like Pakistan where air travel is still a luxery to be enjoyed by affluent classes. Rail networks and public transport systems or under ground metro and tram services are the scales to measure the progress of any country and its common man. No offense meant it was just an attempt to put record straight.Recommend

  • Saleem Qazi
    May 14, 2010 - 3:00AM

    Dr. Saigol, I think you have missed the point Hasan Nisar might have been trying to make. I say so because the list of the dictators you have mentioned is very limited. In addition to the four names you have mentioned, the list must include dictators like Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto, and above all Z.A. Bhutto who always silenced opposition through sheer state power, kidnapping and torture. The reason we do not include this political lot among dictators is our short-sightedness. To be honest, at times, I feel Zia was a politician par excellence. ‘Democrats’ such as Butto, Benazir, sahrif and rest of the lot could not match his political manoeuvrings. The fact is pakistan had only one person who truly believed in and practiced democracy, and that was great Jinnah. So Hasan has a point, we as a nation love dictators, more benevolent the better.Recommend

  • Fakhar
    May 14, 2010 - 10:22AM

    @Saleem Qazi,
    Only religious extremists,some terrorist outfits or those bound to their allegience to Araien kinship will place Dictator Zia in such esteem for rest of the nation his grave in Islamabad is sore for the eye.Recommend

  • Ammar
    May 14, 2010 - 1:08PM

    @ Fakhar,
    Excellent answers!Recommend

  • faraz
    May 14, 2010 - 4:05PM

    @saleem Qazi

    You have to chose between Jinnah or Zia, you cant admire both. Zia is easily the worst leader we have ever had. Religious extremism, sectarian terrorism, drug mafia, afghan black market, kalashnikov culture, ethno linguistic hatred, Beradri politics, intolerance, national ideology based on hated etc are all gifts of the Zia era. Youth indoctrinated under the ideology introduced by Zia, is now busy blowing up schools. Ghost of Zia will haunt this nation for a very long time.Recommend

  • Nawaz Bhatti
    May 14, 2010 - 7:27PM

    I would tend to disagree with Ms. Saigol when completely disregards Mr. Nisar’s view as an outcome of immaturity and lack of grip on history. She is right when she choronologically enlists the failures of four military dictators but it does not mean that by ‘benevolent dictatorship’ we can refer only to military dictators rather it can be otherwise i.e, a powerful civilian ruler with all the credentials that are required for an examplary governance as witnessed in different eras of history. we have got nothing from this so called democracy in our country. Mr. Nisar may be pointing towards a dictators who may have nothing wrong in his preson except the tag of dictator who may be sincere, courageous, scruplous, wise, and fulfilling the standards of effective adminisrration. Recommend

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