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Dec 11, 2020

Remembering Sherbaz Khan Mazari, the Dehradun Cadet Who Helped Frame the Pakistani Constitution

Imprisoned dozens of times by both military and civilian rulers, he remained steadfast in his devotion to a federal, democratic Pakistan. There aren't many left like him.
Sherbaz Khan Mazari. Photo: Twitter/@EngrAamirBhatti

One cold night in October 1947, some Muslim boys were woken up from sleep in their dormitory at the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College (RIMC), Dehradun. They were told to pack up quickly and leave; their destination was Pakistan. Communal riots had broken out and there was an imminent threat to the RIMC. They were first escorted by a Gurkha posse and later evacuated to Lahore under Colonel (later general) Tikka Khan.

The boy was Sherbaz Khan Mazari, who was to later make his mark as a formidable opposition politician in Pakistan and help frame the country’s constitution in 1973.

Sherbaz Khan was born on October 6, 1930 to Sardar Murad Khan a Baloch tumandar or paramount chief of the Mazari tribe. He lost both his parents, in quick succession, while he was still an infant. His elder brother Balkh Sher was selected the tumandar, and the boys became wards of the British court.

He was initially educated at the Queen’s College, Lahore – a girls’ school, which only admitted boys for elementary schooling. Later on, he went to the Aitchison College, Lahore, the RIMC, and the Harvard Business School.

Despite his preeminent tribal position and elite schooling and company, Mazari developed a disdain for certain aspects of tribal-feudal customs, at an early age. In fact, he never wrote the title ‘sardar’ or ‘tribal chief’ with his name. He once saw a man being tortured, on the orders of a local elder and intervened to stop him. While he was a living, breathing example of the traditional tribal values like hospitality and chivalry, he was exasperated by the brutality and oppression practiced in the name of tribal code.

He ended up building his own residence away from his ancestral Rojhan, in an oasis called Sonmiani. His other favorite abode was in Karachi. He wrote in his memoir that in Sonmiani, “the first thing I did was to abolish iniquitous feudal practice. The sharecroppers on my farmlands got a two-third share thereafter.”

Another tribal practice he abhorred was the so-called “honour” killings, especially of women suspected of adultery. Under the local tribal customs, the only reprieve left for a woman so condemn, was to seek sanctuary with the tribal chief. Mazari opened his doors to women thus facing imminent torture and death, without regard to their alleged “guilt”.

Also read: Years Ago, Two Urdu Poets Had Spoken on the Dishonour of Honour Killings

But one custom he could not buck was a pre-arranged marriage to the daughter of the Bugti tumandar Nawab Mihrab Khan, whose son the legendary maverick Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti also happened to be his close friend. The marriage had taken place just after Mazari had married his beloved wife Souriya, a Kashmiri-origin lady from the Hyderabad Deccan. Mazari was a moderate, forward-looking man who practiced what was good in his tradition and tried to reform what he felt was regressive and unjust. And the same held true for his politics. He stood for what he thought was right, even if it meant going against his family or friends. A fiercely independent man, he freely spoke his mind, even if it meant that he had to pay a price for it.

While he remained involved with politics at a local and tribal level, Mazari started his active political career with Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the country’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah, after much persuasion from politicians of all creeds, had decided to take on Pakistan’s first army ruler, General Ayub Khan and ended up contesting the presidential elections against him. She called him a power-hungry dictator.

General Ayub Khan, who reportedly said,

General Ayub Khan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The 1965 elections were warped and the deck was stacked against Jinnah, who ended up losing. But her struggle clearly laid the foundations of two competing visions for Pakistan.

One being the army’s view that the country would be a national security state, with military jingoism and politicised Islam at its core. There would also be a nebulous Pakistani identity at the expense of national, cultural and linguistic identities and rights of federating units.

The delivery method was to be the assorted variations of a controlled democracy that have since been tried.

On the other hand, Jinnah and her associates, who were formidable leftist and progressive voices, envisaged a federal, democratic state with an abundant quantum of provincial autonomy and civil liberties.

Striving for these ideals became Mazari’s political raison d’être. Another cause, which remained extremely close to Mazari’s heart was the plight of the Baloch in Pakistan.

Three out of the nationalist Baloch leadership quadrumvirate Khair Bukhsh Marri, Sardar Attaullah Mengal, and Ghaus Bukhsh Bizenjo were in the leftist-socialist National Awami Party (NAP), led by the Pashtun nationalist Abdul Wali Khan, a dynamic liberal politician in his own right and son of the Frontier Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The fourth Baloch leader and Mazari’s personal friend Akbar Bugti had been banned from politics by Ayub Khan but was informally affiliated to the NAP.

Mazari was courted by the NAP leadership, its nemesis the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by his other friend Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the rising political star of the era, Air Marshal (retired) Asghar Khan, to join their respective parties. But he preferred to remain independent. He had a knack for reaching across ideological divides and overcoming petty issues that have remained the bane of our politics.

After the successful agitation by the Combined Opposition Parties (COP) against Ayub Khan, and his medical conditions taking a toll on him, the army eased him out and General Yahya Khan replaced him as a military ruler. The Yahya Khan regime conducted the general elections in 1970, in which Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami League (AL) swept the polls in East Pakistan and scored an overall majority as well.

Also read: Fifty Years of the Cyclone That Triggered a Civil War and Created Bangladesh

The PPP won the Punjab and Sindh Provinces, while the NAP fared well in the former Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan. But the military regime and certain West Pakistani politicians were loath to give, on one pretext or another, the Bengalis what was rightfully theirs. Despite having captured 53% of the national assembly seats, the AL was denied a right to form the government. Bengali demands for autonomy swiftly morphed into a call and struggle for independence. The Pakistan army, abetted by a coterie of politicians, went to war against its own people, which culminated in a genocide of the Bengalis, an incredibly humiliating defeat and surrender of the haughty Pakistan army, but most importantly the independence of Bangladesh.

General Yahya Khan abdicated power to his foreign minister and the largest vote-getter in Pakistan, Bhutto. Bhutto became the civilian Chief Martial Law Administrator and the President of Pakistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mazari himself had scored a resounding electoral victory from his native region in Dera Ghazi Khan and returned to the rump national/constitutional assembly of Pakistan. On the eve of the assembly’s inaugural session on April 14, 1972, scores of elected-parliamentary leaders and party heads – both religious and secular – descended upon Mazari to convince him to contest against Bhutto for the president of the constituent assembly. He was the unanimous opposition candidate. His friend, Bhutto who wanted the position unopposed, was miffed and called him to withdraw his candidature.

But Mazari rebuffed Bhutto’s friendly and unfriendly overtures, citing the spirit and sanctity of the democratic process. Bhutto trounced Mazari 104 to 39, but the Baloch retained the democratic high ground. He was subsequently elected the leader of an independent caucus in the assembly and signed the constitutional accord on behalf of that group that paved the way for adopting the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan and parliamentary form of government. The PPP and its allies ruled at the center and in the Punjab and Sindh provinces, while the NAP and the Jamiat-al-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) formed coalition governments in the NWFP and Balochistan.

Bhutto, however, was not the type to be content with power-sharing arrangements. He orchestrated the dismissal of the NAP government in Balochistan on precarious law-and-order pretext, fired the party’s governors in Balochistan and the NWFP. The NAP-JUI government in the NWFP resigned plunging the country into a political crisis. Bhutto got the NAP leaders arrested, including Wali Khan’s father, son and later his wife. He, with the help of the army intelligence services fabricated a sedition case against the NAP, filed a judicial reference against the party and got it banned by the superior court on flimsiest of charges. The Baloch tribesmen took to the mountains and launched an armed insurgency.

Bhutto attempted to quell the resistance by deploying the army against the Baloch, an action that had the brutal echoes of the East Pakistan debacle, and made matters worse. Mazari tried his best to be an honest broker, pleading with Bhutto privately and also trying to placate his Baloch colleagues.

Sadly for him, his friend Akbar Bugti, who felt that he had been slighted by his Baloch friends in the NAP, opted to side with Bhutto and was serving as a governor in the province, virtually to rub it all in. Mazari moved resolutions in the parliament demanding a halt to the army operation in Balochistan. He reached out to Bhutto, Baloch and other opposition parties to find an honourable and peaceful solution to the imbroglio. But despite his knack for reaching out to both friend and foe with dignity, he was not able to break the impasse. The NAP was banned in February 1975 and its top leaders and active cadres were incarcerated by the Bhutto government, to face what became the infamous Hyderabad Conspiracy Case.

Mazari was dismayed but not disheartened. Though an independent parliamentarian, he went batting for the NAP and organised protests for restoration of the party and release of its prisoners. But Bhutto, feeling all powerful, would have none of it. He even fell out with Akbar Bugti, who ended up quitting as the governor of Balochistan. Bhutto’s rule was turning increasingly totalitarian, bordering on fascism. He had organised his party’s own paramilitary outfit called the Federal Security Force, brutalised his non-NAP political opponents as well, and above all defaced the 1973 constitution through assorted amendments.

With the NAP banned and its top nationalist, socialist and Marxist leadership under arrest, the progressive intellectuals and fellow travellers felt an urgent need to organise a new party. Mazari had made his mark inside the parliament and outside, challenging Bhutto’s every excess. Revered Marxist editor Mazhar Ali Khan and his wife Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, a leading Trotskyite herself, approached Mazari to head the new party. ‘Tahira Apa’, as we called her, had been Mazari’s senior at the Queen’s College. Other leftists like the defunct NAP’s general secretary Syed Qaswar Gardezi and parliamentarian Jennifer Musa, and nationalists like Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, and above all Begum Nasim Wali Khan – the wife of the imprisoned NAP president – pleaded with Mazari to lead the new party.

On November 6, 1975 a reincarnation of the NAP, called the National Democratic Party (NDP) was launched in Islamabad. Photo: www.pakpedia.pk

He eventually agreed and on November 6, 1975 a reincarnation of the NAP, called the National Democratic Party (NDP) was launched in Islamabad. Mazari was first appointed the party’s convenor and later elected its first president. It was a rather unique instance where an array of nationalists, socialists and Marxists had unanimously posed confidence in a man who technically didn’t check any of those ideological boxes. Mazari’s forte was his honesty, incorruptibility and fortitude in the face of immense odds and brute force. He was a democrat to boot, who did not believe in political expediencies and taking a shortcut to power.

While the NDP initially was a Pashtun-heavy party with a Baloch at the top, Mazari was eventually able to bring to its fold the former NAP stalwarts like Sardar Mengal and Bizenjo, albeit for a short period, when the Hyderabad Tribunal was eventually disbanded. In that, Mazari’s NDP was the last Pakistan-wide mainstream, multinational leftist party which included Pashtuns like Wali Khan and Ajmal Khattak, Baloch like Mazari, Mengal and Bizenjo, Punjabis like Habib Jalib and Begum Abida Hussain, Sindhis like Hakim Ali Zardari, Saraiki like Qaswar Gardezi, and Muhajirs like Abid Zuberi. And Mazari led the party for eight long years.

During those years, he frequently visited my hometown Peshawar, where I got to see him courtesy of my uncles who were in the NDP. He almost always wore a khadi shalwar-kameez suit and donned dark sunshades. His hair would invariably be trimmed short, perhaps a legacy from his days as an RIMC cadet. He usually spoke in short sentences at a fast cadence. He looked rather stern, but his warmth would quickly put one at ease. In fact, he contested the 1977 elections from Peshawar but lost that seat. He did win another national assembly constituency from Karachi though.

The events leading up to the 1977 were tumultuous, to put it mildly. The assorted opposition parties had had enough of Bhutto’s highhandedness. But Bhutto’s populist appeal was also not lost on them. Nine large and small political and religious parties forged what became known as the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) to throw a unified electoral challenge to Bhutto’s PPP. They included the NDP on left of the political spectrum, to Asghar Khan’s centrist Tehrik-e-Istiqlal (TI) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML), to the rightwing Jamat-e-Islami, Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam and Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Pakistan (JUP), as well as a few smaller groupings.

Mazari and Wali Khan’s NDP was a key force in the alliance. But come election day, the PPP claimed to have swept the polls. The PNA leaders were livid and called for the boycott of provincial assembly polls scheduled for the next day. The boycott was quite successful in the urban areas and many polling stations were deserted, prompting the PNA to morph it into a fully-fledged agitation against Bhutto. The elected PNA members, including Mazari, refused to attend the national assembly and take oath, plunging the Bhutto government into a mortal crisis.

Sections of the PNA were also hobnobbing with the army brass, which wanted to get rid of Bhutto. The PPP-PNA parleys focused on annulling the disputed elections, holding fresh polls, restoring the 1973 constitution in its original form without the amendments, disbanding the Hyderabad Tribunal and release of political prisoners. Headway was made eventually, and an accord was about to be signed, when General Zia-Ul-Haq launched his coup d’état and abrogated the constitution. The martial law that ensued was perhaps the most brutal and longest in the country’s history.

Rajiv Gandhi with General Zia-Ul-Haq prior to Indo-Pak official talks in New Delhi on December 17, 1985. Photo:PKK/December, 1985, M32RG/A63(9)

General Zia-ul-Haq tried to co-opt politicians. The NDP was the first one he approached with an array of goodies, including personal and political perks. Mazari rebuffed the overtures and declined to become part of a system that had come into being after trampling on the constitution, which he had helped draft. Many from the PNA’s other component parties joined the government. Mazari, however, insisted with the general to fulfil his pledge of holding the free and fair elections and transferring power to the elected representatives.

He also called upon Zia-ul-Haq to disband the Hyderabad Tribunal and release the NAP leaders and cadres. Zia-ul-Haq did dissolve the infamous tribunal, but the wily dictator kept postponing the elections on one pretext or the other. Mazari became particularly exasperated with the general, when the latter declared on a visit to Tehran disparaged the politicos, saying that even if he tore the constitution up and replaced with his own system, the mightiest of politicians would still follow him with their tails between the legs. Mazari concluded that the general was not cleansing the system, as he claimed, but was out to purge the politicians out of it completely. General Zia-ul-Haq ended up physically eliminating Bhutto through what in effect was judicial murder.

Mazari conferred with Wali Khan, Maulana Mufti Mahmud, and Piyar Ali Alana of the PPP to forge a challenge to the military regime. The problem he faced was that the PPP and the PNA had been at each other’s throat for half a decade. The PPP saw the trail of Bhutto’s blood leading to the PNA’s agitation. But it was also politically isolated and friendless. On the other hand, Wali Khan felt that Bhutto had imprisoned him, and his father, son and wife, as well as party members and ultimately banned his party. But Mazari rose to the occasion and conferred with Nusrat Bhutto, and persuaded her to join hands with the former foes in the PNA.

Through his powers of persuasion and unflinching commitment to democracy, Mazari was able to convince various parties from the former PNA to now form an alliance with the PPP against the military dictatorship. The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) was thus formed on February 5, 1981. Mazari not only helped bring the PPP out of the cold, but he also helped throw the first formal challenge to army rule. While the MRD’s track record is a mixed bag and it was not successful in toppling the general, who eventually perished in an air crash in 1988, it nonetheless denied legitimacy to the army rule and a party-less model of controlled democracy that Zia-ul-Haq had implemented in 1985.

The highest point of the MRD was an agitation campaign in August 1983, which was brutally suppressed by the regime, especially in Sindh. It also happened to be an emotional low point for Mazari, who was the MRD convenor at the time. On one hand, the PPP leadership was secretively engaged in talks with the martial law authorities and on the other many Pashtun leaders of Mazari’s own NDP first gave a tepid response to his call for protest, and then dropped out of it altogether.

Mazari was dejected. He took the responsibility for his party’s failure and wanted to step down as the president in early 1984 but was asked by the party to continue on. He had, however, made up his mind and in November resigned his position in favor of Wali Khan. He became further disillusioned with his party when the leadership impugned the 1973 constitution. Mazari resigned from the NDP in July 1985. The NDP led by Wali Khan, merged with three smaller factions in July 1986 to form the Awami National Party (ANP).

Mazari had continued to be a formidable opponent of the military regime and was eventually prevailed upon by friends to revive the NDP, which he did in September 1986. But it really wasn’t the same thereafter.

General elections were finally held in winter 1988, after Zia-ul-Haq’s death in a plane crash. Benazir Bhutto offered him a seat adjustment but Mazari politely declined and contested from his ancestral Rojhan as the NDP candidate. He lost but as he had himself said upon revival of the NDP, his goal was “missionary politics” than electoral victories. And in that he had succeeded throughout his long career.

Imprisoned dozens of times by both military and civilian rulers, he remained steadfast in his devotion to a federal, democratic Pakistan. In an increasingly dirty word of politics, he managed to conduct himself with dignity, honesty and poise. He always chose commitment over compromise, spurning the offers of high office and personal privilege. Extremely well-read and well-traveled, Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari was gentleman politician.

He died last week at age 90. Rest in peace Sardar Sahib, there aren’t many left like you.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.

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