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Focus | Remembering The Junejo Moment In Naya Pakistan

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The 29th of May is a very important date in Pakistan’s political history. It was the date on which a military dictator suddenly dismissed the country’s Prime Minister from his post. The significance of the dismissal of Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo has often been understated in Pakistan.

To be sure, the then President General Zia-ul-Haq had selected him as the Prime Minister thinking that he was going to be a weak, pliable one. Junejo came from a political background in rural Sindh but was little known in the corridors of Pakistani power-politics.

But in 1985, Junejo began to challenge the power of the ruling military junta for the most outrageous of reasons – parliamentary and political principles! He dared to term the country’s policy towards neighbouring Afghanistan to be a question for civilian politics, even entering into peace negotiations on that count. He allowed the resumption of activities by the country’s repressed political parties. And he even called for bureaucrats and military officers to ride in smaller vehicles.

The story of his dismissal from office is a very interesting one: not least because of its lessons for today’s politics.

It played out in the following manner: the Prime Minister had just returned from a visit to China, and was addressing a press conference, when journalists began to leave. The then Defence Minister, Rana Naeem, asked the journalists as to why they were leaving the Prime Minister’s press conference in this way.

It transpired that General Zia-ul-Haq had called a sudden press conference at that very time, for a very important announcement. From his Presidential residence, he announced the dismissal of PM Junejo’s government and fresh elections.

Muhammad Khan Junejo challenged his dismissal via the country’s judicial system. The comportment of the judges during the proceedings suggested that Junejo might even be reinstated. Journalist Nasir Malik recalls that when the court asked the ousted Prime Minister to present his version, Junejo began to receive full protocol outside the courtroom. Vehicles from the Prime Minister House also arrived. It seemed as if he would walk out as Prime Minister once again.

But Junejo was not heard on his day in court. Instead, the court announced in its decision that his government was not to be restored.

Why did this happen? The truth of the matter emerged years later. And the inside story concerned two messages.

One had been sent to the court by the military, expressing displeasure over the decision that the judges seemed to be en route towards. This had been revealed years later during a hearing of the Mirza Aslam Beg case by Waseem Sajjad – wherein he admitted that he had been the person to convey this message to the judges. Waseem Sajjad was a senior lawyer, former law minister and chairman of the Senate.

The second message had been sent by the judges to Junejo. They said that they would reinstate him if he accepted the date for elections as announced by General Zia-ul-Haq.

Rana Naeem was present on the occasion and he recalls that he advised Junejo to accept the judges’ condition, arguing “What difference does it make? We have to contest elections anyway!”

But Junejo refused, saying “No it’s against the principles. I am the Prime Minister I will call the election, in my own time.”

The court’s decision in the case was a contradictory one: it acknowledged the dismissal of Junejo’s government as unlawful and also ruled against his reinstatement.

Why had General Zia-ul-Haq turned against his own chosen Prime Minister? For one, it was the political and democratic activities of the Prime Minister: he had paved the way for the end of martial law in the country. The exiled opposition leader, later Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto also returned to the country during the Junejo era – receiving a rapturous welcome in Lahore. The Junejo administration did not place any restrictions on her political activities. In fact, the Prime Minister even invited Benazir Bhutto the All Parties Conference (APC) being convened on the question of Afghanistan – something which went down very poorly with the military junta. Perhaps the whole possibility of a political end to the conflict in Afghanistan did not appeal to the ruling generals.

There were other things which did not go down well with those in power at that time. Muhammad Khan Junejo had announced in parliament that senior officials will no longer use expensive foreign cars and would instead travel in locally-manufactured vehicles. At that time, this was the humble Suzuki FX. Having made his announcement, the Prime Minister himself left the Parliamentary premises in a Toyota Corona rather than the official Mercedes.

Then there was the matter of cuts to state expenses. Junejo was a well-to-do landowner from Sanghar district, but preferred frugality. Aside from asking generals to ride in small vehicles, he also raised questions on the President’s expenses for the first time. It is reported that General Zia-ul-Haq was particularly vexed by this. It must be remembered that this was an era when after years of martial law and involvement in the US-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan had led to a significant increase in the coffers of the security institution as a whole, and the ruling generals in particular.

The effects of this influx of money were being felt throughout society: ostentatious display became more popular. PM Junejo spoke of a reversal of this tendency and a kind of accountability. But this accountability was not to be limited to politicians alone.

And then perhaps the decisive moment leading up to his dismissal came after the Ojhri Camp incident. An error at the munitions depot at Ojhri Camp led to Stinger missiles and rockets raining down on the twin cities of Rawalpindi-Islamabad for several hours. People thought that India had attacked and there was utter pandemonium. Upwards of 100 people lost their lives in this tragedy, including the father of former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

At that time, PM Junejo called for an inquiry into the circumstances of this incident at Ojhri Camp. This did not sit well with the ruling military junta at all.

Muhammad Khan Junejo’s political career can be seen as the product of a martial law: he was a minister under martial law, he was elected PM under non-party elections conducted during that martial law and he had been chosen by a military dictator. And yet he set as his goal the strengthening of the political and democratic system: something at which he largely succeeded. He brought about a lifting of martial law and ensured the restoration of fundamental rights. Moreover, he worked to end the repression of the country’s political parties and tried to take the country off the path of reckless, wasteful expenditure.

When it came to his efforts for strengthening parliamentary legitimacy and democracy, Muhammad Khan Junejo was perhaps far ahead of today’s leadership. And he stuck to his principles too.

Translation of an article by Umber Khairi originally published on Naya Daur Urdu.

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