Pakistan’s Bazaar Movement of 1977

BY TARIQ MAHMUD

The month of March is a grim reminder of the events of 1977, which, in the ultimate, changed the course of the country’s history. What started as a protest by the combined opposition, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), against the results of the general elections, morphed into a virulent movement engulfing Pakistan’s urban centres.
Reeling from the trauma of the country’s dismemberment in 1971, Pakistan was steadily picking up the pieces. It had a leader in the form of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was agile and on the move. While one had every reason to disagree with his style of governance, the fact remains that there was a visible thrust forward in every walk of public life. While the jiyala culture visibly perturbed the breed of senior civil servants, fresh entrants like many of us, were being trained to work in this new environment.
As a result of the PNA protest movement, which continued for a number of months, General Ziaul Haq got the excuse to take over, as he rolled up the civilian political order. From then on, Pakistan has never been the same. A consensus-based Constitution was pulverised and customised according to the whims of the new ruler.
In the latter part of 1976, I was posted at Shujabad, a small subdivision in the Multan district. One day, I got an urgent message to reach Multan. On asking for the reason, I was only told that such messages were being circulated throughout the country. After I reached Multan and met other colleagues, we still had no clue about what was going on and why we had been called there. Following a long wait, we were told that the government had nationalised the ginning factories as well as the rice husking and flour mills throughout the country. We were ordered to rush back to our stations and take over these units.
There were two ginning factories in Shujabad, which were immediately taken over, along with their inventories. Some staff members had been residing in the compounds of these factories. In all the flurry that followed, their household items and domestic pets were also taken over as there was no one to guide the officers on that count, with the senior officers preferring to remain silent when asked on how to deal with such a situation.
The following day, the general manager of a taken over factory visited me and requested that he be allowed to retrieve his passport from the safe of the office. His request was obliged with. He thanked me and was confident that he would be able to raise such a unit in two years, but at the same time, felt strongly that the government would never be able to run these units. The gentleman was entirely right: despite the state-owned corporations being packed with civilian and retired armed forces officers, all such ventures hit rock bottom in just a few years’ time.
Party stalwarts exhorted the move as a fulfillment of the Socialist Dream, while small-time businessmen and traders were in a state of shock. These were family businesses, with many people in central Punjab having set up small units in their own residential compounds. This move to nationalise them divested the owners off the right to own and run their businesses that they had been operating for generations.
The general elections of 1977 saw the birth of the PNA, a platform for the opposition parties. The ruling party was all set to sail through, but the fact that the PPP got a two-third majority, was still a big surprise for many. The PNA refused to accept the results and made a demand for re-elections and for the government to resign. Acting as a Returning Officer during the elections, I do not recall any organised plan of rigging, but there were reports of booth snatching and stuffing of ballot boxes. The most bizarre thing was the unopposed election of the prime minister, with his opponent reportedly kidnapped and prevented from filing his nomination papers. This encouraged all the chief ministers to ensure their electoral victories unopposed, and as it turned out, all of them were duly elected in the same manner. The rest is history.
The PNA, during the violent agitation, besides its other demands, gave a religious veneer to them, as it called for the enforcement of Nizam-e-Mustafa. Politico-religious parties were successful in capturing the centre stage. In Multan, we saw the ascendancy of the JUP, the JUI and the Jamaat-e-Islami.
A few months after General Zia’s takeover, I was at a gathering where I ran into the renowned political science scholar, Professor Khalid bin Sayeed, who was visiting Pakistan. The professor was keen to know the reasons behind Bhutto’s overthrow. A stalwart of the opposition movement at the gathering was of the strong view that it was the Nizam-e-Mustafa movement that precipitated Bhutto’s fall. I differed from this view and said that to my mind, it was primarily the Bazaar Movement, which was triggered and fuelled by traders, shop-keepers and affectees of the taken over small-scale commercial and industrial units, which was one of the major causes of Bhutto’s overthrow. It was a matter of record that while the protests were manageable in many parts of the country, they were most virulent in Karachi and the key urban centres of Punjab.
Many years later, I asked a leading ideologue of the PPP as to what impelled the government to take over these units. After a pause, he started reflecting on the great icons of the Non-Aligned Movement and their socialistic discourse. The PPP seemed to have been carrying the same baggage, not realising that the times of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gamal Abdel Nasser were over.
It is a moot point as to why most of our rulers, rather than exiting the power corridors through laid down procedures, have too often been victims of errors of judgment that have led to their downfall. This is indeed food for thought for our analysts.

-the writer is a public policy analyst and a former federal interior secretary of the Government of Pakistan

-by arrangement with The Express Tribune