Asghar v. Aslam

Published in Dawn

A not-so-great man once said that all political careers end in failure. When it comes to M. Asghar Khan, however, we’re told the gentleman’s career never quite took off to begin with. He was a hero from another time, or so the story goes – outfoxed by feudal barons, outmuscled by generalissimos, and overwhelmed by a system that was never meant for good men anyway.

That assessment is unfair. Asghar Khan’s life was no less than a triumph; he was on the right side of history with stunning consistency, in uniform and out, even at times when the world was against him.

As commander-in-chief of the air force, the youngest-ever, it was Asghar Khan’s reforms and Nur Khan’s execution that held off its Indian counterpart, thrice in size, in 1965. Because Ayub had to start a war, the air marshals had to save a country.

It was again Asghar Khan that rubbished the West Pakistani claim that Bengalis didn’t meet the physical requirements for army recruitment. He did away with it for the PAF, reasoning that chest and height measurements ‘had little to do with combat effectiveness.’ 1971 proved him right in the most tragic way imaginable.

Post-retirement, he opposed all Los Presidentes: Ayub, Yahya, Zia, and Musharraf. His struggle against Zulfi Bhutto saw his party members beaten, his wife and sons arrested, and his house burnt to the ground. Yet his voice never wavered: Punjab’s hegemony had to give way to twelve provinces; the operation in Balochistan was a crime; and the jihadi project could not be controlled.

He was a moral titan in life. In death, however, the final chapter of Asghar Khan’s story has yet to be written. It all hinges on a Supreme Court case, Asghar Khan v. Aslam Beg, and it may be the last chance this country has to do him proud. In another sense, it’s also a chance to lend some dignity to our democracy, long derailed in the dark.

Which brings us to the man Asghar Khan took to court, Mirza Aslam Beg. No two gents represent more contrasting visions: the commander-in-chief versus the chief-by-accident. Beg emerged on the scene courtesy the Zia regime’s fondness for harmless vice-chiefs. He was accused of being complicit in the air crash that ended the same regime soon after: invited to board Pak-One, Beg miraculously opted out. When Pak-One crashed, Beg circled the wreckage a few times, and then sauntered over to Rawalpindi to play kingmaker.

He painted himself in more glory as chief: he backed the disastrous offensive in Jalalabad. He sided with Saddam when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Finally, in Asghar Khan v. Aslam Beg, the drama is documented: the year was 1990, and generals Beg and Durrani were appalled by the idea of Benazir winning another election. So they shook down a bank, opened a slush fund, and handed out sacks of cash to their inflate-a-bubble IJI. Benazir lost.

Why we know all this is because the perps have admitted to it again and again. General Beg told the Supreme Court he had full knowledge of the affair, and would even update the then-president about it. General Durrani crowed as late as last October, ‘These were not normal times, nor was I personally averse to seeing PPP bite the dust.’ If good spies are the ones you never hear about, Asad Durrani never got the memo.

To reiterate: a band of Napoleons confessed to the crime, motive, and money. They stole an entire election, and paved the way for a Punjabi juggernaut in the shape of Mian Nawaz Sharif (ironically late of Asghar Khan’s Tehrik-e-Istiqlal). It also marked the original sin for Mian sahib: though he may have subverted PMs Junejo, Benazir I, Benazir II, and Yusuf Raza before and after, the man aspires to Hamiltonian democracy today.

The sort of democracy the Supreme Court decision in Asghar Khan hints at: ‘General Aslam Beg and General Asad Durrani acted in violation of the Constitution…their acts have brought a bad name to Pakistan and its Armed Forces…the Federal Government shall take necessary steps under the Constitution and Law against them.’

Yet no such step has been taken. The PTI sought the decision’s implementation as late as 2017; it clearly had a massive change of heart in government. The FIA, which falls under the interior ministry, went as far as moving the Court to close the case for want of evidence. It was only Asghar Khan’s heirs that honoured his memory and opposed the move, citing the FIA’s basic failure to even approach the brigadier central to disbursing the funds.

The chase goes on. Seven years since the verdict, a single question arises: if Asghar Khan won, why didn’t Aslam Beg lose?