The Quaid landed in Karachi on August 7, 1947, from Delhi, a week before the Partition of the subcontinent became official. He was greeted by a jubilant crowd anxious to get a glimpse of the great leader who had given them the gift of freedom. Cries of fealty to Pakistan rose like waves, ebbing and flowing, never betraying the horrors facing millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs who found themselves in Pakistan.
A week later, Punjab was ablaze. Village after village was plundered; Hindus and Sikhs were killed by Muslim mobs and Muslims by Sikh and Hindus hordes. Railway platforms in Lahore were littered with bodies, lying in pools of blood — congealed, hosed down by railway staff.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s own stay in Karachi would be short lived. He died just over a year later at his residence in the city.
His was the first of many arrivals that have generated much hope and celebration but have led only to much bigger gloom and despair in 70 years of Pakistan’s existence. Statesmen, military rulers, politicians — several of them have landed in the country either from exile, imposed and otherwise, or from landmark visits abroad over these seven decades. Almost always, they returned bringing promises of a better tomorrow. Regime changes, diplomatic breakthroughs and political revolutions — all kinds of transformations have been anticipated from these homecomings. And almost always, the aftermath of these arrivals has panned out differently.
Liaquat Ali Khan’s return from the United States in May 1950 set the tone for Pakistan’s foreign policy, marking the beginning of a checkered history of diplomacy and deception, friendship and mutual frustration between the two countries. American President Harry S Truman is said to have warmly welcomed our prime minister; the American press, buoyed by Khan’s decision to shun an invitation from Moscow in favour of Washington, was also congenial to him. The New York Times described his anti-communist statements as “heartwarming”.
Back home, though, Khan’s decision to visit America before visiting any Muslim states did not go unnoticed. Pakistan-America relations also experienced an immediate downward spiral due to our reluctance to assist them in the Korean War and our resentment over their refusal to help solve the Kashmir dispute. The optimism with which Khan had flown across the seas to make new friends – shopping lists for military hardware and requests for aid in hand – began to wane. America’s refusal to side explicitly with Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute, along with Khan’s assassination at a public rally in Rawalpindi the following year, all but soured the Pakistan-America intimacy that Khan had hoped for.
The Tashkent Declaration signed between President Ayub Khan and Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966 was an unexpected conclusion to a war that Pakistanis were told they had won comprehensively. Why, then, did Ayub Khan assent to hand over Indian territory that Pakistan had occupied, without any mention of a plebiscite in Kashmir or a promise of its future settlement? Everyone expected a public explanation from him upon his return to Pakistan from Tashkent. His silence only aggravated public misgivings. Soon people were on the streets, showing their anger against him for losing a war on the table that Pakistan had won in the battlefield.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s resignation as foreign minister would deeply hurt Ayub Khan’s regime. Along with many other factors, it eventually led to his stepping down from the presidency in March 1969 — just ahead of a civil war that would create another country out of the eastern part of Pakistan.
A 32-year-old Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, from exile in Europe, seven years after her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged and nine years after his government was overthrown in a military coup by General Ziaul Haq. When she landed in Lahore on, April 10, 1986, hundreds of thousands of supporters of her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) received her, anticipating a revolution they thought she was bringing with her. It was “a bad year for dictators,” she told the sea of people who came to welcome her, referring to Ferdinand Marcos’s ouster from power in the Philippines.
Around two-and-a-half years later, Haq’s military aircraft exploded in mid-air and Benazir Bhutto became Pakistan’s – and the Muslim world’s – first female prime minister following the general elections of 1988.
Her second return to Pakistan on October 18, 2007 – after another eight years of living abroad – turned out to be dramatic in a different way. Her image as a champion of democracy was tainted by the memory of her two earlier stints in power – marked by mismanagement and embezzlement of public funds – and President Pervez Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance, which had granted her amnesty from trial on corruption charges. Still, a large number of PPP supporters flanked her motorcade as it slowly made its way from Karachi airport to the Quaid’s mausoleum. It was after midnight – when the swelling rally had reached Karsaz – that two explosions ripped through it, killing around 150 people and injuring countless others.
Benazir Bhutto herself would be killed a couple of months later in a terrorist attack at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh, named after Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was also assassinated there. To this day, both murders remain unsolved.
Nawaz Sharif’s return to Lahore from exile in 2007 – together with Benazir Bhutto’s arrival in Karachi a month earlier – signalled the twilight of Musharraf’s reign. Under pressure from the Saudi government, which has close ties with the Sharif family and had hosted them during their years in exile, Musharraf could no longer prevent his homecoming. Sharif’s party would soon regain power in its traditional stronghold of Punjab after the 2008 general elections, paving the way for him to become prime minister following the polls in 2013.
Since then he has struggled to retain his grip on power. A military unwilling to cede ground on national security and foreign policy and an opposition perpetually on the streets, accusing him of poll rigging, corruption, money laundering and lying, have not let him savour his unprecedented third stint as the prime minister of Pakistan.
There was much speculation over Musharraf’s popularity before he arrived in Karachi from abroad in March 2013. His aides and supporters were expecting a rousing welcome even when security concerns had dampened their plans of a mass rally. In the end, he was received by a handful of supporters.
Soon after his arrival, he was engulfed in prolonged courtroom dramas over his involvement in Nawab Akbar Bugti’s murder in 2006 and the Lal Masjid siege the year after. His trials reached a crescendo when a special tribunal started trying him on charges of high treason for imposing emergency rule in 2007.
Three years of courtroom appearances and multiple sick reports later, he would win a judicial reprieve to travel abroad. He is nowhere close to another return home.
Asif Ali Zardari’s return home, late last year, from what is widely believed to be an 18-month-long hiding abroad is a significant development for him. After making some harsh comments about the military establishment in the summer of 2015, he was known to have run away from Pakistan to avoid trial over charges of corruption he had allegedly committed during his five-year stint as the president of Pakistan.
His return was also significant for his PPP, which is struggling to shore up support in Punjab where it has been trying to win elections on its own for the last three decades. He hoped to give a fillip to the party’s fortunes with his legendary deal-making skills.
But while his return has not led to his immediate arrest and trial as many had anticipated, even his own supporters have questioned the wisdom of his involvement in parliamentary politics. Senior PPP leaders like Aitzaz Ahsan have argued that his decision to contest in the next elections and become a member of the National Assembly will keep the party under pressure over corruption charges against him and will, thus, undermine efforts by his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to mobilise the party’s rank and file in Punjab. Zardari, it seems, is already having second thoughts.
This was originally published in the Herald's February 2017 issue as part of the '70 years of Pakistan' series. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.