Zia’s decade of darkness
The unenviable position of the most invidious of Pakistan’s rulers, among democrats and dictators alike, is occupied by Ziaul Haq, the dictator-general who died 21 years ago on Aug 17.
The outward display of humility and affection masked a duplicitous and vengeful personality. These were reflected in the retrogressive and punitive measures the general unleashed on the benighted nation during more than a decade of unmitigated dictatorship.
Whether it was the knotty Article 58-2(b), the much-exploited blasphemy laws or the promotion of a misogynous mindset, Pakistan and Pakistanis continue to be haunted by Zia’s dark decade.
Ziaul Haq was a usurper. He overthrew an elected and arguably Pakistan’s most popular prime minister. As justification he cited danger of civil war as a possible consequence of an impasse in talks between the government and the opposition. This was a lie. It is now fully documented that by July 4, 1977, both protagonists — the PPP and the Pakistan National Alliance or PNA — had reached an agreement to be announced by the prime minister the next day. The general could not have been unaware of this development. His move was purely and simply a power-grab.
The second deception was his avowal of not having any political ambitions, his sole aim being to hold elections within three months in October 1977. But when it dawned upon him that the premier he had ousted continued to enjoy widespread public support, he, not for the first time, conveniently retracted on his promise. He announced that it was neither in the Quran, nor was it revealed to him to hold elections on Oct 18. The promised elections were postponed. The people were provided an insight into his real plans when he pronounced that the country could only be kept together by the armed forces and not by politicians. Obviously, the fact that barely six years ago Pakistan had disintegrated under the watch of a military junta did not seem to bother him.
The sinister general continued to dangle the election bait before the public, while proceeding simultaneously to transform Pakistan into an authoritarian, nay totalitarian state. The constitution was amended beyond recognition in a bid to further empower himself. The notorious Article 58-2(b) corrupted the parliamentary form of government by transforming it into a semi-presidential system. The president now had the power to dissolve the National Assembly. (This power was used to dismiss the prime minister in 1988 while he was on an official visit abroad.)
He arrogantly proclaimed that he was here to stay and would not allow anybody else to rise. So much for the humility and selflessness that some of his apologists were attributing to him. On April 4, 1979, amidst curses from the masses and condemnation from the international community he hanged the legitimately elected and the most accomplished of Pakistan’s prime ministers. Soon thereafter elections were cancelled and political parties banned.
Military courts, armed with massive powers by the chief martial law administrator, spread terror among the people. Political activists and journalists were incarcerated. Some were even flogged in consonance with the punitive punishments that martial law orders had prescribed.
Responding to criticism on the dismissal of certain journalists for demanding restoration of democracy, the general angrily shot back that the punishment was too lenient. They should have been hanged in order to teach others a lesson. The press was muzzled and students and trade unions banned. The right of habeas corpus was annulled for the first time in the history of Pakistan. The judiciary could no longer review the legality and constitutionality of executive decisions.
Despite the comprehensive use of force to quell dissent, the question of legitimacy continued to stalk the regime. It was decided to give an ideological underpinning to Zia’s authoritative rule. In messianic mould the general told BBC that God had entrusted him with the mission to bring Islamic order to Pakistan. A referendum asking the people whether they supported Islamisation resulted in an embarrassing 10 per cent turnout. The ban on political parties was kept intact.
Islam, it was claimed, did not provide either for political parties or for western democracy. The Council of Islamic Ideology was entrusted with the task of preparing a blueprint for an Islamic ideological state. Primitive punishments including amputation of limbs, public lashings and stoning to death were promulgated. Blasphemy laws were introduced which have since become an exploitative instrument in the hands of militants and extremists to manipulate public sentiment and to target minorities.
A raft of retrogressive measures was directed at women. The evidence of two women was made equal to that of one man and the amount of compensation payable for a murdered woman was half that for a murdered man. Women appearing on TV were required to cover their heads and female dancing on TV was prohibited. The regime’s sinister plan involved the establishment of a theocratic-authoritarian state where Gen Zia backed by the military would reign supreme over a fearful populace. It was completely at variance with Quaid’s vision of Pakistan, which was neither theocratic nor authoritarian.
This then is Gen Ziaul Haq’s dark legacy. Lack of space does not permit a chronicle of his foreign policy failures. The roots of all major problems facing Pakistan today lie in Gen Zia’s dark era. To name only a few — the habitual interference of the armed forces in civilian affairs, weakening of state institutions, democracy deficit, rise of intolerance and militant extremism, sectarianism, problems of the Afghan refugees, drugs and the Kalashnikov culture and perennial constitutional problems. To roll all this back is the unenviable task of the present democratically elected government.