By Haseeb Asif
It is now generally agreed upon by most people that Ziaul Haq’s martial law changed Pakistan’s destiny for the worst. Most, but not all. A friend’s mother cried when Zia died because he prayed five times a day and was from the Arain clan, like her.
In Saba Imtiaz’s 2014 novel, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!, her protagonist quips: “If there is ever anything you can count on at Pakistani cultural events, it’s that Zia – dead for longer than most people can remember – can still be blamed for everything.” I share her scepticism.
I don’t believe in the Great Man Theory of history. I don’t believe individuals can single-handedly reshape the fate of millions. I believe great upheavals are caused by institutional and structural pressures and individuals only respond within a limited number of rationalised choices.
Whether Zia was there or not, there was going to be a conflict in Afghanistan between two opposing superpowers with assorted Saudi interests thrown in; the Iranian Revolution was going to happen anyway and bring sectarian violence in its wake; Pakistan’s third martial law was well in the making before he imposed it. Military dictatorships in Pakistan have a certain sense of fatalism about them. Habib Jalib, the people’s poet jailed multiple times by Zia for penning verses against his rule, once wrote: “Virsay mein humay yeh gham hai mila, iss gham ko naya kya likhna? (We’ve inherited this sad state of affairs, why write this sadness as something new?).”
Zia’s greatest legacy is said to be Islamisation but it had already taken root with the passage of the Objectives Resolution in 1949. The Council of Islamic Ideology, too, had been set up in 1962 by Ayub Khan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s economic socialism had very clear Islamic overtones.
His efforts to unite Muslim countries were his major foreign policy initiatives. It was his 1973 Constitution that made Islamic Studies compulsory in schools. In 1974, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims. In 1977, a federal law prohibited the sale of alcohol to Muslims. Even our nuclear programme was deemed to be making an Islamic bomb. The anti-Bhutto movement of 1977, too, used the demand for Nizam-e-Mustafa (the system of the Prophet of Islam) to replace Bhutto’s social democracy. All that was before Zia came along.
This historical determinism, however, does not absolve him of his tyranny and the havoc he wreaked on the Constitution, democracy and political parties. Things could have been different with another tyrant. To start with, there was nothing certain about Zia’s rise to the top. Bhutto bypassed seven senior lieutenant generals to make him army chief because he was deemed to be the most disinterested in politics. But as we now know, the army acts as an institution regardless of the individual heading it.
Consider the circumstances: the United States was not happy with Bhutto over the nuclear programme; the landed and industrial elite were not happy with Bhutto over land reforms and nationalisation; the army was not happy with Bhutto as per declassified American documents. All this encouraged Zia to carry out his premeditated coup d’état that turned into a coup de grâce for democracy in Pakistan.
It is no secret that Zia lent heavily on Islam and ulema due to lack of popular support. Some of his concessions to ulema still haunt us to this day. The penal code was amended to add the death penalty as a punishment for blasphemy and increase the scope of what constitutes blasphemy. In 1979, he promulgated the Hudood Ordinances with punishments such as lashes for adultery. In 1980, he set up the Federal Shariat Court to hear appeals in cases under the Hudood Ordinances. In 1981, he set up a hand-picked consultative body, Majlis-e-Shoora, to act as the federal parliament. It was packed with ulema nominated by him. He also introduced mandatory zakat deduction from bank accounts, leading Shias to rise in violent protests.
By 1984, he was feeling so confident about the strength of his constituents – comprising ulema, spiritual leaders, business community and the military – that he decided to hold a referendum that asked if people wanted Islamic laws in the country and if their answer was to be yes then that automatically meant that they wanted Zia as the president of Pakistan for the next five years. Nobody came out to vote. “Marhoomeen shareek huay, sachchai ka chehlum tha (The dead participated, it was the 40th day of mourning for the death of truth),” Jalib said of the level of public participation in it.