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The long shadow of Zia’s legacy

Divisive, negative and problematic

The long shadow of Zia’s legacy

This year, August 17 marked the 30th death anniversary of General Ziaul Haq (1922-1988), making us wonder how robust and pervasive his legacy has been to this day.

It is the legacy of Zia’s era that religion has gained an over-riding importance and become the key determinant of the trajectory that Pakistani politics has taken. The governance structure punctuated with religious overtones that we witness also harks back to the Zia era. Enmeshing of the term ‘Muslim’ with the idea of a ‘citizen’ accorded extraordinary powers to clerics with the result that the ‘non-Muslim’ was singled out as a peripheral entity. Such an individual was divested of full rights, which otherwise is the entitlement of a citizen.

More perilous was the crystallisation of sectarian identities within the Muslim population. Prioritising religion over state had catastrophic results for the polity.

The assumption is that Pakistan’s political history is marked with either the legacy of Muslim League or that of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. However, it is actually Ziaul Haq who has left an indelible and irrevocable legacy which permeates into not just our political but our social lives as well.

Zia was haunted by contradictions. Those who carry his legacy and those who defy it are all embroiled in those contradictions. On the one hand, there are forgotten and unfulfilled promises of his years in power, like holding of the elections, and on the other are claims of piety and modesty that have since become hounding cries used to ostracise the already marginalised communities. The legacy of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution as well as the draconian Hudood Ordinance are all reminders of how Zia instituted a system of exploitation based on outward displays of piety.

The persecution of minorities, media censorship and suppression of individual liberal rights may have begun under Bhutto, but under Zia they found a zealous enforcer who had all the coercive might of the state at his command. The result was an increasingly polarised, suffocated and stigmatised society.

His eulogisers in the Urdu media have lost potency over the past decade, but there are those who still feel indebted to him. Indeed, some of them remind us every year of his achievements, and above all his piety. They most often highlight Zia’s restructuring of a weakened and demoralised army into a force that defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. They also claim there is no accusation of financial corruption against Zia’s own person.

Above all, they remind us of the religiosity and outward piety of the dictator; that he was meticulous in praying and would leave meetings to join prayers is projected as an example of how chaste and pious he was. Not surprisingly, he instituted the requirements of ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’ for those who aspire to public office, thereby initiating a witch-hunt against those who do not wear their piety outwardly, that continues to this day.

Zia’s emphasis was on individual piety, something that his followers invoke in his defence. This is the kind of argument that is sometimes advanced to defend regimes accused of corruption and genocide, by saying that a certain leader does not have any taint of corruption, therefore asking for legitimacy for his oppressive and corrupt regime.

The question to be asked is: even if the leader concerned is a man of unimpeachable personal character, what about the collective downfall witnessed under him? Zia’s apparent personal piety does not exonerate him of the massive socio-political degeneration of society that his regime brought about. The collective must be considered to have more importance and weightage than the individual. So, whatever Zia’s personal qualities as a human, the collective called Pakistani society became less inclusive, less tolerant, and less united due to his policies.

To these valiant defenders, one must reply that the fall of the Soviet Union also brought the specter of terrorism, as well as a culture of Kalashnikovs, drugs, and a race for the acquisition of status symbols that lacerated the fabric of society. Anybody who remembers the 1990s would attest to the negative and abiding legacy of the Zia era. The rise of gun violence, leading to police encounters in the 1990s; the brandishing of arms in public; the display of Pajeros to flaunt wealth and spread terror on the roads; and the rise of drug abuse on campuses were the defining memories of the 1990s. In addition, secular violence and intolerance increased as a direct result of the rise of a particular brand of religiosity under Zia’s nurturing. Sectarian organisations like Sipah-i-Sihaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehreek-i-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jaffaria also became powerful and violent aggressors during that period. Years later, the Lal Masjid debacle was the culmination of that particular legacy.

Like all non-elected rulers, Zia also faced the question of legitimacy. In that sense, Bhutto’s ghost kept haunting him. His Secretary of Interior Roedad Khan confirms this in his autobiography Pakistan – A Dream Gone Sour. It is telling that Roedad Khan, considered close to Zia, comments on the turnout for the 1984 referendum through which Zia tried to generate legitimacy. Roedad Khan calls the turnout “embarrassingly low”.

The absence of a popular mandate drove Zia to implement the draconian policies that he thought would find some resonance and popular acceptance among the larger public. Public lashings satiated the public’s appetite for violence. The ability to accuse an enemy of violating the Hudood and leaving that enemy defenceless in the face of a mob pleased those segments of society who are psychologically repressed and regressive. As a result, a criminal psyche became the national characteristic.

It is also important here to note that a majority of Zia’s followers outside the religio-political class came from the Urdu-speaking middle class. These followers crystallised into the MQM, and the divisive and regressive politics of Altaf Hussain over the next two decades may be seen as a continuum of Zia’s legacy. The legacy of Zia’s years in power is best exemplified in the mindset of the Altaf Hussain’s brand of ethnic politics.

It may also be remembered that the Muslim League (both its N and Q variants) is a remnant of Zia’s experiments. However, it is even more important to emphasise that several of the leaders who later went on to form the core of the anti-Zia PPP, for example Yousuf Raza Gilani, were also products of the 1985 party-less elections. Similarly, several of those who are now seen at the helm of politics in the PTI were also Zia proteges.

In short, Zia’s legacy is largely divisive, negative, and problematic. It continues to haunt our social and political lives, and seems likely to do so for decades yet.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

One comment

  • Jamil Soomro, New York City

    With the coming of Imran Khan as the Pakistan’s Prime Minister finally Zia’s legacy
    has died and gone forever from Pakistan.

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