It may be too early to talk of history’s verdict on Gen Ziaul Haq’s contribution to the Pakistani people’s miseries but he is likely to be remembered as one of the few who caused the greatest possible harm to Pakistan and its population.
Driven by runaway ambition to seize power at a time when the country’s political elite had found a way to resolve the PPP-PNA confrontation, which both sides had unwisely fuelled, and earned the dubious distinction of being the only dictator in the country’s history to be denounced by the apex court as a usurper. Then, during his decade-long rule hardly any part of public life in the country escaped his predatory forays.
Politicians and politics had been demonised in Pakistan ever since the bureaucracy’s rise to power in the 1950s but Gen. Zia pushed the process to its ultimate limit by engineering the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after a trial that will haunt the country’s judiciary for ever.
Bhutto was no angel and perhaps the people had more complaints against him than the contents of the charge-sheet drawn up by the Zia regime. But the people alone had the right to judge and punish him and this through a legitimate political process. By going all out to secure Bhutto’s hanging, Zia also strengthened the unsavoury trends towards the politics of revenge and violence.
Further, he demonised political parties and politics by taking the unprecedented step of holding non-party elections, the disastrous consequences of which, in the form of people’s alienation from democratic politics, are evident to this day.
Besides Bhutto’s hanging, Gen. Zia contributed to brutalisation of society in several other ways. By staging fully publicised hangings and floggings in public, he lowered the threshold of tolerance in society. And by obliging courts to enforce harsh, inhuman, and degrading punishments, he tried to deprive judicial authorities, as well as the people at large, of their prized traits of restraint and compassion.
Zia dealt other blows, too, to the judiciary’s independence and dignity. He abused the innovation of asking the judges to make an oath upon an earlier oath to squeeze out judges suspected of commitment to truth and justice — a perverse tradition followed by the next usurper. He also humiliated a chief justice by forcing him to grant him the power to amend the constitution by threatening him with dismissal. (That the CJ became an accomplice by buckling down and was discarded shortly afterwards is a different story.)
The media received its share of the Zia potion. He killed over a dozen newspapers with a single stroke of his pen. He also maintained a regime of press censorship for the longest period in the country’s history. In addition, he developed the art of corrupting journalists by distributing cash-filled envelopes among them and ordering public institutions to advance them loans (non-recoverable) although not all of them had asked for such favours. Finally, he not only threatened journalists of being hung upside down but also had some of them flogged.
Women were a special target of his malice but in contest with them he met his Waterloo. The more he tried to trap the women of Pakistan with his mantra of chader and chardivari, the more they came out and braved police violence and torture in dungeons at more than one torture centres. More women than ever took to the prohibited arts during the Zia period, which also saw the birth of a robust women’s movement that is still one of the redeeming features of public life in Pakistan.
Above all, Gen. Zia’s choice of means to deal with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, his role in distorting the concept of jihad, and his decision to wreck the Geneva Accords not only made Pakistan a victim of what is described as Kalashnikov and drug mafia but which also had worldwide repercussions. He is responsible, in no small measure, for the bloodshed in Afghanistan and the destruction of that country. And Ziaul Haq’s signatures can be seen on the images of the carnage going on in Arab lands.
It is a tribute to the saner elements in society and their resilience that resistance to Gen. Zia’s pernicious designs never ceased. Politicians wedded to democratic values survived the dark decade and so did judges of integrity and journalists and social activists blessed with the courage of their convictions. Yet, all of them put together have not been able to roll back Gen. Zia’s thorny legacy. In a sense, Pakistan is still living under the canopy planted by Gen. Zia, thanks to the changes in the laws of the country and its constitution made by him.
Gen. Zia’s greatest disservice to Pakistan and its society was an almost complete transformation of the state into a controversial, theocratic entity that its founder had declared it was never going to be.
He began by tampering with the statute book. The Hudood Ordinances of 1979, the system of state collection of Zakat, the Ordinance XX of 1980, the additions to the Penal Code’s chapter on offences relating to religion all led to excesses against women and members of minority communities and fanned sectarian conflicts, all of which continue unabated.
Even more serious was his mauling of the constitution. By inserting Article 2-A into the Constitution he made the Objectives Resolution a substantive part of the basic law. In a display of rank perfidy and bias against the minorities, he deleted the word ‘freely’ from the guarantee of respect for the non-Muslims’ faith from the text of the Objectives Resolution appended to the constitution as its officially approved version. The addition was unnecessary.
The framers of the Constitutions of 1956, 1962, and 1973 had incorporated the salient features of the Objectives Resolution in the text of the constitution. If they had retained the Resolution as a preamble the purpose probably was a) to explain the evolution of the constitutional provisions, and b) to indicate the sanction for the belief-related provisions of the basic law.
The harm done by the insertion of Article 2-A was that it generated ideas of it being in control of the entire constitution, a view that was totally untenable earlier on. It also strengthened the hands of Zia and his successors to undertake enactment of more religious laws.
Likewise, by creating the Federal Shariat Court, he unnecessarily created a parallel judicial system. Unnecessarily because the task of examining the legal code on the touchstone of repugnancy to Islamic injunctions was being done by the Council of Islamic Ideology (and completed since) and for testing fresh legislation the parliament and courts were in place. There was no reason, and none has been advanced since, that the normal judiciary could not perform the functions assigned to the religions courts.
The only result of elevating clerics to the highest benches is that land reform has been blocked and the state is able to keep interest-related laws alive only on the strength of a stay order.
The result of Gen. Zia’s efforts to make the constitution and the laws subject to belief is that Pakistan is facing difficulties in conserving its democratic foundations, the country has become the most notorious exporter of militants and their extremist doctrines, and the federal structure, egalitarian ideals, and good governance itself are in jeopardy. In a sentence, Gen. Zia robbed the people of their future.
It can be said, in Gen. Zia’s defence, that he was not the originator of many of the atrocious processes expanded by him. He was not the mover of the Objectives Resolution, nor the author of the Constitutions of the Islamic Republic. The declaration of Islam as the religion of the state (an inanimate object incapable of having any belief), and the assumption by the state of power to declare who is a Muslim and who is not, were all done by Zia’s predecessors in power. To a considerable extent, Gen. Zia built upon foundations of extra-democratic rule and religiosity that had been laid earlier and all those responsible for setting precedents for him must also share the blame for the people’s unending tribulations.
Also to be blamed are the rulers who have come after Gen. Zia. Their failure to undo his ignominious work is a stunning indictment of their failure to rid the people of a dangerous legacy.
Perhaps these rulers’ failure and Gen. Zia’s success are both rooted in a streak in Pakistani people’s psyche that is described by some as madness or an instinct for self-destruction. Their survival with dignity depends on their ability to purge their mindset of this malignancy.