1979 was the decisive year. If one is to pick a year from where Pakistan’s political and cultural slide towards a curious faith-based neurosis began, that year is bound to be 1979.
The lead up to this decisive year was 1977’s military coup against the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government by his own handpicked General (Zia-ul-Haq).
In one of his initial addresses to the nation on PTV, General Zia-ul-Haq suddenly cut away from his written speech, looked up into the camera and claimed that he knew why most people had stopped watching Pakistan Television (PTV): “Mujhey pata hai log ab PTV kyon nahi daikhtay. Chirian jo urr gain” (I know why some people have stopped watching PTV. All the birds have flown [from the channel]) (1)
While announcing one of his many promises of holding fresh elections, (none of which he would ever fulfil), Zia had persuaded the Jamaat-i-Islami and some conservative anti-Bhutto politicians to join his martial law regime.
The Jamaat members were given a free run of the ministry of information, and one of the first acts of the ministry was to devise a brand new censor policy for PTV and the cinema.
A list was drawn banning a number of actors, actresses, producers and playwrights from appearing on PTV (because they were deemed pro-Bhutto). (2)
The same list also contained names of certain Pakistani films, songs and PTV plays that were not allowed a re-run because they were either labelled ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ or ‘subversive.’
For example, songs like Naheed Akhtar’s ‘Tutaru Tara Tara’ and Alamgir’s ‘Daikha Na Tha’ were judged ‘obscene,’ while plays like Shaukat Siddiqui’s ‘Khuda Ki Basti’ – a 1973 play based on Siddiqui’s novel about poverty and crime in Karachi’s slums – were not allowed a re-run because the new Jamaat-led censor board thought the play glorified socialism, an ideology the Jamaat claimed was ‘atheistic’.
The new Ministry of Information also ordered the destruction of all recorded speeches of Z A. Bhutto from PTV’s archives and video library, and disallowed the usage of the words ‘Bhutto’, ‘Jamhooriat’ (democracy) and ‘socialism’ in plays, talk shows and news bulletins.
Zia gradually adopted the anti-Bhutto Pakistan National Alliance’s election slogan of ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa,’ explaining it as an expression of what Pakistanis wanted, using it to continue delaying fresh elections because he claimed his military regime had to ‘cleanse the society and politics from corrupt and un-Islamic elements’ before people were subjected to another bout of elections.
Even before Zia formally announced his Islamisation policies (in 1978), the Jamaat-run ministries had already set the tone for what was to come by banning a number of TV commercials, songs, and performers and re-cutting certain films that had been approved by the preceding censor board.
The idea was to prepare the ground for the full implementation of ‘Islamic laws and culture’ – an initial step in Jamaat leader and scholar, Abul Ala Maududi’s overall thesis on the formation of an ‘Islamic state.’
Maududdi was an important figure in the early shaping of Zia’s Islamisation process. Zia was known to have handed out books written by Maududdi to young officers. (3)
By 1979, the Jamaat-i-Islami was convinced that it had (through Zia), finally managed to make its way into the corridors of state power, and even though its leader Maududdi’s original thesis envisioned an Islamic revolution brought on by a society that had been systematically ‘Islamised,’ the Punjab leadership of the party attempted to hasten this process by encouraging Zia to quicken the dishing out and implementation of ‘Islamic laws.’
Then in 1979, Maududdi died.
As Zia started to introduce unprecedented Islamic laws, society stood still, as if in a limbo between what had passed and what was about to come.
This static, uncertain state of the society was reflected in the way it reacted to certain prominent events in 1979.
In July, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that its Skylab satellite that had been orbiting the planet since 1973 had developed a fault and was expected to fall to Earth. (4)