It felt like a peaceful transition: no bullets were fired, resistance was minimal, and his political opponents celebrated the fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on the street. In truth, the military takeover was not an unexpected development. It was a contingency plan, prepared meticulously by Gen Ziaul Haq and his band of generals, in case things went awry.
Central to the coup d'état was Lt Gen Faiz Ali Chishti, the Corps Commander of Rawalpindi. Gen Zia affectionately used to call Gen Chishti his Murshid (mentor), such was the closeness of their relationship. Lt Gen Chishti was tasked with preparing a plan for the takeover, codenamed ‘Operation Fairplay’ — this strategy was to be executed if and when the time came.
On July 4, around 6.30pm, Lt Gen Chishti and Maj. Gen. Riaz Mahmood — travelling in a private car — picked up Gen. Khalid Mahmood Arif and proceeded to the Army House to meet with their chief. Gen Zia was already waiting for their arrival. By 11pm, all principle staff officers and directors had also assembled.
“I am sorry to have called you at this hour, but it could not be helped,” began Gen Zia. “I have asked Gen Chishti to implement my orders.”
About 15 minutes past midnight, Lt Gen Chishti left for his mission. “Murshid, don’t get me killed!” Gen Zia said to him as they parted. A phrase has now passed into legend in the Pakistani lexicon.
Once Gen Chishti departed, the others began discussing the subject matter of Gen Zia’s first speech on radio and television. Gen Arif was assigned the task to write the speech.
Around 2.15am, Gen Chishti returned and reported that the mission had succeeded. In merely two hours, Martial Law was well and truly in place across Pakistan.
The coup d'état caught Prime Minister Bhutto by surprise, even though the warning signs were all there. Bhutto thought that by including Article 6 in the constitution, no general would dare contemplate a coup. In fact, Bhutto seemed to have ignored Gen Zia’s caution at the first meeting during the talks phase on June 20: “If the agitation does not end, it can erode the army’s discipline and cause division in the ranks.”
In his book Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan 1967-1977, Rafi Raza, Bhutto’s special adviser, writes: “There were indications that the army was in contact with some Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) leaders. Quite apart from the certainty with which Asghar Khan gave assurances on their [army’s] behalf, there were persistent rumours that some agencies had a hand in the troubles. Plainly, there was merit in the argument that the army leadership had not reconciled itself to a secondary role in a civilian setup.”
Bhutto’s original sin was to damage the credentials of the political leadership — the prime minister would invite corps commanders all too frequently to political meetings, simply to discredit the alternative democratic leadership before the army.
In the words of Gen Arif (as quoted by Lt Gen Chishti in his book Betrayals of Another Kind): “At this stage, while emphasising the need for an early political settlement with the PNA leaders, the corps commanders said that in the event of government’s failure to resolve the present crisis, they may perforce be obliged to exercise a military option.”
Gen Arif also recalls that after the July 3 meeting, he had called on Bhutto along with Rafi Raza, director of intelligence, and had apprised him of their fears of an impending military takeover. Bhutto paid no heed to the warnings.
With the promulgation of Martial Law, leaders from both parties were arrested again. Nobody knew what the army chief’s next move would be, but the army moved swiftly to put a ruling structure in place, forming the Military Council to run the country’s administration.
The Military Council constituted Gen Zia as the “Chief Martial Law Administrator”; he was to be aided by the navy and air force chiefs, as well as the joint chief of staff. Gen Zia installed provincial Martial Law administrators too: Lt Gen Jehanzeb Arbab in Sindh, Gen Iqbal Khan in Punjab, Gen Abdullah Saeed in Balochistan, and Gen Sawar Khan in the erstwhile North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
The military also installed its own governors as part of the administrative overhaul. In Sindh, the chief justice of the Sindh High Court, Justice Abdul Qadir Shaikh, replaced Mohammad Dilawar Khanji as the provincial governor. Similarly, in Punjab, Justice Aslam Riaz replaced Mohammad Abbas Abbasi. Justice Abdul Hakim replaced Naseerullah Babar as governor of the NWFP, while in Balochistan, Mir Ahmad Yar Khan was replaced by Justice Amir Khuda Bakhsh Marri.
Meanwhile, Bhutto and his colleagues were detained at the Governor House in Murree. Despite the coup Bhutto was given the facility of keeping his official staff, which angered many generals. The PNA leaders were kept at the Punjab House in Murree, where every leader was allotted a separate room.
The Military Council assured citizens that elections would be held within 90 days, but leaders of both parties kept guessing their fate for over a week. Even available newspaper reports did not reflect reality. On July 13, Air Marshal Noor Khan, who was heading the PIA at the time, called on Bhutto and PNA leaders. Even then, there was no indication of what the Military Council was planning or aiming at.
The next day, there was news that, barring the Hyderabad tribunal, all others had been abolished. Simultaneously, detained leaders were told that they could speak with their families or friends on telephone.
Next week: General Zia unveils his agenda