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Shaken but not stirred: the movement against Zia

August 31, 2014

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Female activists played a leading role in anti-Zia protests
Female activists played a leading role in anti-Zia protests

Though protests against Gen Zia’s dictatorship began almost immediately after his military coup in July 1977, his regime’s harsh measures (such as public floggings, executions, sentencing by military courts and torture) against any and all opposition did not allow opposition groups to organise themselves in a more coherent and systematic manner.

But even though the beginning of the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan Jihad’ in Afghanistan in late 1979 meant that the Zia regime was poised to attract recognition from the United States and its European allies, and (thus) become the vessel to carry the large military and financial aid that the US and Saudi Arabia pledged as a way to back the Mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan, it would take another few years for Zia to use this material and moral patronage to strengthen his position by reviving the country’s shattered economy.

With the regime’s undoing of the economic policies implemented by Bhutto and with the US and Saudi aid now beginning to come in, the economy did begin to slowly revive itself, but Zia’s position was still vulnerable in 1981 when a strong political alliance decided to launch an all-out protest movement against him.

The alliance — Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) — was formed by the PPP that was being led by Z.A. Bhutto’s widow, Begum Nusrat and his 28-year-old daughter, Benazir Bhutto, both of whom had been in and out of jail and house arrest ever since Bhutto was toppled in 1977.

The MRD was headed by the PPP and also included various smaller left-wing parties, Sindhi, Baloch and Pukhtun nationalist outfits, one Muslim League faction (PML-Qasim) and the only mainstream religious party that opposed Zia, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI).

The movement kicked off in early 1981 from Karachi’s Saddar area where a PPP worker arrived on a camel and court-arrested to the cheers of a large crowd that had gathered there. Soon the movement, whose first phase involved courting arrest, spread into Lahore and was about to take off when it suddenly collapsed due to the adventurism of Bhutto’s sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz.

Both had escaped to Afghanistan where under the patronage of the Soviet-backed Afghan government they had formed a left-wing urban guerrilla organisation, the Al-Zulfikar (AZO), to plan strikes against Zia’s regime in Pakistan.

The AZO was made up of Punjabi, Sindhi, Pukhtun and Urdu-speaking militants belonging to the PPP’s student wing, and after conducting a couple of assassinations and two failed attempts to strike Zia’s official plane with a SAM missile in 1980, the AZO hijacked a PIA plane from the Karachi Airport (March 1981).

The mission was led by former president of the PPP’s student-wing, Salamullah Tipu, who got over 50 political prisoners released from Zia’s jails when he took the plane full of passengers to Kabul and then to Damascus.

Journalists courting arrest in protest against  censorship and newspapers’ closure in 1978
Journalists courting arrest in protest against censorship and newspapers’ closure in 1978

Benazir condemned the hijacking and became even more critical of his brothers’ actions when Tipu shot dead a passenger in Kabul. The MRD movement collapsed when Zia accused the PPP of being behind the hijacking and used the episode to unleash an unprecedented and severe crackdown against MRD leaders and workers.

It took another two years for MRD to reorganise itself and plan another movement, but by 1983 Zia had consolidated his position and revived the economy — even though the revival brought with it a new kind of institutional corruption and the initial emergence of delinquencies such as heroin/gun smuggling and the coming into the mainstream of radical sectarian figures who had been loitering on the fringes of politics. Now, they began being patronised by the state to prop up support among young Pakistanis and Afghans for the US/Saudi-backed ‘jihad’ against the Soviet forces stationed in Kabul.

Also, since the Punjab had been the bastion of the PPP ever since the late 1960s, Zia (an immigrant Punjabi), began to overtly patronise various prominent business groups of Punjab and his economic policies were designed to attract the support of the province’s urban middle and lower-middle-class traders, businessmen and shopkeepers.

He then began to give these groups political roles and aligned them with the more radical religious outfits that he was fostering. So in a way the economic revival witnessed during the Zia regime was accompanied by a burst of religiosity within Pakistan’s bourgeoisie.

MRD deducted that the fruits of economic revival (at least in 1983) were mostly falling into the hands of central/urban Punjab’s middle and trader classes, industrialists and businessmen, whereas the rest of the country was being ravaged by economic hardship, rising crime and corruption and the growing incidents of sectarian violence.

On Aug 14, 1983 (one year after Zia had gotten himself elected as ‘President’ through a dubious referendum), the MRD launched a brand new movement against him.

The groundwork for the movement was mostly done by second-tier members and common workers of the parties of the MRD because by now most of the main leaders of the opposition outfits were either in jail or under house arrest.

Though the movement kicked-off simultaneously in Sindh and Punjab, it failed to gather much support in the latter province. Soon, it became restricted to Sindh where at one point it began to threaten turning into a full-blown Sindhi nationalist movement akin to the one that erupted in East Pakistan in 1971.

MRD activists and youth belonging to the student-wings of MRD parties and various left wing Sindhi nationalist groups plunged into the fray and for weeks disrupted everyday life in Sindh — though the province’s capital, Karachi, remained relatively calm.

The situation became too much for the police to handle and Zia called in the army. Anti-Zia activists used shrines of Sufi saints and the thick forests of Moro and Dadu to plan their agitation from. Dozens of MRD supporters were killed when troops used sophisticated weapons to mow down protests.

In Karachi, the left wing and progressive student groups went to war with right wing pro-Zia student outfits at universities and colleges and women organisations gathered on the streets to burn their dupattas as a protest against what they believed were Zia’s anti-women laws.

Radical trade, labour and journalist unions too played a role in the movement, but by late 1983, it had squarely become a militant Sindhi nationalist movement when Punjab failed to rise.

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Though it left Zia and his regime feeling nervous and fearing that they now were facing another East Pakistan-like situation, troops finally managed to crush the movement. A number of people were killed and hundreds were thrown in jails and severely tortured. The PPP’s main leadership went into exile. Zia had managed to avert a major scare to his dictatorship.

But why Sindh? We have already discussed how Zia managed to change the political and social complexion of Punjab and begin the long process of drying out its support for the

PPP. But whereas he managed to also keep Balochistan quiet (after releasing Baloch nationalists who had been thrown into jails by the Bhutto regime), and with the NWFP (present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) caught-up in receiving Afghan mujahideen and Afghan refugees and the regime integrating the Pakhtuns into the changing ways of the ruling and business elites, Sindh was left to its own devices.

Apart from the fact that there was already anger among the Sindhis against the hanging of a Sindhi prime minister (Z.A. Bhutto), what actually triggered violence in the province in 1983 was the fact that Sindhis as well as the Urdu-speaking people in Karachi felt that they were being invaded by elements that were posing a threat to their economic and political interests.

Firstly, Karachi began receiving waves of Afghan refugees, many of whom came for the sole purpose of setting up shady drug and weapons businesses in the city. This trend would trigger the vicious circle of ethnic violence in Karachi from 1985 onwards.

Secondly, Zia began to allot land and business in Sindh to Punjabis who began to migrate from Punjab into Sindh.

Zia did this to create a constituency for himself in Sindh. But what he got was resistance and resentment from the Sindhis and Urdu-speaking traders. In Karachi non-Punjabi traders and businessmen formed an anti-Punjabi organisation called the Maha Sindh (this would at least partly evolve into becoming the MQM in 1984). But the reaction was more violent in the interior of the Sindh province where protests against the regime soon became militant and troops had to be called in to quell the turmoil.

The MRD would begin yet another movement in 1986 that was directly led by Benazir Bhutto. Though this time it did manage to draw support from Punjab, it would take another two years and a controversial plane crash for Zia to fall. His death in August 1988 allowed the return of democracy in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 31, 2014