A leaf from history | Junta matters: Why Zia wanted to rule as president

Updated 11 Dec 2014


General Ziaul Haq. — Courtesy photo
General Ziaul Haq. — Courtesy photo

When General Ziaul Haq decided to get himself nominated for the President’s position that was being vacated by Chaudhary Fazal Illahi after his retirement on Sept 15, 1978, many of his colleagues expressed their reservations. One of them made a sarcastic remark, “I think the chief martial law administrator (CMLA) is taking too much on his plate.”

The General definitely had some reasons for this decision, but at that particular moment in time, there was no such obvious situation that warranted his control over the presidential affairs. Seven months later, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s appeal and review petition both had been rejected by the Supreme Court, it became clear that what made Gen Zia’s presidency more important was that Bhutto’s life now hung by a thread attached to Gen Zia’s stick. Had he shown clemency, the lives of the five accused might have been saved. And perhaps, by that act alone, the political scenario of the country would have been much different from what it is today.

Immediately after the military takeover in July 1977, by virtue of being the CMLA, Gen Zia became the chief executive. He and his associates believed this to be an important yet very perilous position insofar as security was concerned; in such cases, there are always fears of counter-coups or sabotage attempts. General Faiz Ali Chishti, the executioner of Operation Fairplay and who was called “murshid” by Gen Zia, expressed such apprehensions with Gen Zia many times and later mentioned it in his book Betrayals of Another Kind.

The Issue of deputy CMLA becomes a thorny affair

In his conversations, Gen Chishti had expressed apprehension of security — as every stakeholder in such a game fears. He thought that since there was nobody to deputise, his life and power could be in jeopardy. “What happens in case Zia ceases to be the CMLA, either by a counter-coup or natural or accidental death?” he asked. “So if Gen Zia is dead, who becomes the CMLA?”

As per traditions of service, if there is a nominated deputy CMLA, he automatically becomes the CMLA, but if none exists, then someone else has to assume that office.

Elaborating his point, Chishti writes: “It could be one of the four senior officers — Gen M Sharif, Admiral Sharif, Air Chief Marshal Zulfikar or Lt-Gen Iqbal.” (The order of seniority of the Corps Commanders was Iqbal, Sawar, Arbab, Chishti and Hassan.)

Gen Zia might have had other reasons to create a civilian cabinet, but General Chishti thought that he was denied because of his truthful approach towards issues of the ministry he was looking after and the stand he had taken during his tenure as federal minister.

Chishti then lays out scenarios that could necessitate an officer assuming the CMLA’s office: some Pashtun leader, Baloch chief or Sindhi feudal can unilaterally announce the formation of Greater Pakhtunistan, Greater Balochistan or Sindhu Desh, albeit with Indian and Soviet support. He then places a workable solution: “…MLA appointed or to pray for Gen Zia’s life.” Gen Chishti admits that he discussed this point with Gen Zia, and that according to him, he promised to appoint a deputy. After attaining the position of president, the situation became more sensitive.

To the dismay of many, these kinds of suggestions disturbed and confused Gen Zia; perhaps he began feeling that the others wanted to remove him, stage a counter-coup, or even act on a conspiracy. Gen Chishti claims that these misunderstandings were circulated by General Akhtar, the then director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and his staff.

In fact, Gen Chishti went to Gen Zia to clarify his standpoint. He says that he had written his resignation and taken it along to the meeting. But the two managed to patch things up after Chishti told Zia that he should remain a trusted friend. According to Chishti, Gen Zia hugged him and tore up his resignation and it appeared that things between the two were fine. But, Chishti said, the “backbiting” continued. He said he could not help those people who continued to poison Gen Zia’s mind, and who finally made him a “scapegoat”. After that, Gen Zia finally began to distance himself.

This development was felt by the whole lot of generals who were close to Gen. During these days, ISI DG General Riaz Mohammad Khan also advised Gen Zia to appoint a nominee after he became President. Right at the moment, General Khalid Mahmood Arif, while looking at Gen Chishti, interrupted Gen Khan and said: “It is not needed, because the vice army chief was there to meet any such eventuality.”

According to him, by doing so, he deferred the matter which had been hovering over Gen Chishti for quite some time. He also remarked that it had become obvious that Gen Zia liked Gen Iqbal more. The fact is that Admiral Sharif used to act as CMLA in the absence of Gen Zia. Now an uncertain situation arose and many rumours began to float. For instance, some began saying that it was a “pseudo-coup,” and soon Gen Chishti, the actual executioner, and the real characters would rise up to take the control.

The situation that followed proved all such fears to be unfounded.

Later Gen Zia felt the need of straightening things from his side. He did not want to create a sense of disappointment in his constituency, and decided that the army should stay there for some more time till the normal situation returned.

On Aug 23, 1978 when the reshuffled cabinet was to take oath, three generals were also expected to join, but before it they were asked not to come for the oath. They were: Gen Chishti, General Gul Hassan and General Syed Mian. Gen Zia might have had other reasons to create a civilian cabinet, but Gen Chishti thought that he was denied because of his truthful approach towards issues of the ministry he was looking after and the stand he had taken during his tenure as federal minister. He said he was in the habit of calling a spade a spade, which was perhaps not liked by Gen Zia, who might have been provoked by the development on the issue of appointing a deputy to the CMLA.


Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 7th, 2014