Dr Ayesha Jalal is the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University in the US, with a joint appointment at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy and Law. In 1998 she was the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship also known as the ‘Genius Grant.’ She is well known for her seminal book on Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the demand for Pakistan, The Sole Spokesman. Her latest book, which was published in 2014 was titled The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. She has also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Columbia University and Harvard University. This interview was conducted over email.
Let’s begin with whether you think Gen Zia’s coup of July 5, 1977 was fundamentally different from the military coups that preceded it — Gen Ayub Khan’s, Gen Yahya’s — and the one that followed it, Gen Musharraf’s. If yes, how so? Did it change Pakistan’s trajectory? And if not, why not?
Every coup in Pakistan’s history occurred because of a specific combination of historical dynamics and, since these were never identical, the factors leading to Zia’s coup were not the same as those that prompted Ayub’s takeover or, for that matter, Musharraf’s. Zia’s intervention altered Pakistan’s trajectory significantly as the country was drawn deeper into late Cold War politics as a front-line state in the US-led war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to the grave detriment of its own internal security and political stability. The 1977 coup also took place against the backdrop of a Saudi-led global assertion of Islam in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the quadrupling of oil prices. The hike in oil prices had large implications for Pakistan, which at the time was struggling to find its feet in the international arena after a staggering military defeat at India’s hands that had led to the breakaway of its eastern wing in 1971.
Was Gen Zia’s coup motivated entirely by domestic power politics or was there any element of an international support involved in the initial stages, as some allege?
I have argued in The Struggle for Pakistan that almost nothing of political consequence ever happens in Pakistan that is not somehow linked to global politics. It is in the interplay of domestic, regional and international factors that historians have to look for persuasive explanations. Zia’s coup was no different. Informed by domestic calculations, it was also influenced by Pakistan’s quest for nuclear power status, something that pitted Z.A. Bhutto against Washington, as well as alliances with the oil-rich economies of the Gulf in the aftermath of defeat and dismemberment in 1971.
Zia would not have unfurled his ‘Islamisation’ policies if the global and domestic contexts were not conducive for such a course of action.
How much of a role did Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s style of governance play in causing the army to move in again after only five years of civilian rule? What was his biggest miscalculation?
It almost certainly did. Strains in relations between Bhutto and the army high command started well before the controversial 1977 elections that brought people out in the streets and eventually contributed to the making of Zia’s coup. Bhutto’s greatest miscalculation was undoubtedly his choice of Chief of Army Staff. He had expected Zia to be pliable and non-interventionary because the general, apart from being self-effacing, lacked a natural power base within the army — something that proved to be wrong by a long margin.
Professor Ghafoor of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) admitted in a PTV interview in 1994 that Gen Zia moved to overthrow the government after agreement had been reached over the contentious 1977 elections between ZAB’s PPP and the nine-party Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) on the evening of July 4. Do you think the coup was inevitable?
As a historian, I have issues with the word “inevitable” as it presumes that something can happen regardless of human choice and responsibility. What I have seen of the available historical evidence, there was nothing “inevitable” about the July 1977 coup since negotiations were underway between the main political parties and the incumbent government that could have led to a compromise. Why was more time not made available for the negotiations to proceed until all alternatives for a compromise had been fully explored? Could it be that the parties opposed to Bhutto and the PPP feared that victory would still elude them even if the new election results were more credible? The full answer to that all-important question requires access to the thinking of the main politicians and, above all, the calculations of the military high command and, most notably, Gen Ziaul Haq himself.
The PNA, especially parties such as JI, and politicians, such as Air Marshal Asghar Khan, backed the coup, despite an agreement having been reached with ZAB to redo the elections. Why do you suppose this occurred?
It is not unusual for Pakistani politicians, parties and people at large to welcome military takeovers and celebrate coup-makers at the outset and then change their minds later. In the case of Air Marshal Asghar Khan, it was his stiff opposition to Bhutto that explains his support for Zia’s intervention. After all, the coup was the easiest way to get rid of the PPP and its leader while another round of elections was likely to see the return of the PPP to power, albeit with a reduced majority.
Every spell of military rule seems to be followed by an initial euphoria about its end which quickly dies down to be replaced by a yearning for a return to strongman rule. Is this simply a case of nostalgia and memory lapse on the part of the public or does this indicate something about the nature of our state and its peoples?
I think I have partially answered this question earlier. I would add that long suspensions of political processes under military authoritarianism have led to a general disdain for politics and politicians in the country. The negative narrative on politicians goes some way towards explaining the enthusiasm with which people have at different points in time welcomed military takeovers.
Can one make any inferences from the available evidence about whether the people of Pakistan in their majority were in favour of martial rule or against it? The Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) seems to have been most active in Sindh. Did that mean the other provinces were more accepting of martial rule?
It is interesting that initially some in Pakistan thought that the coup was intended to protect Bhutto’s interests. This changed very quickly, especially once Bhutto threatened Zia with dire consequences for his unconstitutional act. Once it became clear that Zia had no intention of holding elections within the stipulated 90-day period, people did reconsider, with some becoming vocal critics of the regime despite the crackdown on all forms of political dissent. Opposition to continued military rule was by no means restricted to Sindh even if the MRD proved to be most effective there. Delayed elections even created a wrinkle in the Zia regime’s alliance with the Jamaat-i-Islami that had helped the regime withstand a potential popular outcry over Bhutto’s hanging in April 1979.
How did Gen Zia’s rule impact Pakistan politically, economically and culturally?
Zia’s rule brought about a qualitative change in Pakistan, politically, economically and culturally. The shift from ideological issues to a monetisation of politics as well as elections, the regime’s embrace of neoliberalism, and the growing reliance on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, resulted in distinct alterations in the country’s political culture.
Did Gen Zia’s reign have any good repercussions for Pakistan? For example, economists point out that Gen Zia’s rule was good for Pakistan’s economy. Did it strengthen Pakistan internationally or strategically?
Many of Pakistan’s woes since the 1980s are traceable to the policies of Zia’s regime. One can always point to this or that result to indicate the good effects of Zia’s rule. For instance, small and middle-size traders did well under the regime. Pakistan was one of Washington’s closest allies under Zia during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This had its downside for the proponents of democracy but also gave Islamabad the clout it had lacked under Bhutto on the issue of the nuclear program. Needing to keep Pakistan on its side, Washington looked the other way as Pakistan, under Zia, raced ahead with the nuclear program.
One of the enduring legacies of Gen Zia’s reign was the so-called ‘Islamisation’ of society, with the bringing of religiosity squarely into the public realm. Did this derive, in your opinion, from Gen Zia’s sincere beliefs or was it an act of political opportunism? And what has been the legacy of this? Why has it been so difficult to reverse for post-Zia governments?
One does not have to dwell on Gen Zia’s personal religiosity to know that as a pragmatic ruler he would not have unfurled his ‘Islamisation’ policies if the global and domestic contexts were not conducive for such a course of action. I have already spoken of the global assertion of Islam since the early 1970s that, together with the neoliberal turn in the 1980s, helped entrench and extend support for Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ policies across a cross-section of Pakistani society, making it difficult for elected governments that came after him to risk appearing to restrict religion’s enhanced role in the public sphere.
There is an argument made that pre-Zia, Pakistani society was governed by elite interests — political and economic — and that even the culture reflected that; and that the conservative, religious ethos we see in society today is better reflective of the wider ethos of society. Would you agree with this?
The assertion is more impressionistic, indeed judgmental, rather than one based on rigorous research and analysis. It is one thing to say that Pakistani society is inherently more religious and conservative than to argue, as I have suggested, that this has happened because of a particular global conjuncture since the 1970s. If the situation changes in the future and a need arises for less visible uses of religion in the public sphere, I think you can expect a corresponding change in official attitudes that will invariably impact public discourses as well.
Can the toxic legacy of Gen Zia’s coup and his reign ever be wiped from Pakistan or is this a fool’s hope?
It all depends on the choices the people and leaders of Pakistan make in response to shifting geopolitical conditions and domestic imperatives. While the legacy may not be erasable, it is certainly possible to correct some of its more obvious excesses.
It has been 40 years since the coup and most Pakistanis today were born after Gen Zia was killed in 1988. There is often criticism from younger Pakistanis that harking back to a dead and buried man for every ill in today’s society is a way for analysts to absolve today’s politicians and policymakers of their own sins of omission and commission. Do you think that is a fair criticism?
The criticism is an example of the presentist turn in public discourse, not just in Pakistan but globally. It also conveys the ahistorical nature of popular understandings of what plagues contemporary Pakistan. Without appreciating the historical processes that have brought Pakistan to its current pass, it will prove very difficult to bring about the changes — institutional and ideational — that the country so desperately needs.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 2nd, 2017