THERE was a coup two decades earlier and there was another coup two decades after. But the coup against the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by then army chief Gen Ziaul Haq on July 5, 1977, remains one of the darkest days in this country’s history.
It is not just the contrast between the bright democratic promise that Bhutto once embodied and the dark, anti-democratic menace that Gen Zia ushered in; the country and its people were changed under the latter ruler in ways that have left terrible scars and that continue to distort state and society.
Gen Zia was of course aided by circumstance and outside powers. No history of his dictatorship can be complete without an account of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan and America’s one-time enthusiasm for Islamist jihadis to help wage a proxy war against the communist empire.
But the military ruler’s extended good fortune was the country’s lasting misfortune. Being an ally and adversary of two superpowers allowed the country’s most notorious dictator the time and space he needed for a sweeping religious experiment that has had the most disastrous of consequences.
Forty years on from the start of that violent experiment, it is impossible to downplay or forgive the depredations that Gen Zia unleashed on state and society.
Not just for imprisoning and executing the country’s brightest democratic star but also for his radically anti-democratic policies infused with religious intolerance and bigotry, Gen Zia remains a wicked leader that history will never forgive.
Yet, nearly 30 years since his death, the past can no longer be an excuse for the present inaction.
The repackaging of the Afghan jihad as a jihad for the liberation of India-held Kashmir was a decision made by Gen Zia’s ideological successors.
The support for the Afghan Taliban was a scheme devised years after the Soviets had left Afghanistan. And today, the continued flourishing of a vast network of mosques, madressahs and social welfare centres that promote extremism and militancy is a policy for which several different national leaderships since 9/11 must take responsibility.
Gen Zia may have paved the path towards an explosion domestically in extremism, terrorism and militancy, but two generations of national leadership since have continued to walk down that path.
There can be no illusions that reversing the legacy of Gen Zia may be the most difficult policy change this country has ever attempted, perhaps even more so than the painful path in recent times to developing a zero tolerance approach to anti-Pakistan militants. But there is no choice.
If Pakistan does not rid itself of its networks of extremism, terrorism and militancy, domestic or regional circumstances will invariably create an excuse for the next big wave of violence.
Seventy years into its existence, this country must no longer be held back by forces four decades old.
Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2017