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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

General Ziaul Haq was perhaps the most controversial ruler of Pakistan. His 11-year-long regime folded in August 1988 when a plane he was travelling in crashed somewhere NEAR Bahawalpur. Sabotage was suspected but never really investigated.

Surprisingly, very little has been written about him, apart from what he did as a dictator. There has never been any authoritative biography about the man whose eerie shadow still looms large across the country’s thorny political and social landscape. There are a number of books written about his tenure as dictator, but not much is available on who he really was beyond the image his propagators promoted.

Zia wanted to proliferate a particular public image of himself and this necessitated thwarting the knowledge of his rather unremarkable career in the military (before he came to power). Instead, he wanted his information ministry to portray him as a pious and benevolent man who was entirely focused on turning Pakistan into a “bastion of Islam.” And this is exactly what one finds in the works of those who decided to write about him beyond what he was as a ruler. There is Salem Azzam’s Shaheed-ul-Islam (1990); Parveen Shaukat Ali’s Politics of Conviction (1997) book; and Gen Zia’s son Ijazul Haq’s Shaheed-e-Islam in 2004. All of these unabashedly peddle exactly the kind of a man that Zia’s information ministry formulated.

In his book, Lt Gen Faiz Ali Chishti penned the lesser known traits of the man he helped come to power

However, there are some who, while writing about the politician Zia, did manage to study him more objectively outside of what is already known about his tenure as dictator. One of the most interesting books in this context is Lt Gen Faiz Ali Chishti’s Betrayals of Another Kind (1989). Chishti was one of the central senior military officers who planned and pulled off the coup d’etat against the Z.A. Bhutto regime (July 5, 1977). He did so on Zia’s behest but by 1980, Chishti had had a serious falling out with Zia and was eased out of the army.

In his book, Chishti makes a genuine attempt to study the personality of the man he helped come to power, a decision he later regretted. Chishti writes that he first met Zia in 1966 (when Zia was a Lt Colonel) but found him rather unimpressive. In 1974, when Zia was made Lt General, Chishti congratulated him and told him that the rank requires a lot of responsibility, to which Zia responded: “Yes, Murshid [spiritual master], I will be careful.” From that day onward, Zia began to call Chishti, “Murshid”.

Chishti writes that when time came for the army chief, Gen Tikka Khan, to retire, Chishti and Tikka Khan drew up a list of senior officers for then PM Bhutto to consider as Tikka’s replacement. Zia was not on that list. The PM sprung a surprise by superseding a number of senior officers to promote Zia as the new military chief in 1976. Chishti was baffled, and in fact sounds rather fascinated with the manner in which an unassuming man like Zia managed to bag the post.

Chishti writes that before being promoted, Zia would ask officers and their families to line up on the streets to welcome Bhutto whenever the PM was in Rawalpindi. He adds that once when an officer refused to do this, Zia threatened to oust him from the army.

According to Chishti, Zia was a master manipulator who, through his “sycophant ways”, could get close to men of power with ease. Later, Chishti believed, that the “American CIA might have gotten hold of him.” He writes that the manner in which Zia so smoothly managed to get in the good books of the PM suggested that “he was certainly well trained [to do this].”

Chishti claims that when talks between Bhutto and the opposition (the Pakistan National Alliance) broke down after the controversial 1977 election and violence against the regime intensified, Chishti and Zia decided that military intervention had become a necessity. Chishti and a few other senior officers planned the coup and waited for Zia’s signal.

Chishti inscribes that Zia was petrified when the time came to execute the coup. If the coup failed, Zia worried he would be killed along with his family. So he flew his family to England. Chishti narrates that after ordering the implementation of the coup, Zia told him, “Murshid, marwa na dena [Murshid, don’t get me killed].”

Chishti became perturbed when Zia went a bit “off-the-script” during his first post-coup TV and radio address. At the end of the speech, Zia praised “the spirit of Islam demonstrated by the people on the streets (during the PNA movement).” Chishti writes this was not part of the script that was discussed during the planning of the coup. Chishti wrote that just a few days after the coup, it was the anti-Bhutto lawyer A.K. Brohi, and technocrat Sharifuddin Pirzada, who advised Zia to allow the courts to reopen a 1974 murder case registered against the former PM.

Chishti agrees that the case was handled in a shabby manner and ended with the hanging of Bhutto. He writes that Zia’s demeanour changed due to a clique of men he began to surround himself with. It included Gen K.M. Arif, A.K. Brohi, Sharifuddin Pirzada, Col Siddique Salik and Saad Gabr (a member of the radical Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood outfit).

According to Chishti, Zia became concerned about his public image and began to pull off “silly stunts.” In late 1979, when a group of Salafi militants occupied the grand mosque in Makkah, Zia decided to ride a bicycle in a Rawalpindi market to exhibit his “modesty.” Chishti writes that during a small speech he made during this bike stunt, Zia told the onlookers that he had heard the United States was behind the attack on the mosque. Soon angry men began to march towards the US embassy in Islamabad and burned it down. Zia agreed to pay 250 million rupees to build a new US embassy.

Chishti remarks that in 1980, during a cabinet meeting, Zia announced that he was ordering the addition of Arabic inscriptions on the Pakistani flag. He was advised against doing this (by Chishti and Gen Fazal-i-Haq) who argued that the flag was approved by Mr Jinnah and could not be changed. Zia reluctantly reverted his order.

Chishti found Zia to be “hypocritical.” He writes that, in 1980, Zia proudly announced a law that would punish those found eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramazan. But, Chishti adds, that as “poor men and women were being punished (for this)”, the kitchens of the President House and military mess halls continued to churn out all kinds of dishes for those officers and ministers who did not fast during Ramazan.

According to Chishti, the only thing that Zia ever cared about was his own survival as a dictator.

Chishti concluded that US money, the war in Afghanistan and the economic and political interests of a number of “sycophants” surrounding Zia kept him afloat and that he kept them all happy “because he wanted to continue to rule for as long as he lived.” Which, he technically did.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 31st, 2017