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Zia’s long shadow

July 06, 2012

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OF all the political legacies in the country’s relatively short history, Gen Muhammad Ziaul Haq’s would be the most enduring, toxic and tamper-proof.

For evidence, look no further than last Thursday’s front-page of Dawn. It was July 5, the 35th anniversary of the day darkness descended on our beloved land. Darkness that would blight our country eternally or so it would seem to a reformed optimist.

If you find this too pessimistic, and you have every right to, just look at the stories adorning the front page of the paper on the day in question. The bigger display was given to the decision to reopen Nato’s supply routes to Afghanistan, the so-called Ground Lines of Communications (GLOCs).

But no less significant was coverage of the killing of a women’s rights activist near Peshawar; three murders near Quetta for which the extremist Sunni Lashkar-i-Jhangvi claimed responsibility; and the lynching of a man, said to be mentally ill, allegedly for the desecration of the Quran in Bahawalpur.

Zia’s overthrow of Z.A. Bhutto in 1977 may have been an act of ambitious opportunism fuelled in part by squabbling politicians and the time it took them to resolve their differences over the scale of ‘rigging’ in the national elections held that year.

That in December 1979 the Red Army marched into the western neighbouring country invited by the faction-ridden governing People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was seen by Zia as a stroke of such good luck that only divine intervention could have delivered.

Earlier in April, ignoring widespread international appeals for clemency, the military ruler had hanged an elected prime minister after a sham judicial process. In doing so, he faced isolation in the comity of nations.

Now suddenly he felt confident enough to dismiss the outgoing US president Jimmy Carter’s offer of aid as ‘peanuts’ and soon became the darling of the newly elected president, the erstwhile Hollywood star Ronald Reagan, who started lavishing praise as he did largesse on a brutal regime.

The dictator quickly consolidated power and, like most coup-makers, one of his first victims was a key fellow coup-maker, the man whose troops had brought Zia to power. Yes, the commander of the strategically important (if capturing Islamabad is the objective) Rawalpindi corps, Faiz Ali Chishti.

While Chishti may have been headstrong and was, therefore, sidelined, most others were so career-conscious that almost overnight they happily packed away their smartly tailored lounge suits and urgently ordered the ‘Islamic’ waistcoat and shalwar-kameez.

It is unclear how many, but there were senior officers known to fall into saf (prayer lines) when asked to join by Zia even if they hadn’t done wuzu (ablution). In their scheme of things, it seems, pleasing the boss was far more important than any other consideration.

This reaction may have appeared merely symbolic in the short-term but that it represented a far deeper malaise, a criminal silence if not active collusion, which would afflict us for decades and tear away at the very fabric of our society.

The same year as the Red Army marched into Afghanistan, 1979, the region was being rocked by another dramatic development. The US strongman in the Gulf, the guarantor of protected oil supply routes, Shahanshah Aryamehr of Iran, was being toppled in an Islamic revolution.

That his legacy casts such a long shadow over the country today reinforces Zia’s mythical status. But some argue his ideology and vision and survival methods were no more sophisticated, enlightened than those of a small-time pesh imam who with his half-baked knowledge is poisonous for his followers and those that threaten his pre-eminence alike.

The general was able to remain in power for as long as he did and inject his obscurantist poison for as long as he was able to, simply because Lady Luck smiled on him. On the one hand, he was seen as a key tool by CIA to humble the Soviets in Afghanistan.

On the other, he was embraced as vital to containing ‘Shia’ Iran’s influence in the region by both the US and the Saudis. It was thus a natural corollary that the Saudi denomination of Islam became the dominant faith for this two-fold objective to the exclusion of all others.

In addition, in the early 1980s, when Zia rolled out the Zakat Ordinance, Shias under a little-known religious leader Mufti Jafar Hussain rose in protest and took part in a huge sit-in in Islamabad. Alarmingly for the army chief, many of his subordinate officers joined in uniform.The dictator relented and excluded the Shias from ‘enforced deduction’ of zakat (it is another matter how the Shias, a minority Muslim sect, multiplied if the bank accounts exemption declarations of the affluent was taken as an indicator) but he never forgot how the issue divided his khaki power base.

The rest is history. He was as clever as many a pesh imam in being able to quickly portray any challenge to his authority, his narrow obscurantist ideology (till then more or less alien to Pakistan) as an act questioning the tenets of Islam, almost likening it to blasphemy, even treason.

Writing in the Newsline magazine last June, accomplished novelist-journalist Mohammed Hanif, articulated Zia’s prime sin in these words: “The Pakistan Army’s biggest folly has been that under Zia it started outsourcing its basic job — soldiering — to these freelance militants.

“By blurring the line between a professional soldier who, at least in theory, is always required to obey his officer, who in turn is governed by a set of laws, and a mujahid who can pick and choose his cause and his commander depending on his mood, the Pakistan Army has caused immense confusion among its own ranks.”

Why do we protest as we lurch from crisis to crisis when the arbiters of our national defence and foreign policies are capable of such follies and despite taking a tragically heavy loss of lives themselves still seem unprepared, (hopefully not unable) to change course?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com