If one is to pick a year from where Pakistan’s political and cultural slide towards a curious faith-based neurosis (and ultimately a socio-political nervous breakdown) began, that year is bound to be 1979.

The lead up to this decisive year was 1977’s military coup against the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government by his own handpicked General (Zia-ul-Haq).

In one of his initial addresses to the nation on PTV, General Zia-ul-Haq suddenly cut away from his written speech, looked up into the camera and claimed that he knew why most people had stopped watching Pakistan Television (PTV): “Mujhey pata hai log ab PTV kyon nahi daikhtay. Chirian jo urr gain” (I know why some people have stopped watching PTV. [It is because] All the birds have flown [from the channel])

While announcing one of his many promises of holding fresh elections, (none of which he would ever fulfill), Zia had persuaded the Jamaat-i-Islami and some conservative anti-Bhutto politicians to join his martial law regime. Jamaat members were given a free run of the ministry of information, and one of the first acts of the ministry was to devise a brand new censor policy for PTV and films.

At once a list was drawn banning a number of actors, actresses, producers and playwrights from appearing on PTV (because they were deemed pro-Bhutto). The same list also contained names of certain Pakistani films, songs and PTV plays that were not allowed a re-run because they were either labeled ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ or ‘politically subversive.’

For example, songs like Naheed Akhtar’s ‘Tutaru Tara Tara’ and Alamgir’s ‘Daikha Na Tha’ were judged ‘obscene,’ while plays like Shaukat Siddiqui’s ‘Khuda Ki Basti’ - a 1970 play based on Siddiqui’s novel about poverty and crime in Karachi’s slums – were not allowed a re-run because the new Jamaat-led censor board thought the play glorified socialism, an ideology the Jamaat claimed was ‘atheistic’.

The new Ministry of Information also ordered the destruction of all recorded speeches of  Z A. Bhutto from PTV’s archives and video library, and disallowed the usage of the words ‘Bhutto’, ‘Jamhooriat’ (democracy) and ‘socialism’ in plays, talk shows and news bulletins.

Zia gradually adopted the anti-Bhutto Pakistan National Alliance’s election slogan of ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa,’ explaining it as an expression of what Pakistanis wanted, using it to continue delaying fresh elections because he claimed his military regime had to ‘cleanse the society and politics’ from ‘corrupt and un-Islamic elements’ before people should be subjected to another bout of elections.

Even before Zia formally announced his Islamisation policies (in 1978), the Jamaat-run ministries had already set the tone for what was to come by banning a number of TV commercials, songs, and performers and re-cutting certain films that had already been approved by the preceding censor board. The idea was to prepare the ground for the full implementation of ‘Islamic laws and culture’ – an initial step in Jamaat leader and scholar, Abul Ala Maududi’s overall thesis on the formation of an ‘Islamic state.’

Maududdi was an important figure in the early shaping of Zia’s Islamisation process. Zia was known to have handed out books written by Maududdi to young officers.

By 1979, the Jamaat-i-Islami was convinced that it had (through Zia), finally made to make its way into the corridors of state power, and even though its leader Maududdi’s original thesis envisioned an Islamic revolution brought on by a society that had been systematically ‘Islamised,’ the Punjab leadership of the party attempted to hasten this process by encouraging Zia to impose harsh Islamic laws.

Then in 1979, Maududdi died.


As Zia started to introduce unprecedented Islamic laws, society stood still, as if in a limbo between what had passed and what was about to come. This static, uncertain state of the society was reflected in the way it reacted to certain prominent events in 1979.

In July, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that its Skylab satellite that had been orbiting the planet since 1973 had developed a fault and was expected to fall on Earth.

NASA wasn’t sure exactly where it would crash, but experts believed that the burly satellite was likely to fall either over Australia or over the Indian subcontinent. Though the same experts also stated that the satellite would start to burn after it entered Earth’s atmosphere and most probably end up in sea, the story took a life of its own in Pakistan.

The state-owned PTV started to run regular bulletins on the latest whereabouts of the Skylab, usually read by Azhar Lodhi – a newscaster, who would go on to become a ubiquitous presence on PTV across the Zia years.

Lodhi maintained a sombre tone in the bulletins, and then started to punctuate them with equally sombre pleas for prayers. Suddenly, most Pakistanis who till then had taken the affair lightly began using apocalyptic overtones while speaking (to PTV and newsmen) about the event.

Many, including members of the urban middle-classes, even went to the extent of wondering whether the fall of the Skylab (on Pakistan) may announce the beginning of Allah’s Day of Judgment.

A somewhat soft (but tense) strain of panic and fear cut across Pakistani society. But it was as if the military regime was purposefully using the occasion to instill fear into people’s minds by allowing Lodhi to use an apocalyptic tone and pleas for prayers, perhaps alluding that in such a testing hour, Pakistan required a pious and Islamic regime.

Interestingly, in those days, more Pakistanis visited sufi shrines than they did mosques, with much of the middle-classes going to the mosques only on special occasions.

However, with Zia’s Islamic laws starting to come into force, and PTV doubling the number of Islamic programmes in its transmission, many young middle-class Pakistanis saw themselves being led (mostly by fear), towards mosques as Lodhi continued to dramatically announce the closing in of the falling Skylab.

The Skylab eventually fell (on July 12, 1979), over the ocean and the deserts of Australia, and once the feared Day of Judgment did not come, the episode was quickly forgotten.

The event elapsed but the apocalyptic outlook that it had triggered in the Pakistani society lingered, and it was this grim point of view that worked well for the Zia dictatorship to intensify its ‘Islamic’ man oeuvres and appeal.


The state of social limbo too lingered, and it was this state that also resulted in the silent reception Bhutto’s controversial hanging received from the people.

Bhutto was hanged on April 4, 1979 after what was described as a farcical trial conducted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. His death triggered only sporadic rallies and some incidents of violence. It seemed much of the Pakistani society was still suffering from the exhaustion it had felt after the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement.

By 1979, with ‘real Islam’ being promised by a ‘pious’ military General, and the decade of extroverted populism coming to an end with the collapse of the PPP regime and the death of its leader, Pakistani society – especially the urban middle-classes – also seemed to have started to collapse inwards, becoming more stoic and introverted.

The society’s newly-acquired apocalyptic frame of mind got some more fodder to burn on when soon after the Skylab incident, Pakistanis woke up to the news that Islam’s holiest place, the Ka’aba in Mecca was stormed and taken over by dozens of armed men.

On November 20 1979, members of a shady and ultra-rightist Islamist group entered the premises of the grand mosque in Mecca.  The besieging group was made up of about a hundred men, most of them Saudis.

All of them were followers of Abdul Aziz bin Baaz who was Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti. Bazz had been incensed by the presence of western workers in Saudi Arabia who had been hired by the monarchy to manage the large amounts of oil wealth the Kingdom had accumulated.

The mosque was taken while pilgrims were present. Some were allowed to leave, while a number of others were taken hostage. Mayhem ensued. For days the militants fought bloody gun battles with Saudi forces.

PTV was telecasting a cricket Test match between Pakistan and India being played in the Indian city of Bangalore on the day of the siege, when the transmission was suddenly interrupted and Azhar Lodhi appeared on screen.

Again in his dead-pan sombre tone, he announced the attack without giving many details about the attackers, leaving the viewers guessing as to who these men could be.

PTV did not return to the Test match; instead it started to run naats – odes to Prophet Muhammad – and recitations from the Quran. PTV had the details of the attack, but on the advice of the military regime, it did not announce that the attackers were all Muslims.

Pakistanis tuned into BBC Radio’s Urdu service which quoted the official Iranian media – now under the control of an Islamic revolutionary government – that blamed the attacks on the “American-Zionist lobby.”

The very next day, large rallies condemning the siege appeared in major Pakistani cities. The biggest rally took place in the country’s capital, Islamabad.

It was a spontaneous gathering held outside the American consulate building. It suddenly turned violent when some right-wing student leaders made fiery speeches blaming the United States for the attack on the Ka’aba. The gathering soon turned into a rampaging mob and forced its way inside the consulate’s compound and offices.

The violence and the rallies stopped once the military regime decided to release the full details of the attack. The attackers were all Muslim, mostly indigenous Saudis.  The American government however accused the military regime of failing to stop the mob from attacking the US consulate in Islamabad.


Then in late December of the same year, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. In a complete about-turn, the American government decided to mend the deteriorating relations between itself and Pakistan.

American concerns over the military regime’s atrocious human rights violations against its opponents and its decision to implement “barbaric laws” like flogging and amputation of limbs too vanished, as Zia now asked for an unconditional acceptance of his military regime if the United States wanted Pakistan to play any role in becoming the launching pad for America’s proxy war against the Soviets.

Then by early 1980, as American aid started to slowly trickle in, and for the first time in three years the Zia dictatorship began to feel a lot more sure about its standing, this was the moment that urban middle-class Pakistan took that fateful social, political and cultural turn.

The craving behind this turn was first for a just, progressive and democratic order; a longing that by the late 1970s had evolved into a desire for a modern Islamic system of economics and governance.

However, the middle-classes had suddenly gone into a static mode and into a limbo of sorts when the agitation for the latter demand had brought in a military dictator and laws that were somewhat alien to the sub-continental Muslim societies. But by the dawn of the 1980s, the Pakistani urban middle-classes seemed to be coming out of its sudden static state, and appeared to be moving again.

But their movement now was into uncharted territory. The era of populist social and political extroversion had finally come to a close, giving way to a conservative introversion that really had very little to do with reflection, but more with a need to hide one’s political and social self in an era of open religious propagation and reactive legislation that was opposed to the 1970s’ liberal populist bearings.

Within a year the country’s social and political ethos (and pathos) took a sharp rightwards turn. A turn it is yet to recover from.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

Photo illustration by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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