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Ziaul Haq: Master of illusion

Updated Aug 23, 2016 02:15pm
The funeral procession of Ziaul Haq | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES
The funeral procession of Ziaul Haq | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES

Despite the constraints to objectivity, a thorough evaluation of the Zia period is too urgent a task to brook any delay. Without such an exercise, Pakistan cannot possibly negotiate the grim crisis everyone says it is facing.

The task of making a complete assessment of General Ziaul Haq's 11-year rule is complicated by a number of factors. Apart from the circumstances of his death — a ghastly disaster one would not wish even on one's enemies — and the immunity from critical stock-taking that all ‘shaheeds' are supposed to enjoy (although the record of many who might use this plea now is pretty poor), our proximity to events interferes with the demands of objectivity.

Perhaps neither those who consistently opposed the late President, nor those who have some interest in continuing to support him, have the capacity to bear the whole truth. Moreover, the tradition of historical analysis evolved by the Muslims of the subcontinent has incorporated certain features — and these have been retained over the last four decades with generous accretions — which make rational studies extremely difficult.

The most reprehensible aberration commonly permitted by our historians is to mix up the performance of rulers with their behaviour as private persons. Thus, Alauddin Khilji was a successful ruler, therefore he must have been a model Muslim king; Aurangzeb was a pious Muslim, therefore he was a great ruler; and Yahya Khan lost East Bengal not because he adopted the wrong policies but because he was a debauch. Unfortunately, this approach is again much in evidence. But despite these constraints to 'objectivity, a thorough evaluation of the Zia period is too urgent a task to brook any delay. Without such an exercise, Pakistan cannot possibly negotiate the grim crisis everybody says it is facing.

Also read: Kuldip Nayar- "Partition was not inevitable"

Ultimately, it is true, Mohammad Ziaul Haq will be judged in all the roles he played: as a human being, as a Muslim, as a general and as the head of the Pakistani state. However, the task of judging him as a person is better left to qualified analysts of the human personality, and his life as a Muslim is a matter between him and his Creator.

Unfortunately, too little has been disclosed of his achievements on the battlefield or as a military strategist to enable us to measure his qualities as a general. His most notable feat, of course, was Operation Fairplay, but it is doubtful if that will be counted among the great campaigns, however important a place in world history it may otherwise command. We will, therefore, confine our comments to General Ziaul Haq's role as the custodian of the state of Pakistan for over a decade.

All rulers become controversial, some more so than others. If General Ziaul Haq falls in the former category, the reason is obvious: he chose to reign rather than rule. He not only acquired the kind of absolute power mentioned by Lord Acton in his obiter dictum but also never hesitated to use it, extending in the process the parameters of one-man rule far beyond the limits explored by some less resolute European forerunners.

A portrait of Ziaul Haq | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES
A portrait of Ziaul Haq | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES

As President, he was his own finance minister, a self-sufficient foreign office, and even his own spokesman before the media. As many of his admirers have vouched, he listened to everyone, but however salutary the advice advanced or however unwelcome the criticism offered, he invariably acted upon his own instinct. Therefore, whatever good happened to Pakistan during his tenure will go to his credit and whatever harm came to it will also be put down in his personal ledger.

Some of the late President's critics unfairly dispute the fact that he was the sole architect of his success in occupying the top spot in the country for 11 years. They refer to Afghanistan, good harvests, remittances by expatriate workers, the weakness of the opposition parties, etc., as factors that enabled General Ziaul Haq to preside over the destiny of Pakistan for such a long time. But each of these factors offered more courses than one and the choice of the path actually adopted was solely General Zia's.

The questions to be examined here, therefore, are: How did General Zia become the absolute ruler of the country? To what extent was he able to use this power to achieve his declared objectives? What was the effect of his rule on Pakistan's fortunes? What is his legacy?

Also read: Enter the General—A profile of Raheel Sharif

General Zia knew from the very beginning that he was imposing martial law in a country which had bitter memories of two earlier martial law regimes, and that even if a section of the people was prepared to accept a new martial law in order to eliminate a common enemy, he would soon be required to furnish proof of legitimacy. He decided to meet the situation through the simple method of countering the popular perception of reality with illusions of his own creation.

The experiment began while searching for a justification for the July 5, 1977 takeover. The whole country knew on the night of July 4, 1977, that, after indulging in muddle-headedness for months, the leaders of the PPP and PNA had found a way out of the crisis which could have served as a pretext for disruption of constitutional life. The country had been pulled back from the precipice, and the danger of civil strife had been averted. Yet General Zia insisted that he had intervened to save the country from bloodshed and chaos.

In the fields of foreign policy and economic management, the same pattern of countering reality with the help of illusions was followed

Further, unlike Ayub Khan and Yahya, who justified martial law in its own right, General Zia relished the idea of a Chief Martial Law Administrator decrying martial law. In this way, he almost succeeded in convincing all the politicians that his sole mission was to hold a re-run of the March 1977 elections. When it was discovered that fresh elections might not achieve the liquidation of the ousted political party, and some of the PNA parties gave vent to their apprehensions, postponement of elections was presented not as something desired in partisan interest, but as a requisite of national survival.

The question of legitimacy, however, continued to pose problems. In the popular perception, only a rule in accordance with the constitution was legitimate. A two-pronged theory was advanced to ease the situation. First, it was assiduously maintained, contrary to all evidence, that the constitution of 1973 had not been thrown overboard, but only held in abeyance. Second, the definition of legitimacy was changed. It was argued that martial law might be contrary to the legal and constitutional norms held dear by the people, but it could legitimise itself if it strove to achieve a noble objective, such as accountability or Islamisation of the polity.

Another illusion considered necessary to legitimise martial law concerned supremacy of the normal law and independence of the judiciary. The state of emergency and the Defence of Pakistan Rules were withdrawn and the people given the tidings that they would be subject only to martial law regulations! The superior courts' verdicts would be respected and it was immaterial if the composition of courts was changed during the pendency of crucial petitions or appeals. The Provisional Constitution Order, which divested the superior courts of inherent powers to check the executive's excesses, was presented as a means of guaranteeing the supremacy of law. The independence of the judiciary was not affected by simply getting rid of judges by not inviting them to take a new oath.

The President General Mohammed Zia ul Haq administering the oath of office of the Chairman of Federal Shariat Court to Mr. Justice (Retd) Sallahuddin Ahmed on May 20, 1980 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES
The President General Mohammed Zia ul Haq administering the oath of office of the Chairman of Federal Shariat Court to Mr. Justice (Retd) Sallahuddin Ahmed on May 20, 1980 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES

The illusion found most effective in resisting the return to constitutional order was the programme of Islamisation. General Zia originally found two glaring deficiencies in the 1973 constitution: that it was necessary to strike a balance between the powers allowed to the president and the prime minister, and that the Islamic provisions of the basic law needed to be strengthened.

A beginning in this direction (the Hudood Ordinances, introduction of the zakat and ushr schemes and the creation of shariat benches in the superior courts) could not be made till about two months before Mr Bhutto's execution. Some other essential amendments were only introduced in March 1985. Throughout this period, it was given out that Islamisation of laws had never been attempted before, although there were people around who could recall the Shariat Act of 1937, a similar law of 1948, the adoption of Islam as the state religion in 1973, and such measures as the creation of the Islamic Advisory Council, enforcement of prohibition, etc.

In the fields of foreign policy and economic management, the same pattern of countering reality with the help of illusions was followed. Pakistan was not involved in the conflict in Afghanistan; on the contrary, the Afghan mujahideen were fighting to defend Pakistan's integrity. Since national security was at stake, anybody disagreeing with the policy on Afghanistan became unpatriotic and an opponent of the Islamic revival. If the country's economy was becoming overly dependent on foreign loans, it was a proof of our credit-worthiness.

Also read: Pakistan's foreign policy betrays deep domestic insecurities

The deadliest illusion created by General Zia was that he was only trying to protect the country from the clutches of one or two political parties and that all the other parties could have a share in power. It was not until the beginning of 1988 that most of these opposition parties began to realise that all of them were to be despatched to death row. That most of these illusions proved effective cannot be denied. They succeeded not because they were accepted as more plausible versions of truth than the popular versions, but because they were backed by the full insight of the state and the penalties for dissent had been raised to unprecedented heights. However, the fact remains that General Ziaul Haq was able to stretch his tenure from 90 days to 11 years and 43 days. But the length of time a ruler can stay in power is not the only or the most decisive measure of his success. General Zia was not merely content with prolonging his rule, he undertook much more ambitious plans. We may take a brief look at his performance in relation to these undertakings.


Perhaps the most daring of his undertakings was an attempt to resolve the controversy over the ideology of Pakistan through personal edicts. Till General Zia arrived on the scene the majority view in the country — that is, excluding the champions of theocracy on the one hand and the advocates of secularism on the other —was that the ideal of Pakistan was the creation of a democratic state and, through this system, the realisation of the Islamic principles of equality, justice and fairplay.

This view was derived not only from the Quaid-i-Azam's historic speech of August 11, 1947, but even more explicitly from his declaration on another occasion: "In any case, Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims—Hindus, Christians and Parsis — but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan."

Gen. M. Zia-ul-Haq welcoming President Mohammad Daoud of the Republic of Afghanistan at the Islamabad airport on March 5th, 1978 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES
Gen. M. Zia-ul-Haq welcoming President Mohammad Daoud of the Republic of Afghanistan at the Islamabad airport on March 5th, 1978 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES

The utmost extent to which those accepting a role for religion in the state went was that democracy and Islam were the essential planks of the country's ideology. Nobody ever perceived a contradiction between democracy and Islamic values, and a democratic polity was considered essential to the realisation of the people's Islamic aspirations. General Zia countermanded this mainstream view, found an irreconcilable contradiction between democracy and Islam, and went on to assert that if, in the pursuit of Islamisation, democratic values had to be abandoned the people of Pakistan had a duty to offer this sacrifice. He made changes in the constitution to ensure that Pakistan became what the Quaid had said it would not be: "a theocratic state to be ruled by priests with a divine mission." Nobody knew better than General Zia himself, especially on the day of the 1984 referendum, that the people had not been converted to his view.

True, the democratic parties, in their state of isolation from the masses, were scared into moving a few steps backward, but not even the religious parties were prepared to give up the democratic system. After a decade of General Zia's campaign to give the country a new ideological reorientation, the position is that the Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Jamiat Ahle Hadith, Tehrik Nifaz Fiqh Jafaria— in fact, all major religious parties — do not accept the rejection of democratic principles in the name of Islamisation.

The contradiction inherent in this situation will keep our northern neighbour unstable and hence a permanent drain on Pakistan's resources. The appropriate time to judge General Zia's Afghan policy will be 10 years from now.

The reasons are many: the conflict between General Zia's version of conservative Islam and the subcontinental Muslims' faith in a liberally reinterpreted religion to answer the needs of a modern society; the spectre of sectarianism raised by the growing involvement of the state in the people's faith; the failure of the zakat system to correspond to the prevailing view of this obligation; the selective use of Shariah to leave the privileges of the elite untouched; the exclusion of egalitarian and democratic principles from the goals of Shariah and its confinement to punishments. What is relevant here, however, is that the campaign conducted by General Zia failed to achieve its objective.

The second important mission undertaken by General Zia was to purge political life of 'undesirable' elements and tendencies and introduce `sharafae into the country's politics, as the system he had inherited threw up corrupt politicians who had no respect for the national interest. Today, on both sides of the political divide, the scene is dominated by the same elements he wanted to eliminate from political life. He himself had to dismantle, on May 29, 1988, the system he had created after much deliberation and preparation. The main reason given was that those chosen to run the system had neglected the supreme national interest and had become intolerably corrupt. It is not a little ironic that those claiming to be successors to the person who rejected all`isms' are talking of 'Ziaism.'

President General Mohammad Zia-Ul-Haq , in a meeting with Iraqi President Mr. Sadddam Hussain on January, 28,1981 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES
President General Mohammad Zia-Ul-Haq , in a meeting with Iraqi President Mr. Sadddam Hussain on January, 28,1981 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES

As part of the effort to promote the politics of `sharafat' General Ziaul Haq outlawed all political parties and banned all political activity, except his own, for six years. What happened? Today, there are more political parties in the field than there were on October 16, 1979. There have been no changes in party leaderships or in the methods of political organisation. Disruption of the political process had only led to stagnation and perpetuation of antagonisms existing 10 years ago. Had the normal political process been allowed, the political parties would have been forced to keep pace with the changing aspirations of the masses and to evolve healthier traditions of activity between election years.

General Zia paid a great deal of attention to the issues of foreign policy. His principal achievement is said to be the single-minded pursuit of the Afghan mujahideen cause. The issue has been made so sensitive that a rational discussion has become impossible. However, it is clear that Pakistan has already paid for the Afghanistan policy much more than what would have been the cost of non-military means to secure the Soviet troops' withdrawal from that land. And the heavier part of the bill is yet to come.

It would be enough, perhaps, to sound a note of caution that attempts to impose a fundamentalist regime in Kabul will perpetuate the strife in Afghanistan, apart from denying the Afghan people their right to move towards a modern democratic structure. The contradiction inherent in this situation will keep our northern neighbour unstable and hence a permanent drain on Pakistan's resources. The appropriate time to judge General Zia's Afghan policy will be 10 years from now.

Another foreign policy objective dear to General Zia was to secure for Pakistan a position of eminence in the Islamic world. It is true that General Zia was chosen as the spokesman of the Islamic world. At the UN and other forums, Pakistan under Ziaul Haq became one of the leaders of the majority group in the Muslim world. This achievement has been made possible by a change in Pakistan's role in the affairs of the Muslim world.

A brief historical review of this role will make the issue clear. When Pakistan came into being, the British looked upon it as a potential leader of the non-Arab Muslim bloc which could supplement the traditionally pro-British role of the Arab League. By the early fifties, Pakistan had been sucked into defence arrangements devised to protect imperialist interests in the oil-rich Middle East.

The rise of Arab nationalism under Nasser upset these arrangements and, by sticking to CENTO, Pakistan found itself cut off from the Arab mainstream. A change in foreign policy between 1962 and 1977 enabled Pakistan to move closer to the radical Arabs without losing its contacts with the conservatives. When General Zia took over, Pakistan was part of the Muslim world's effort to loosen its dependence on the West and move towards Third World solidarity.

Genreal Mohammad Zia ul Haq with Sheikh Riyadh Al Khatib, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia on the occasion of Saudi National Day's Reception in Islamabad on September 24, 1979 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES
Genreal Mohammad Zia ul Haq with Sheikh Riyadh Al Khatib, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia on the occasion of Saudi National Day's Reception in Islamabad on September 24, 1979 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES

During the Zia period the Muslim world suffered a great regression. Turning back from thr goal of freedom from the western camp and asserting its right to sovereignty over its resources and its oceans, this bloc has increasingly identified itself with the US strategy of global dominance. Of course, all this was not done by General Zia but he approved of this change in the Muslim world's outlook and diligently worked for its consummation. In the process, Pakistan has even discarded its traditional role as a steadfast fighter for the Palestinian people's rights.

It was during General Zia's rule that Pakistan quit CENTO and joined the Non-Aligned Movement. These were positive steps, but hopes of Pakistan adopting a genuinely independent and non-aligned foreign policy were soon dashed as a new and all-embracing strategic understanding was reached with the United States, which has reduced Pakistan, in the eyes of most observers, to the status of a client state.

In his relations with the United States, General Zia came under pressure on the nuclear issue. The whole story of Pakistan's nuclear programme is not known to the public and it is difficult to say to what extent Islamabad has succeeded in resisting Washington's arm-twisting. Even if it is true that Pakistan has acquired the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, it is a classic example of employing a right approach to a wrong cause. The idea of producing a nuclear weapon was madness in the Bhutto period and could not be considered anything else in his successor's reign.

Suppression of normal political activity has given rise to the politics of ethnicity and factionalism.

Surprisingly, General Zia showed the least interest in the economic field. Apart from a vague idea that the economic priorities of the predecessor regime had to be changed, the private sector had to be encouraged, and the refractoriness of labour checked, he showed little enthusiasm for ensuring economic viability or equitable distribution of wealth. How far such ill-defined policies have succeeded can be seen from the fact that denationalisation is still being talked about, labour-employer antagonisms have been solidified, and the Planning Commission has begun to see a large population below the poverty line. At the time of the last budget, references to bankruptcy were louder than ever before.

Where does Pakistan find itself at the end of the Zia period?

There is a consensus that with the replacement of the agreed constitution of 1973 by the controversial constitution of 1985 the whole constitutional controversy has been reopened. The federal arrangement has suffered a dangerous erosion and the integrity of the state is threatened by centrifugal forces. Suppression of normal political activity has given rise to the politics of ethnicity and factionalism. The Islamisation programme has fostered sectarianism and religion has become politically controversial, The support extended to obscurantists has led to social regression as manifested in greater oppression of women and denigration of the sciences in favour of superstition. Political polarisation, instead of dying down, has become more intense. In the field of external relations, the barter deal with the US is about to expire and Pakistan faces the daunting task of overcoming its dependence on aid without the requisite ability.

President General Mohammad Zia ul Haq addressing at the White House State Ceremony in Washington on 7.12.1982 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES
President General Mohammad Zia ul Haq addressing at the White House State Ceremony in Washington on 7.12.1982 | WHITE STAR ARCHIVES

And the economy is a shambles. Nobody can say that any preparation has been made to face the demographic, technological and social challenges the 21st century is going to present. By all accounts, the country faces a serious threat from the drug and arms mafia and corruption and insecurity have increased. And everybody is saying that while trying to destroy the system he had inherited, General Zia did not create a replacement. There is no need to emphasise this point. Only some weeks ago General Zia himself conceded that he had not succeeded in doing what he wanted to, and promised to make another beginning at the close of 1988,

It would be a pity if the Pakistani people were to forget that, underneath the surface calm, stormy currents are building up. After a decade of development and stability under Ayub, and a direct consequence of that decade, the country found itself at a crossroads, and ultimately disintegrated. The most prolific Pakistani anthropologist, Dr Akbar Ahmed, in a fit of inspiration once likened General Ziaul Haq to Aurangzeb. Many Pakistanis would hope that their country in 1988 does not compare with the Mughal empire in 1707— the year of Aurangzeb's death.


This was originally published in Herald's September 1988 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.