People & society

Ziaul Haq: The man and the dictator

Updated Aug 17, 2017 04:01pm

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The President General Mohammed Ziaul 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
The President General Mohammed Ziaul 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

I was very politically conscious and active during General Ziaul Haq’s time. I remember leading and joining processions of Christians to protest changes in the blasphemy laws that Zia had introduced.

It was easy for anyone to apply the blasphemy laws to target a personal enemy by saying ‘he burned – or desecrated – the holy Quran’. Some very learned and eminent people were falsely accused of burning the Quran.

Then there was Safia Bibi, a blind teenaged girl who was raped. Under the religious laws introduced by Zia as Hudood ordinances, she was required to identify the people she had accused of raping her. As she was blind and could not do so, she was convicted of fornication and sentenced to be publicly lashed. There was public outrage and anger: there was no way that a blind girl could point out her rapists.

I wrote a strong article in the Pakistan Times pointing out the injustice and joined a large procession of women and men protesters. The protest against the draconian punishments the blind girl was supposed to receive was effective, and she was spared the lashes.

Most accounts, as Husain Haqqani has written in his book, Pakistan: Between mosque and military, confirm that Zia came from a religious family and religion played an important part in moulding his personality. “His father, Akbar Ali, worked as a civilian official in army headquarters and was known as Maulvi Akbar Ali because of his religious devotion. Maulvi … is a title normally used for clerics. Zia ul-Haq joined the army before partition, and he occasionally offended his British superiors with his refusal to give up religious and cultural traditions and to adopt the Westernized ways of British Indian officers,” Haqqani wrote.

Zia lived in a mansion in a residential area reserved for army generals in Rawalpindi. It was located just across from the Murree Brewery – a maker of beers and whiskies – which was owned and managed by my brother Minoo Bhandara.

Zia visited my brother occasionally and Minoo found it easy to get along with him. To my brother, the general appeared different from what he was generally portrayed as.

Zia was instrumental, with the help of Afghan muhajdeen, in throwing the Russian invaders out of Afghanistan. While the war was still going on in Afghanistan, he took Charlie Wilson, then a member of the American Congress, and Joann King Herring, a leading society lady in Houston at that time, to Afghanistan. Later when Zia visited the United States, she reciprocated and took him to a gala in Houston.

The 2007 movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, that chronicled Wilson’s secret role in connecting Zia’s intelligence agencies, the United States and the Afghan mujahideen in their war effort against the Russians, also portrayed the general quite sympathetically.

I met Herring years later and we became friends. I had long talks with her. She appeared to like Zia and found him attractive and pleasant.


The article is published to mark General Ziaul Haq's death anniversary. He died in a plane crash on August 17, 1988.

The writer is a Houston-based Pakistani author. Her novel, ‘Cracking India’, about the Partition, was made into the film ‘Earth’ by director Deepa Mehta.