Deepening the Zia dictatorship

Dr Naazir Mahmood
Sunday, Sep 04, 2022

In my last article, ‘Remembering 1977’ (Aug 29), I highlighted how the year 1977 became a turning point in Pakistan’s history. Within 40 days after his military coup on July 5, General Ziaul Haq started targeting the PPP while giving favourable overtures to the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), which had demanded the removal of the Bhutto government after the general elections in March 1977.

General Zia emerged as an all-powerful chief martial-law administrator (CMLA) with his deputy martial-law and sub martial-law administrators perched at lower administrative tiers. His spectacle of barbaric punishments took off; lashes inflicted publicly on political activists and leaders became common. His machinery started working on dismantling the largest political party in the country – in the same manner in which General Ayub Khan had done 20 years earlier and General Musharraf did 20 years later. PPP leaders at the local and provincial levels were easier to entice or threaten.

Former ministers, MNAs, and MPAs started parting ways with the PPP. For example, former ministers Arbab Jahangir and Mir Afzal, and former speaker Sahibzada Farooq Ali Khan resigned or became inactive. Liaquat Jatoi resigned from the PPP and joined the PNA; those who resisted became a direct target of the dictatorship. Bhutto was increasingly being isolated.

The first Ramazan under General Ziaul Haq witnessed all cafes and hotels closed during the daytime. Anybody found drinking or eating was liable for punishment; religiosity was being imposed on the people. No wonder in 40 years we have moved even faster on that road.

On August 22, 1977 – just six weeks after Bhutto’s removal from power – the state machinery managed to extract confessions from some Federal Security Force (FSF) officers for the murder of Nawab Muhammad Khan. Bhutto had created the FSF as a new security apparatus to apply its own laws and dispense justice. The FSF had become notorious for its high handedness and brutal handling of anyone who Bhutto considered disrespectful or undesirable. The force had committed numerous crimes, with or without Bhutto’s knowledge, and it had tarnished his image as a politician.

As time passed, General Zia proved to be even more ruthless. The brutalization of society gained momentum by each passing week. On August 24, in Multan – for the first time in Pakistan’s history – a person accused of rape received lashes publicly. Irrespective of the quick dispensing of justice and regardless of the religious justification for this punishment, such public display of violence instilled fear among citizens. The way any state inflicts punishment shapes the way people behave and society reacts to violence. The process of desensitization towards agony and pain took a sharp turn.

The signal was sent, and the next day on August 25, former director of the FSF Masood Mahmood found himself arrested in the murder case of Nawab Muhammad Ahmed Khan. Two days later, Gen Zia had a detailed meeting with Bhutto who was his usual confident self. Reportedly that meeting convinced Gen Zia that Bhutto would remain defiant as he still insisted that he was the elected prime minister of Pakistan and the toppling of an elected government was unconstitutional. Perhaps Bhutto also reminded Gen Zia that staging a military coup was a serious violation of the constitution punishable by death.

Gen Zia expedited investigation in a murder case against Bhutto. In the meantime, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) found a golden opportunity to woo the dictator who could implement its agenda for a theocratic state. As Mian Tufail Muhammad of the JI kept hobnobbing with Gen Zia, then emir of the JI Maulana Maudoodi demanded that the state prosecute Bhutto and his associates swiftly. Mian Tufail’s birthplace Kapurthalla and Zia’s Jalandhar were just 20 km apart in eastern Punjab. Now Gen Zia also started using the accountability card – shamelessly used even before and after Zia to target political opponents.

He announced that he would not allow those who had accumulated wealth by illegal means to contest elections in October. All candidates had to present their wealth statements and justify their source. Simultaneously, the military government also started giving back factories to their previous owners who had lost their assets under Bhutto’s ‘nationalization’ programme. This is how Gen Zia tried to win over Bhutto’s victims, so they could stand in good stead. Flour and rice mills were the first ones to change hands from the state to their private owners.

After his release from detention, Gen Yahya Khan became a free citizen and that pleased those who considered Bhutto more responsible for the breakup of the country. At the same time, Gen Zia also came in close contact with the Saudi government and tried to please it by changing the names of Lyallpur to Faisalabad and Karachi’s Drigh Road to Shahrah-e-Faisal – named after the late king Faisal of Saudi Arabia. On September 3, 1977, the military government again arrested Bhutto from his residence in Clifton, Karachi; his freedom of 35 days came to an end, and the FIA became active in recording Bhutto’s statement.

Bhutto’s arrest elicited a subdued response from the people as the dictator had already established the terror of lashes. To further cow him down, Masood Mehmood was sentenced to six months imprisonment on contempt of court. That served as an arm twisting so that the former director of the FSF could submit to testify against Bhutto. In the first week of September – two months after his usurpation of power – Gen Zia, for the first time, hinted at postponing the elections by saying that elections would be held if there were no unexpected developments in the country.

This was a prelude to his departure to Saudi Arabia where he met Shah Khalid, the Saudi monarch. After a week, Bhutto obtained his bail and became free again just for a while. Gen Zia strengthened his international credential by visiting Iran and meeting the Shah. Keeping in view that both Iran and Saudi Arabia were close allies of the US, the American hand in the deepening of the dictatorship in Pakistan was clearly noticeable. Zia’s desire to hang Bhutto manifested itself in his interview where he said that Bhutto and his people would not be able to escape punishment.

Just three days after his release on bail, the military government arrested Bhutto and the top leadership of the PPP again. Zia openly gave a statement against Bhutto much in the same fashion as General Ayub Khan used to do against Suhrawardy and other politicians. Zia called Bhutto an extremely unprincipled person and claimed that there were incontrovertible proofs against him.

September 22, 1977 was another fateful day for the judiciary in Pakistan. General Zia sent then chief justice of Pakistan Justice Yaqub Ali in retirement and appointed Justice Anwar ul Haq as the new chief justice of Pakistan. Interestingly, Anwar, Yaqub and Zia were all born in Jalandhar.

Just two days after assuming office, now-former chief justice Anwarul Haq – and his full bench – rejected Bhutto’s bail. By the end of September, the martial-law government had sealed Bhutto’s offices in Clifton, and Benazir Bhutto, his daughter, was confined to her home. At that time, election campaigns were in full swing, and the PNA had lost its momentum. There were clear indications that the PPP would win a landslide as most people now sympathized with Bhutto and considered him much better than Gen Zia. When Asghar Khan suspended his election campaign abruptly, the elections appeared far away.

On October 1, 1977 Gen Zia, in his address to the nation, postponed the scheduled elections indefinitely and once again imposed a ban on all political activities. The excuse? Accountability. This was the deepening of a dictatorship that lasted for 11 years and left indelible scars in Pakistani society and in the region.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: