President Zia
Former Pakistan president Muhammad Zia Ul-Haq in Peshawar | Keystone/Getty Images
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Zia inherited a culture of little respect for the political class and he cemented that disrespect during his tenure, a legacy Pakistan still carries.

New Delhi: Muhammad Zia ul-Haq died 30 years ago today in a mysterious plane crash, at age 64, but the controversial Pakistani president’s 10-year-long rule was as much spectacle as his death.

He was hailed both as the hero who brought Pakistan to geopolitical centre-stage by allowing the country to be used as a frontline state in the US war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, as well as blamed for introducing a severe strain of Islam into the Islamic Republic, the effects of which are still being felt today.

“What is a constitution? It is a booklet with 12 or 10 pages. I can tear them away and say that tomorrow we shall live under a different system. Today, the people will follow wherever I lead. All the politicians including the once mighty Mr (Zulfiqar Ali) Bhutto will follow me with tails wagging,” Zia told an Iranian newspaper in 1977.


Also read: The making and unravelling of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto


In a country known for coups, dictatorships and martial law, Gen. Zia ul-Haq stood out. The four-star general altered Pakistan’s political fabric by overthrowing ruling prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, imposing martial law, ordering that Bhutto be hanged in 1979 and conjoining politics with radical Islam.

Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law as well as the amendment to the constitution that declares whether a politician is ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’ (honest and truthful), which was used to disqualify former prime minister Nawaz Sharif last year, stems from this period.

‘Fair play’

Zia ul-Haq was appointed chief of army staff in 1976 by then prime minister Bhutto. One year later, he deposed Bhutto in a coup on 5 July, 1977, which he called ‘Operation Fair Play,’ and imposed martial law.

He installed himself as the President in September 1978, and went on to become the longest serving head of the nation, or as many called him, the “fundamentalist Sunni dictator” of Pakistan.

After the coup, he said, “With the help of the Almighty Allah, the armed forces will do everything we can to insure stability.” He further added, “I genuinely feel that the survival of this country lies in democracy and democracy alone.” Until the day he died in an air crash, in which the US ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel was also killed, Zia only led the country deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of Islamic fundamentalism.


Also read: Pakistan’s future boils down to PM Imran Khan’s India policy


But it was Zia’s measure aligning Islamic radicalism along with the sophisticated weaponry that was given to Pakistan by the US to help overthrow the Soviets in Afghanistan that will remain his unfortunate, lasting legacy. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, badly bruised and beaten, the Americans stopped their gun-funding and Pakistan lapsed back into the Third World.

But the guns remained and the Islamic parties proliferated. By now, millions of Afghan refugees had streamed into Pakistan and they brought heroin with them. The preacher’s extremist fatwa was backed by boys with guns. Pakistan’s moderate, civilian space began to shrink.

As soon as he became the president, Zia committed himself to establishing a sharia law in the state. He established separate judicial courts and court benches that functioned according to Islamic doctrine. Penalties for new crimes that deviated from the British penal code, such as adultery and fornication, gave rise to new punishments like whipping, amputation and stoning to death. The blasphemy law soon became a tool to persecute religious minorities. Under the Hadd punishments imposed by the general, women who were raped were subject to incarceration.

But Zia also amassed a huge fan following which referred to him as “Mard-E-Momin (Perfect Muslim).”

‘Islamic extremist’

Born in Jalandhar (British India) in 1924 to a middle-class family and graduated from Delhi’s St Stephens College, the question many people often ask is, “How did he turn out to become an Islamic extremist?”

According to an official biography of the general, the seeds were sown by his father who “drilled him in the Islamic way of life”.

But Zia’s moment of glory was easily the pivotal role he played in the Soviet war against Afghanistan, when he began to systematically fund the Afghan Mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets. US president Ronald Reagan, who believed it was his God-given duty to end the Soviet “evil empire”, provided exorbitant amount of financial aid to Pakistan during this time.

But the Pakistani establishment had other ideas. In August 1985, three Pakistani men were captured by the US while trying to smuggle triggering switches for nuclear bombs out of Houston. Then in 1987, a Pakistani was caught with similar material in Philadelphia. Zia denied all government involvement and instead accused the US of “cooking up” the case to embarrass Pakistan.

Reagan decided to let the argument pass; Pakistan was given a waiver from the Solarz Amendment, which mandated a shutdown in aid if the country in question was using the money for banned nuclear activities, because it needed Pakistan too much as a frontline state in the continuing war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

But Zia went ahead and sold US-supplied weaponry meant for Afghanistan to Iran. His double games were soon reaching dangerous levels. Washington, having bitten off more than it could chew when the Islamic Revolution had taken place in Iran in 1979, could only afford to be angry with Zia. It couldn’t do very much about it.

By 1985, President Zia decided that martial law had served its purpose, and would be lifted. Limited political activity was allowed and Muhammad Khan Junejo was appointed prime minister. But when Junejo went on to sign the Geneva Accord for peace in Afghanistan an angry Zia dissolved the government on charges of incompetence, corruption and indifference to Islam. Fresh elections were announced in November, but two months before he was killed in an air-crash.


Also read: Pakistan’s mysterious ‘agriculture department’ is plumbing to new depths of censorship


The mystery of the air-crash has never been revealed. Perhaps that is because it has never been properly investigated. All we know is that Zia was taking the short flight back to Rawalpindi on a military C-130B Hercules aircraft after attending a US M1 Abrams tank demonstration in Bahawalpur, Punjab. The US ambassador was also on board, along with 30 other passengers. Some say that a mysterious box of mangoes, loaded on the aircraft at the last minute, actually contained dynamite.

The aircraft took off smoothly, but the control tower soon lost contact. Witnesses said they saw the plane fly erratically, nosedive and then explode. All 32 passengers, including Zia died instantly. The special board of inquiry concluded ‘the most probable cause of the crash was a criminal act of sabotage perpetrated in the aircraft’.

The Zia legacy

Thirty years later, Zia’s pernicious legacy still reverberates across Pakistan. It gave ambitious military chiefs like General Pervez Musharraf the political ammunition to undertake another coup against another elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif in 1999, and throw him into Attock jail.

Zia had inherited a culture of little respect for the political class; he cemented this disrespect during his tenure and encouraged the Pakistani army to treat it like a lapdog, totally under control.

It was in Zia’s time that the phrase, “Pakistan is run by a combination of three As, the Army, Allah and America,” became popular.

The dismissal of the Nawaz Sharif government on flimsy grounds last year, the intervention of Pakistan Army in the Supreme Court’s judgments, the insistent attempt to control the media and the catapulting of Imran Khan into the prime minister’s chair only demonstrates that the Zia legacy is alive and well in Pakistan.

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