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Zia-ul-Haq, the Stephanian Pakistani dictator who feared Indira Gandhi

On his 31st death anniversary, ThePrint brings to you a few fascinating nuggets about ex-Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq.

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New Delhi: At a press conference of Pakistani president Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi in 1986, Zia said, “Kashmir is a dispute between India and Pakistan and would be resolved as per the Simla Agreement”.

The Simla Agreement, signed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose tenure as prime minister of Pakistan was abruptly interrupted after Zia-ul-Haq — then chief of the Army — imposed martial law and accused Bhutto of conspiracy to murder. Bhutto was later hanged to death.

When asked about resolving the Kashmir issue, Zia said “Kashmir will come at the right time”.

Over 30 years after that conference, the Modi government has abrogated Article 370, which gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and has further bifurcated the state into two union territories.

Following this decision, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced the decision to suspend bilateral trade with India and review bilateral agreements. He has also suspended the Delhi-Lahore bus service and the Samjhauta Express train service.

Interestingly, Zia had once asked then-cricketer Khan to join his government. Khan had declined the offer.

Education in St Stephens, and 1965 war

Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq was born on 12 August 1924 in Jalandhar. After finishing his schooling in Simla, he went to Delhi University’s St. Stephens College and graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in History with a distinction.

Former Indian minister and diplomat Natwar Singh wrote in his book, Profiles and Letters by K Natwar Singh, that it was the Stephanian link between the two which enabled him to establish a working rapport with Zia.

After graduating from college in 1943, Zia joined the Royal Military Academy in Dehradun. He was commissioned in 1945 and served the British Army during World War II in Burma (now Myanmar), Malaysia and Indonesia.

After India’s Partition in 1947, his family moved to Pakistan and he joined the Pakistani Army. He also attended two military schools in the US, Fort Knox and Fort Leavenworth, and was on active duty in Kashmir in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. After the war, he was promoted to the rank of colonel and became a brigadier in 1969.

The irony is that it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto himself who superseded seven officers and appointed Zia as Army chief later in 1976.

Amitabh Mattoo, professor of Disarmament Studies at JNU, told ThePrint that Bhutto would disparagingly call Zia his pet monkey and make fun of his appearance. Bhutto lionised the Army to serve his own interests and it ended up backfiring when Zia initiated a military coup.

Also read: These images show Pakistan is planning something sinister after India’s Article 370 move

The coup that led to Islamisation of Pakistan

Just a year after taking over as Army chief, on 5 July 1977, Zia-ul-Haq upended the Bhutto government in a military coup and imposed martial law across Pakistan. He assured people that this was only a temporary measure and that elections would be held soon.

Due to Bhutto’s overwhelming popularity, Zia also ensured the former PM was charged with conspiracy to murder his political opponent Ahmed Raza Kasuri. The trial saw many gaps — judges were removed, Bhutto’s testimony was closed to observers, and he was denied a right to appeal as the trial went from the sessions court straight to the Supreme Court. On 4 April, 1979, despite pleas of clemency from many global heads of state, Bhutto was hanged to death.

In an interview with BBC in 1977, Zia said that it would not be right to say that Bhutto’s trial was not fair. He further added that he was totally committed to reviving the democratic procedures in the country. “I don’t have any intention of staying in power for years.”

However, he extended martial law, suspended political parties in 1979, banned labour strikes and introduced press censorship.

Zia’s tenure as president was also known for beginning the Islamisation of Pakistan. He introduced Islamic laws — public floggings became common during his reign, educational curricula were Islamised, Islamists were inducted into the Army, judiciary and bureaucracy, sale of alcohol was banned to Muslims, and many institutions were created, headed by Islamic clerics, to oversee government affairs.

The offer to Imran Khan

Zia-ul-Haq wanted then-cricketer Imran Khan to join the cabinet in 1988, just after he had dismissed the government of prime minister Khan Junejo.

In his book Imran Khan Pakistan, the former Pakistan cricket team captain wrote, “In July 1988, I was playing for Sussex and living in London. I got an unusual call from Pakistan. It was my friend Ashraf Nawabi, who was close to Zia. He asked if I would become a minister in General’s cabinet. Zia had just dismissed Junejo’s government, who was probably the most decent prime minister Pakistan ever had. Zia assumed that he would be very pliable and docile. But Junejo made the mistake to assert himself.”

Khan declined the offer saying that he was not qualified for the role, but later, in 1996, he joined politics.

Also read: To understand Modi’s new Kashmir reality, these 5 liberal myths need to be broken

Zia and Kashmir

Natwar Singh wrote that Zia put Kashmir at the top of his agenda and convinced many Islamic countries to side with him on religious grounds.

Singh wrote that he told Zia raising the issue of Kashmir day in and day out, would not help the case of the dispute, but the Pakistan president didn’t relent. “He persisted, but without the special brand of hysteria invented by Benazir Bhutto Zardari.”

It has been reported that Zia told British prime minister Margaret Thatcher that Rajiv Gandhi was more open-minded than his mother Indira Gandhi on India-Pakistan relations.

Zia respected and feared Indira Gandhi, and after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, he knew that militarily Pakistan was no match for India, wrote Singh.

Mysterious death

On 17 August 1988, Zia-ul-Haq was returning to Rawalpindi after reviewing a field demonstration of the M-1 tank, which Pakistan was considering buying from the US.

However, the Pakistani Air Force Plane he was in exploded shortly after takeoff near Bahawalpur. Zia and 31 others, including several dignitaries, died in the crash.

His death led to a number of conspiracy theories and has been the subject of a number of books and films, including British Pakistani filmmaker Mohammed Hanif’s critically acclaimed 2008 novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

The general’s legacy

In his book, Natwar Singh wrote that those who came to jeer Zia earlier ended up cheering for him later.

“Zia grew in his job by the day. He was a far more successful and skillful diplomat than any of his predecessors. He never talked of a thousand-year-war with India, avoided confrontation, made all the right noises in the presence of Indians. He pursued a policy, the aim of which was to reduce the level of hostility with India.

“At the same time he did not evolve any framework of a positive, self-sustaining process for maintaining good neighbourly relations with India. He used religion, Kashmir and India’s defence budget to tarnish our image,” wrote Singh.

Also read: In 1947, Gandhi told Lt Gen Sen that wars were inhuman, but to fight for Kashmir with all means


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  1. Zia ul haq was not scared of Hindu bigot Indra Gandgi of Indian hindu terrorist state and Indra Gandgi looked like a school girl Infront of Zia Ul Haq

  2. That is why the Islamic bigot died a’s death. Those who take law into their hands and render injustice die such deaths Sanjay Gandhy, Indira Gandhy Rajiv Gandhy are example. NEHRU also died without peace and unsatisfied due to his own creation and escalation of Kashmir.

  3. Nicely written on profile of Zia ul Haq, a dictator and ruler of Pakistan and promotor of Islam in his country. He was uplifted to highest post by Buttoo, but sadly he hanged him by way of manipulation of law even by ignoring plethora of mercy petition. Great Allah has taken his life by way of explosion of army aircraft in the air.

  4. खूनखार आदमी था। That way Mr. Modi is lucky that his counter parts in Pakistan are very very weak and non authoritarian.

  5. Such a boring report. Few Pakistanis only think that India had hand in Zia’s death. Zia created more enemies within Pakistan than outside. His sudden death is mystery even now. Same is the case with Parvesh Musharraf. He was promoted by Nawaz Sharif, who went to to haunt him. Saudis came to Nawaz risk. When Parevesh was driven out by Pakistanis, no one is coming to his rescue. Pakistan is society of dog eating dog.

  6. Our men in black blew him up in mid air. Lots of collateral damage, including the US Ambassador to Pakistan. Bahut nek kaam kiya.

    • Can you cite a source of this profound knowledge of yours? Or is it just that you love to cook up sensational stories to sound wise?

      • An impeccable source. I have a fantastic memory, developed in the pre Google search days. However, I do not cook things up. Fake news is not my style. Every single comment I post is true to the best of my knowledge and belief.

        • Then cite the source. Till then it will be considered bumkum. I am sure you don’t have friends in the CIA or do you?

      • I can vouch General Yahya Khan addressing Indira Gandhi as That Woman in a broadcast to nation in December 1971

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