It was only thirteen months before the coup that Zia-ul-Haq was appointed Army Chief of Staff from the junior Corps Commander in Multan. He was the man, who, as a brigadier, had presided over the trial of army officers charged with the attempted coup in 1973 against Bhutto. His appointment over the heads of other more senior officers to replace the faithful General Tikka Khan, in 1976 came as no surprise as people knew Bhutto’s style of functioning. But he himself was misplaced in evaluating Zia’s loyalty and his political ambition for the job. The 1977 coup reflected the resurgence of military power within Pakistan. Anything else, the Pakistani state is stable. Ever since the country became independent, it has witnessed a constant battle to control the State between democratic forces and a military-bureaucratic elite that regards itself as the guardian of the Pakistani nation-state.The event represented a major step forward for the politico-religious forces and a qualitative change from the preceding state of affairs. Zia-ul-Haq, the new ruler, was everything-Judge, jury and executioner, Head of State, Chief of Martial Law Administrator, Commander-in-Chief and honorary mullah.
Perspectives of the coup
When Zia-ul-Haq staged a coup, it was claimed that Pakistan had been on the verge of civil war. He avowed an objective of ending political instability and threat to the country’s survival. On the day of his assumption of power Zia pledged to hold elections within ninety days of that date and transfer of power to democratically elected people’s representatives. But soon it became clear that the tasks undertaken by the Martial Law authorities were by no means easy despite the sincerity of General’s Headquarters. In the post-1971 period the prestige of the armed forces declined so sharply that popular defiance of Martial law was an almost daily occurrence. It was an indication of the growing political consciousness of the people. Political issues raised in the constitution of 1973 were yet to be settled, though the said constitution was not abrogated but had kept in abeyance. The people of Pakistan were conscious about the constitutional terms, such as, a strong centre, Provincial autonomy, joint electorate vs. separate electorates, Presidential vs. Parliamentary government etc. He considered holding of elections and transfer of power to the elected representative as a very difficult task. Although the top political leaders belonging to the Pakistan Peoples Party including the Prime Minister Bhutto had been taken into “temporary protective custody”, Zia’s dilemma was that a dead Bhutto may turn out to be more dangerous than the living one. Finally he decided to postpone the elections and the removal of Bhutto from the political scene of the country.
Initial response and reactions
Zia found the political situation which was beyond control, particularly, for a martial law administrator. In the initial period, as the coup took place, everywhere, the Pakistan armed forces reigned supreme. In the early hours of July 5, 1977, the army had subverted the entire mechanism of a civilised and democratic government. It had virtually destroyed the freedom and autonomy of every institution of value : press, parties, judiciary, bar, Parliament, trade unions, universities and even innocuous associations. The painstaking written constitution of 1973 had been subverted, prostituted and finally consigned to the dustbin. However, the belief of the army and Zia that poor-handling of the post-election crisis the PPP had lost ground, proved wrong as it had failed to convince people and their weariness with military rule. At the juncture General Zia began to feel the need to legitimize his rule. He spent a year and a half in neutralising his regime’s political opponents and at the sametime made efforts to isolate the PPP and its supporters from the mainstream of the national politics. Naturally the anti Bhutto elements in society and politics became pro-Zia under the new dispensation.
With a view to legitimize his rule Zia began to talk in terms of holding the 1973 constitution in abeyance rather than abrogating it and claimed to be working towards creating structures for an Islamic state and society within Pakistan. He started with a series of ‘reforms’ designed to bring law in various areas of activity in conformity with the tenets of Islam. The radical Islamisation of Pakistan began under Zia when he drafted the Ulema or mullahs to legitimise and extend his unconstitutional rule. In the process several controversial Islamic provisions were inducted in the constitution, which later proved to be so damaging to the Constitution and the rights of the people. It is widely held that they changed the very complexion of an otherwise non-violent Pakistani society. The shameful Hudood laws curbing the rights of the women, redefining law of evidence, amending the blasphemy law, establishing Federal Shariat Court and revising religious laws to create rifts among various sects were some of the more obscurantist changes. Zia exploited religion to the hilt. Despite a solemn pledge, a defiance of which is strictly prohibited in Islam, he delayed the return of democratic government for eleven long years. He misused religion to prolong his despotic rule. Political workers were awarded harsher punishments including lashes for speaking against the government.
Long term effects of the regime
At political level Zia’s supporters included fundamentalist and reactionary parties of Islamic attitude. Many of the changes had the imprint of the Jamaat-e-Islami, from which members were soon provided for the Zia cabinet. Support for Zia’s ‘Islamic’ package was formidable, especially in the Punjab. It came from the lower middle class in the urban centres, part of the bourgeoisie that had been disenchanted with Bhutto’s style of governance and policies, as well as artisans, petty shopkeepers and workers returning from the middle East and elsewhere. The latter had improved their economic standing but had remained socially and politically conservative. They felt more comfortable with Zia’s Islamic, statusquo, orientation as opposed to Bhutto’s socialist rhetoric. Unfortunately, some sectarian groups, Sipah-i -Sahaba and Tehrik-i-Jafena also surfaced and flourished under Zia’s patronage. Ethnic parties especially MQM and its rival group Haqiqi were also said to be creation of the martial law administration. The reactionaries astonishingly, were so naïve as to expect the army to make over power to them after it had overthrown a functioning democratic order. However, their minds were soon disabused and the Generals decided they deserved to rule themselves. Thus, their hopes soon belied as the Zia’s regime began to beat the Islamic drum louder and louder. Some rightists felt pulled in his direction; others like the JI and Muslim League, despite their resignation from his cabinet, remained in his pocket.Zia’s attempt to Islamise and legitimise his rule for a new lease of life had further polarised country’s social segments. It came to be linked to the precepts of a particular brand of Islam and led to sectarianism, with religion becoming enmeshed within political controversies. He started a calculated move to part between Sindhi and non-Sindhi, Sindhi and Mohajir.