Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Man Who Stooped to Conquer by Dr. Mehdi Hasan

Dr. Mehdi Hasan is the Vice Chairperson (Punjab) of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the Dean of School of Media & Communication at Beaconhouse National University.

The Man Who Stooped to Conquer by Dr. Mehdi Hasan, Dated, September 8, 1998

After the conviction of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by the Supreme Court, the heads of several countries urged the Chief Martial Law Administrator Gen. Ziaul Haq to remit the death sentence. The Western mediastated that a dead Bhutto would prove more dangerous for the military junta then a Bhutto alive.

This statement proved correct, but partially. A dead Bhutto was dangerous, only so far as he kept the PPP alive despite chaotic conditions among the leadership ranks and an onslaught by the military junta.

On the other hand, the legacy Bhutto's Frankenstein, Ziaul Haq left behind has proved more dangerous and more harmful for Pakistan. He has left so deep an imprint on society that even nine years after his death, the country remains under his shadow.

The worst conditions of law and order, unparalleled corruption national life, seemingly unstoppable sectarian sectarian violence, political opportunism, tax evasion, smuggling and anti-people stance of all governments after 1977 are some of the legacies of the departed military ruler, the most ruthless of all dictators Pakistan has had so far. And he did it all with a smile.

Gen. Zia was a master in the art of seeking favors from the right quarters, someone who did not mind stooping low in his attempt to conquer hearts. Ministers in ZA Bhutto's cabinet used to narrate an incident when during a break at a meeting a few drops of tea trickled from the cup on to prime minister's shoes. Gen. Zia quickly took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the shoe clean. According to another story, when Prime Minister Bhutto appointed him as the army chief, General Zia, on his own, called for a copy of the Quran and pledged his allegiance to the prime minister.

Zia didn't do this purely out of courtesy: he was careful that his good acts were properly registered.

A Karachi-based interior decorator narrates how he was assigned to renovate Mr. Bhutto's residence in Ghar Khuda Baksh in the 1970s and how he came across Gen. Zia there. He says that one evening he went to the family graveyard of the Bhutto's to offer fateha, to be followed there a few minutes later by Zia. The general also offered fateha and the started to dust the grave of Bhutto's father, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, with a broom. On enquiry, he said, he respected Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto like his own father and it was an honor for him to sweep his grave.

The interior decorator was impressed - until the general requested him to narrate the episode to Mr. Bhutto whenever he got the opportunity.

After he captured power on the night between July 4 and July 5 1977, it was largely his public relationing skills which made Zia appear as someone who could get away with anything. Even murder.

The general like to describe himself as a reluctant ruler, an assertion obviously directed at providing his ruthless acts a benign cover. He would give a helping hand to a toddler son of the Indian film actor Shatrugan Sinha to climb up the ladder in the C-in-C House and ask the child to call him grandfather.

He was fully aware of the importance of the Middle Eastern countries in Pakistan's foreign policy, especially in the background of the successful held Islamic summit, ironically by Bhutto, in 1974 at Lahore. Therefore, when he by-passed his announcement to hold election in 90 days, he decided to visit Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. After all he had rebelled against and imprisoned the president of the Islamic Conference and an immediate damage-control job was called for. He visited Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Libya. General Zia's visit to Libya had a special significance, as Qaddafi was a close friend of Bhutto. Libya, during Bhutto's time, had a large number of Pakistan Air Force men serving there on deputation. Besides, a small contingent of officers and men from Pakistan Navy was also stationed there on deputation. How Zia went about soliciting support of the large number of Pakistanis working there provides another example of his public relationing skills.

His entourage included Gen. FA Chistie, Air Cdr. Waqar Azim and Group Capt. MM Alam, who was especially included in the entourage. Only a few years earlier, at the outbreak of the Middle East war in 1973, Prime Minister Bhutto had sent a contingent of air defense controllers and fighter pilots to Syria, Jordan, Libya and Egypt as a gesture of solidarity. Alam was included in that contingent and was now recognized as a hero of the 1965 war with India.

After landing in Libya on November 5, 1977, Zia was driven straight to the state guesthouse and told to wait until Qaddafi could spare some time for him.

Meanwhile, Alam and Waqar Azeem arrived at Tripoli's biggest airbase, where majority of the Pakistani officers was stationed. All the Pakistani officers at the base were asked to gather and listen to the two PAF officers.

The visit came only five months after the imposition of martial law and the unkept promise of an election within 90 days was fresh in people's memory. Naturally, much of the discussion centered on the political situation back home. The opinion of the officers stationed in Libya was distinctly divided. Some believed the country had once again been rescued by the armed forces, while others held that something bad an unusual had happened in the form of martial law.

The two senior PAF visitors listened to the deputationists patiently and told them that Gen. Ziaul Haq would see them the next morning and answer whatever questions they had in mind.

Later, the PAF and Naval officers were summoned to attend Gen. Zia's briefing at the Pakistan embassy. Muslehuddin, the news controller of PTV, was present with his crew to record the proceedings. Some of the officers attended the meeting in civilian clothes as they served in Libya without uniform.

The general began the show by greeting everyone with his famous smile. Then he asked the television crew to leave, as the proceedings were off-the record. The process of making the tense atmosphere informal and cordial had begun.

Next, instead of occupying the presidential chair, he chose an ordinary seat placed against a small table. Still smiling, he began to address the audience. He said that being away from their country the officers might genuinely be worried about the events in Pakistan. And since he thought they were sure to already have an idea of the circumstances in which the army had to move in, he directly invited questions from the officers, without wasting any time on details. Obviously, Zia wanted to gauge the audience's mood before what he would say to them.

It was a few minutes before an officer broke the silence - in civilian dress. But first he introduced himself: "Sir, I am Flt, Lt. XYZ, Pak Number such and such and belonging to so and so branch of the PAF." Now, according to general convention, the officers of the armed forces divulge this information about themselves when kept as POWs. Senior officers present considered it a sarcastic remark on Martial Law, while the officer concerned might have in fact thought that since he was in civilian dress the introduction was necessary.

Even if it was meant to be sarcastic, the general ignored it and smilingly allowed the question. The officer reminded Zia that all martial laws in the past were imposed in the name of law and order and it was promised that democracy would be restored once the politics had been cleaned up. But that had never happened; what were the guarantees that Zia would leave after fulfilling his promise of holding elections?

General Ziaul Haq defended his act, saying that it had become unavoidable because of the rigging of the elections and mistreating the opposition alliance PNA. He told that gathering that due to Bhutto's policies, Pakistan had been totally cut off from the US and was almost at the point of entering the Soviet Bloc.

The questioner was not satisfied and proceeded with another query. He said that all persons in uniform were associated with Martial Law and therefore they were embarrassed to face the public.

That gave Zia something to Zia, which was certain to appeal to the gathering. He told them how the honor of the armed forces was endangered prior to the imposition of Martial Law and how it had been saved by his timely action.

Bhutto, he said, had called him earlier that year and expressed his dismay at the langra loola (crippled) military action against the PNA. "Why can't you call a few dozen of few hundred people to save the constitution and democratic government?" General Zia quoted Bhutto as asking him.

He said he told the Prime Minister that killing of few hundred people would not serve the purpose and the cost of such an action could go up to twenty thousand lives. If Zia's revelations were to be believed, Bhutto did not mind the price, maintaining that after all the army DID kill thousands of people in East Pakistan in an attempt to save the country. Notwithstanding whether he actually said it to Bhutto or not, the answer as related by Zia to the Tripoli audience did certainly have an element of truth in it. He said his reply was: There is a difference between East and West Pakistan. Pakistan army could not kill people in West Pakistan.

Today, in what is left of Pakistan, the political setup headed by Mian Nawaz Sharif and his close associates was built and patronized by Gen. Ziaul Haq in his 11-year rule. Although he was forced to pick up a Sindhi, Mohammad Khan Junejo, to head the civilian administration under the Martial Law umbrella, Zia did not have a smooth relationship with his own political choice; he ultimately sacked Junejo and fell back on his biggest support base - Punjab.

The acknowledgement and acceptance Gen. Zia received from Punjab was missing from other provinces. Even now huge hoardings and banners have been erected in Lahore to commemorate the death anniversary of Pakistan's last military ruler. Temporarily removed because of the August 14 celebrations, they display a smiling Zia and also show the province's inclination to condone military action.

The rise of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, in fact, was the continuation of the Zia-wave in Punjab. It is hardly surprising then that Nawaz has agreed to visit Zia's grave in Islamabad to commemorate the last military dictator's death anniversary.


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