The dogged legacy of Pakistan's most destructive dictator

The revolving door of democracy and dictatorship took Pakistan from a rising nation, to a reviled one. General Zia ul Haq's imprint on society and institutions runs so deep that decades after his death, Pakistanis are still failing to overpower it.

Photo by: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

General Muhammad Zia ul Haq adresses the Pakistani nation, on June 15, 1988, two months before he was killed in a plane crash.

Updated 19 hours ago.
Ammar Rashid The writer is a researcher and lecturer in gender, development and public policy and a member of Pakistan’s Awami Workers Party. @ammarrashidt

On the 5th of July 1977, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Zia ul Haq deposed the country’s elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and declared Martial Law to commence Pakistan’s third and longest military dictatorship in its history. Few realised then the extent of the catastrophic consequences his regime would have, for Pakistan and the world.

Over the course of the next decade, after having Bhutto executed, Zia fundamentally transformed Pakistan’s polity, creating an almost entirely theocratic form of government, empowering society’s most violent and intolerant impulses and undermining the basis of a plural and democratic political structure in Pakistan for decades to come.

To understand Zia’s impact on Pakistan 40 years on, it is important to understand what made his political project so distinctive (and so resistant to erosion).

Zia today occupies a uniquely contradictory position in Pakistan. Despite the endurance of his imprint on the country, he is more reviled than at any point since his assassination in 1988. Once feted as a global anti-communist and Islamic stalwart by the United States and Saudi Arabia, his birth and death anniversaries now pass without official commemoration, while the anniversary of his coup is observed as a ‘Black Day’ by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and other opposition groups.

The current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, once a veritable protégé of the dictator, now actively distances himself from Zia’s name and legacy. The army that Zia headed makes no attempt to memorialise him, conscious of the unwanted baggage of his association.

For those witness to Pakistan’s trajectory over the past decade and a half, such attitudes are unsurprising. The contradictions inherent in Zia’s attempt to construct a hardline religious identity –  with financial patronage from Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia –  for Pakistan have collapsed upon themselves devastatingly with the passage of time.

Zia’s cultivation and arming of organised jihadist groups in the CIA-sponsored Afghan Jihad led to untold death and destruction in the country – with estimates ranging from 60-80,000 dead over the last 15 years - while turning Pakistan into a hub for global jihad.

The dreaded blasphemy laws he strengthened became a convenient tool for the persecution and dispossession of minorities and other vulnerable groups. Shia Muslims in particular witnessed rising attacks during and after his reign, as armed Sunni sectarian groups multiplied under the sanction of his hardline Sunni-Deobandi-influenced regime, killing thousands.

Women’s social progress was set back by years as violently patriarchal legislation like the Hudood laws enabled grotesque levels of gender-based violence and a culture of social and legal impunity for crimes against women.

Yet, despite his personal unpopularity, Zia’s institutional and ideological legacy remains largely intact and unchallenged. Some of his legal ‘reforms’ – such as the death penalty for blasphemy – have even gained in popularity, with few political forces now willing to openly challenge such changes.

Part of the answer for why has to do with the success of his ideological project of Islamisation, which shifted society fundamentally rightward. Pakistan was of course no secular utopia prior to his takeover; yet the political landscape before Zia was vastly more progressive.

After the ‘71 election, the country was ruled by Bhutto’s Left-Populist PPP, elected on a platform of economic sovereignty, land reform and social welfare, while the main opposition was led by the Far-Left and secular National Awami Party (NAP), which ruled in the country’s western provinces. Organised labour and student unions dominated by the Left were influential political actors. Crucially, the infrastructure of militant jihad was nearly non-existent.

Many commentators today correctly point out that the Islamisation of Pakistan’s constitution and breakdown of democratic politics began not under Zia but Bhutto, who introduced the 2nd Constitutional Amendment declaring the Ahmedi sect non-Muslim, created an Islamic Ideology Council and later banned alcohol, all to appease the Islamist Right. Yet Bhutto’s own mistakes, real though they were, are often used to distract from the sheer scale and durability of Zia’s changes, which were considerably more far-reaching.

Zia’s ideological project went deeper into the foundations of Pakistani state and society than any before or after him. Beyond just the well-known expansion of fundamentalist seminaries under his rule, his education policies – envisioned to induce a ‘loyalty to Islam and Pakistan’ and a ‘living consciousness of ideological identity’ - mandated a narrow religious and historical pedagogy in the curriculum at all grade levels that glorified war and conquest, demonised minorities and vilified critical and secular thought.

Public sector universities where students had challenged previous military regimes were purged of progressive teachers and replaced by faculty with ties to the Jamaat-e-Islami. The (mostly Sunni-Deobandi) clergy was accommodated in state institutions by the tens of thousands, from the upper echelons of the judiciary to the lowest rungs of the civil-military bureaucracy.

Recent studies have shown how a large part of the generation that was born in the wake of his regime (now the majority of Pakistan’s population, aptly referred to by some as the ‘Zia Generation’) grew up to reflect his worldview on everything from the military’s role in politics, to nostalgia about a romanticised Islamic past. Even as Zia’s figure became tainted, his ideas continued to infect unwitting minds.

Yet, the generational endurance of Zia’s influence is not solely a consequence of ideology but institutional reengineering. Zia also systematically dismantled Pakistan’s political institutions, effectively undermining people’s very ability to organise and engage in political resistance.

The prolonged restrictions on political activity and blanket bans on party-based electoral competition throughout his regime – to prevent the consolidation of resistance to his rule – deeply disfigured Pakistan’s political system.

Scholars like Ali Cheema have pointed out how Zia’s institution of non-party elections led to a fragmentation and localization of political issues and the loss of more universalistic bases of political participation. Gradually, politics transformed from the relatively ideological and participatory arena of the ‘70s to a collection of local, informal relationships between patrons and clients for the distribution of state resources along narrow clan, ethnic or religious lines in a process managed by the civil-military bureaucracy.

To this day, in the absence of sufficiently evolved formal political parties, the Pakistani electoral system continues to revolve around powerful local dynasties, most of whom have little loyalty to ideology or even to their own party.

Other institutions for collective action were also decimated by Zia. Trade union strikes and demonstrations were banned for nearly a decade under martial law, while trade unionism was banned altogether in the bulk of the public sector.

The US-allied regime, coinciding with the rise of the neoliberal consensus, was catastrophic for the trade union movement, whose membership dropped by 20 percent under his rule and never recovered; today, Pakistan boasts one of the least organised labour forces in the world (with unionisation at less than 3%).

Student unions, then one of the main vehicles of ideological resistance to dictatorship and fundamentalism, were banned altogether by the regime in 1984; 33 years later, they remain proscribed. As the main spaces for progressive and working class organisation were dismantled, the only ideological political project that survived was that of the Islamist Right.

It is perhaps understandable, though not excusable, that subsequent civilian governments have left Zia’s ideological legacy untouched, fearing the fallout from an electorate that has grown visibly more conservative.

Undoing his imprint on political institutions however – for instance, by lifting restrictions on unions - is much more immediately feasible; that it has still not happened speaks more to the myopic considerations of political and economic elites fearful of losing their positions under conditions of strengthened democratic institutions.

As Pakistan inches toward completing two uninterrupted democratic cycles, with a young population eager to progress beyond cycles of war and terror, there are new opportunities to disassemble Zia’s destructive inheritance. For this to happen, whatever remains of progressive political leadership in Pakistan will have to step up and move beyond cathartic condemnations and declare war on Zia’s ideological and institutional legacy. 

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