Saturday, July 8, 2017

Business Recorder editorial July 8, 2017

The wages of the original sin Forty years after General Ziaul Haq’s military coup on July 5, 1977, Pakistan still has not been able to heal the wounds inflicted by that catastrophe. The story is no longer as familiar to present day generations. Therefore it may be instructive to delineate its main lines so that many of the scars on the body politic become at least explicable, even if they cannot be rubbed off. The coup took advantage of a political crisis engendered by charges of rigging of the 1977 elections by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s (ZAB’s) PPP government, at the precise moment when hopes were high that the government and the opposition grouping known as the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), the latter having mounted a countrywide street agitation against the former, were on the verge of an agreement that would have paved the way for fresh elections. The immediate trigger for the opposition’s agitation may have been the charge of rigged elections but the PPP government of ZAB was already in the dock of public opinion for many of its sins of omission and commission. Elevated to power in the wake of the 1971 separation of East Pakistan, ZAB turned on and alienated his own party’s left base, launched a military operation in Balochistan after dismissing the NAP-JUI government of Sardar Ataullah Mengal, and hounded his political opponents. This resulted in a broad political opposition to his government coalescing around the controversial 1977 elections. Zia moved, according to some accounts, on the night of July 4-5, 1977 to prevent a political settlement of the Balochistan nationalist insurgency at the time, which ZAB had reportedly conceded. Ironically, after Zia’s commitment to hold elections within 90 days of the coup was reversed when ZAB’s reinvigorated popularity frightened the military regime, Zia, fearing a two-front situation, plumped for compromise with the Baloch to deal better with the resurgent PPP threat. How he dealt with it, with help from the superior judiciary, is also well known: ZAB was hanged for murder. Zia now set about the so-called Islamisation of Pakistan with a vengeance. Religion had been used since independence to push back demands for provincial autonomy and progressive reforms whenever it seemed expedient. But now the state brought to the fore the mullahs and empowered them beyond their dreams. These retrograde forces were unleashed against democrats, liberals, progressives, minorities and women. Freedom of expression was scotched (some journalists being flogged), theocracy firmly established through shariah benches in the High and Supreme Courts apart from creating the Federal Shariat Court as well as through the proliferating (Saudi-funded) madrassas and religious texts in the educational curricula. Zakat and ushr now came to be collected by the state and the incremental tightening of punishments for blasphemy finally ended up in making the death penalty mandatory for it (the aftereffects of this development are visible today in the form of vigilante mob killings). Parliament members’ qualification became subject to religious orientation (the Sadiq and Ameen requirements of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution). Student unions were banned and morality brigades (official and unofficial) unleashed to enforce religiosity (although their malign effects faded with time). However, religiosity spread and continues to have state and society in its grip. The Afghan war came as a Godsend for Zia, extending his tenure until he fell foul of international (and some say some domestic) forces that led to his death in an air crash in 1988. The quasi-theocratic direction Zia set state and society in persists despite efforts to roll back its worst manifestations. Not all of Zia’s innovations however have been eliminated. Jinnah’s dream of a secular, democratic Pakistan lies buried beneath the desiderata of Zia’s self-serving and reactionary policies. Today Pakistan is unrecognisable as the country it was before his advent. Internal and external security, increasing poverty and immiseration and the truncation of citizens’ rights are only some of the enduring legacies of the dark dictatorship of Zia. Time to complete the rollback of his reactionary changes if Pakistani state and society are to regain some semblance of a modern, enlightened, forward looking entity.

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