The late General Zia ul Haq has been the proverbial punching bag for every Pakistani since he snatched power from the self appointed Quaid-e-Awam, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on 5 July 1977, in his bloodless coup. Whether it be for the execution of Bhutto, the radicalisation of Islam or the third and longest martial rule that Pakistan has endured, Zia ul Haq’s reign and policies have always been a very controversial topic.

Blaming Zia for all of Pakistan’s ills is considered customary if not necessary. To say that his impact on the polity and society of Pakistan was game-changing, is a gross understatement. However, things that came full circle during Zia’s martial law had their seeds sown in the years proceeding his rule.

Pakistan before Zia

Mohammad Ali Jinnah

The founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah did not advocate religious policy but neither did he completely disown the religious motive behind Pakistan. Jinnah often maintained that he was asking for a democratic state, and that was what Islam essentially stood for. Jinnah and Bhutto were both liberal men themselves and maintained a secular posture. That being said, religion has always been used by politicians as a tool to mobilise the masses in Pakistan’s history.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took centre stage in Pakistan’s politics, many religious parties benefited from his attempts to win them over. The constitution of 1973 declared Islam as the state religion and much power was invested in the Council of Islamic Ideology. He also amended the constitution in 1974 to classify Ahmedis as non-muslims.

Bhutto’s government would provide the platform from which Zia would launch his own vision for Pakistan.

Pakistan under Zia’s rule

1978-Journalists being arrested

The sanctioning of Martial Law in 1977, would prove to be extremely disadvantageous and dangerous to political activists and journalists, leading to arrests and floggings. Zia’s promise of holding elections within 90 days would never materialise. This would also be the year that Bhutto would be arrested for conspiracy to murder.

1978 was declared as the year of Islamisation by Zia. School syllabi were revised to increase religious related lessons in text-books and sectarianism would dominate the previously secular classrooms. His referendum on Islamisation would give him 5 more years to fully accomplish the goals he had envisioned for Pakistan. Towards the end of 1978, Zia would have instilled Shariat benches at the high-court and an appellate Shariat bench at the Supreme Court Level.

1979-Nusrat Bhutto’s reaction at her husband’s execution

On April 4 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would be hanged in Rawalpindi and in December of that year, the Soviet Union would invade Afghanistan, launching Pakistan into a proxy war on behalf of America and Saudi Arabia.

In the following years, student unions would be banned, the use of Islamic nomenclature by Ahmedis would be prohibited, the parliament would be dubbed as ‘Majlis e Shura’ and Shariat Law would be the law of the land.

Women protest against Zia

In 1985 Muhammad Khan Junejo would be appointed as the Prime Minister only to dismissed and have his government dissolved by Zia 3 years later.

Zia’s plane crash

Pakistan would only escape Zia’s clutches with his passing on August 17,1988 when his plane would crash near Bahawalpur, killing him and 31 others.

Pakistan after Zia

News clipping of Zia’s plane crash

40 years after Zia seized power from Bhutto, Pakistan is still enduring the aftershocks of his reign. There has been a profound increase in sectarian conflicts and violence, intolerance towards minorities and what we generally call mullahism. Zia focused solely on the ritualistic aspects of a religion. He effectively killed the spirit of Islam, making minds narrow and causing tolerance to plummet.


The Afghan War-which might have been a necessary evil at that time-would take its toll on Pakistan for generations to come. Our nation became a transit route for smuggling weapons and drugs. The Klashinkov culture was introduced in Pakistan and narcotics became a necessary commodity. Fast forward few decades and the war in Afghanistan would turn into a war that the Pakistani Army would be fighting on a daily basis on Pakistani soil against extremist elements, at the cost of Pakistani lives.

What motivated Zia? The power, the money or the thought that he was an appointed devotee of God?

After 29 years of Zia’s demise, his draconian seeds still grow and thrive in our laws and legislature. What’s more troubling though is the lack of questioning and resistance to those ideas. Blaming Zia alone for the radicalization of Islam and other fundamental issues that plague Pakistan is an over-simplification. It removes us from the equation, making us unaccountable for our own actions and in the process making us quite ignorant.


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