July 5, 1977, will be remembered as the darkest day in Pakistan’s history. General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto through a coup d'état and imposed martial law in Pakistan. He announced that new elections would be held soon but, as we all know, military dictators are not to be trusted. For the next 11 years, General Zia tormented the people of Pakistan through his brutal rule.
Public floggings were held to put fear in the hearts of the dissident voices. Political opponents were jailed and brutally tortured. Religious zealots were let loose on the public. Sectarianism flourished. As a consequence of the Afghan jihad, violence was glorified in the name of Islam. Draconian laws such as the blasphemy laws and Hudood Ordinances were introduced. The Ahmadiyya community, having already been declared non-Muslims in 1974, were further ostracised from society by the promulgation of Ordinance XX. Weaponisation of society, glorification of extremist religious ideology, state-protection of mass murderers and the de-politicisation of the Pakistani state was a result of General Zia’s dark rule. More than two decades after General Zia’s death, Pakistan is still haunted by his legacy.
My generation is often called ‘Zia’s children’. I was born in a Pakistan that was getting more intolerant with every passing minute. General Zia was part of the most powerful institution of Pakistan, i.e. the military. He not only strengthened the military’s hold over the country but also radicalised the society. Thanks to General Zia-ul-Haq’s policies, we — the people of Pakistan — are dying a silent death every second of our existence. When a sitting governor of the country’s populous province (Punjab) — Salmaan Taseer — was assassinated by his fanatical bodyguard, we saw the assassin being garlanded by some in the lawyers’ community. Funds for a mosque are being collected in the name of that self-confessed murderer in the capital of Pakistan, yet we do not see anyone protesting against this disgusting act. A mentally unstable man was accused of desecrating the holy Quran in Punjab’s district. He was pulled out of the police station this Tuesday by a large mob, beaten to death and his corpse was burnt to the ashes while the police was helpless to stop this massacre. Farida Afridi, a social worker helping the women of the tribal areas, was shot dead just two days ago. Her crime: informing women of their rights. These two incidents should have shocked the entire nation but the opposition parties as well as religious groups are busy protesting against the reopening of the NATO supply routes. Ahmadis and Shias are victims of targeted killing all over the country but our judiciary is more interested in convicting an elected prime minister for contempt of court and pressurising the government one way or the other. The military has turned a blind eye to everything because it only wants to protect its jihadi ‘assets’ and keep sole control over our defence and foreign policies. Who cares about the plight of the religious and ethnic minorities? No one. Who cares about the fact that outspoken voices like that of Asma Jahangir are under imminent threat from the military and its proxies? No one. Who cares that most people are now afraid to speak freely even in private gatherings lest their views be repeated somewhere else and they be accused of blasphemy? No one.
This is General Zia’s legacy. This is the Pakistan we live in today. If we want to live in a more secure, tolerant, pluralist and democratic Pakistan, we must stand together, lift the haunting shadows of Zia’s legacy and break free.
The writer is a Pakistani journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org