Today is the 40th anniversary of Gen Ziaul Haq’s toppling of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. Forty eventful and some not so eventful years later, we appear to have learnt nothing from the political tug of war that heralded the beginning of the most disastrous of the four military rules that Pakistan has witnessed in its 70 years of independence. And in the four military rules, I include the separation of East Pakistan under General Yahya Khan.
The Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) had succeeded in igniting a nationwide anti-Bhutto and anti-PPP movement against the alleged rigging of the elections held in March, 1977. The country was on fire. There was not one city or town which had remained unaffected. Lives were being lost and properties were being damaged. Governance had evaporated and the country was at a standstill. The destruction was there for everyone to see – except, of course, the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his closest aides who believed they could ride over the storm. That is what the trappings of power do to rulers, military and democratic alike. Unfortunately, I have lived to see many repeats.
Back to July 4, 1977. I was a junior officer in the government then but happened to be in a staff role that gave me access to information that was restricted and confidential. Assigned with the late Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, the most powerful and effective minister in Bhutto’s cabinet, my responsibilities included reading the daily situation report (SITREP) prepared by the intelligence agencies for circulation amongst a very limited number of holders of senior positions in the government. I read and highlighted the important parts of the report everyday and placed it in a secret folder for Pirzada to read. These reports vividly indicated a complete breakdown of law and order in the country and highlighted the tales of death and destruction across Pakistan.
On the afternoon of July 4, 1977, Pirzada asked me to accompany him to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in Rawalpindi. The PNA-government talks had been going on endlessly as was the anti-government agitation. The government team in the talks was led by PM Bhutto himself and included Abdul Hafeez Pirzada and Maulana Kausar Niazi while the PNA was represented by Mufti Mehmood, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan and Prof Abdul Ghafoor. As the talks progressed and prolonged, the two sides decided to form a two-member committee to draft the agreement, Pirzada and Prof Ghafoor representing the two sides.
As we drove along the then single lane road (now the five-lane Islamabad Expressway) from Faizabad to the Prime Minister’s Office in Rawalpindi via the airport, one could feel a strange uneasiness in the air. I raised the subject with Pirzada, pointing out the contents of that day’s SITREP which indicated the country was ablaze. I suggested that he advise the prime minister to conclude the negotiations without further loss of time.
My apprehensions arose as much from the contents of the SITREP as from Prof Ghafoor’s disclosure during the drafting session, at which I used to be present to note down and then incorporate the agreed amendments, that Air Marshal Asghar Khan was determined to torpedo the talks. Pirzada agreed with my assessment of the situation and indicated that the talks may conclude by that evening. As we reached the PM’s Secretariat, Pirzada asked me to drive down to the Press Information Department which was then located in Rawalpindi to find out what Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan had said in his press conference a little while ago.
There was no mobile phone or fax facility in those days. I drove over to the bureau office of PPI news agency where I was told that Nawabzada Nasrullah’s tone and tenor was positive and he had indicated that the talks were heading in the right direction and were likely to conclude soon. Being privy to the agreement drafting (I have a copy of the draft), I had every reason to believe what I was told. I telephoned the military secretary to the prime minister and requested him to convey the information to Pirzada, which is what he had asked me to do. Having completed my assignment, I decided to return to Islamabad as Pirzada was busy with the PM and was not likely to return soon.
It was almost dusk as I turned from Faizabad towards Zero Point. I noticed an army jeep parked alongside the highway with a young officer reading a sheet of paper, a map perhaps, I realised later. I did not give it much attention and was happy to be home after another busy and tiring day. It was well past midnight when my phone rang. At the other end was Ashraf Nadeem (now late), private secretary to Maulana Kausar Niazi, the then minister for religious affairs and an important member of the Bhutto Cabinet.
“They have taken him in a jeep,” he whispered. “Who has taken whom?” I asked. “The army came in a jeep and took Maulana Kausar Niazi,” he replied and added that Pirzada was already in the jeep when they came to take the Maulana. “The army has taken over,” he whispered again. The army jeep parked alongside the highway with the officer reading a map flashed back in my mind and I could now put the pieces together.
There were no private radio or television channels then. PTV and Radio Pakistan were the only available electronic media and even their transmission was not 24/7. Radio Pakistan started its transmission with a 6:00am news bulletin. I used to wait till six, when I tuned into Radio Pakistan only to hear the news reader say what the prime minister had said the evening before. It was only a few minutes into that bulletin that came the abrupt announcement of the dismissal of the government and the takeover by Gen Ziaul Haq.
The delay, I learnt later, was because the then information secretary and the then the director general of Radio Pakistan were not allowed inside the news station which was then housed in rented premises in Rawalpindi’s Satellite Town. The soldiers who had taken over the radio station would not allow them in until an army officer intervened. By the time they reached the news studio, the news reader had read the ousted prime minister’s statement, when he was waived the dismissal announcement and signalled to read it. Thus ended the rule of ZAB and began the rule of General Zia which saw Pakistan move towards its most disastrous political, sectarian and ethnic divide.
Pakistan today is not the same as it was on July 5, 1977. We need not worry about another military takeover, but we surely need to avoid the many pitfalls that are clearly visible to the naked eye. Are they also to those who matter?
The writer is a former federal secretary.