Saturday September 30, 2023

Remembering 1977

August 29, 2022

The year 2022 marks 45 years since the fateful days of 1977. As the nation prepared to celebrate 30 years of its independence, the country that had already lost its eastern wing just five years earlier experienced turmoil once again. In a way, the year 1977 set the course for future decades.

Pakistan was under attack from the most conservative and rightist forces; their impact was evident in education too. Student wings of religious parties became active in agitation against the Bhutto government. Most colleges, universities, and even some schools – mostly in urban areas – witnessed demonstrations by those who wanted a theocratic government in Pakistan.

The government closed education institutions and suspended classes for months. In an attempt to save his government, Z A Bhutto announced some measures to placate the religious right: banning the trade of alcoholic beverages, permanently closing all wine shops and nightclubs, imposing a complete ban on gambling, and moving the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday.

While surrendering to the demands of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) for strict Islamic laws in the country, he invited Maulana Maudoodi, Mufti Mehmood, and Maulana Noorani to join the Islamic Ideological Council (IIC). He tried to defuse the group’s religious momentum, which rejected this as a ruse. This clearly showed that it was not content with Islamic laws, and its objective was to remove the Bhutto government and its relatively liberal and progressive outlook from the country. The Bhutto government imposed martial law in Hyderabad, Karachi, and Lahore, and curfew in Lyallpur (present-day Faisalabad).

As the army took control of major cities, the martial-law authorities, on April 23, threatened to execute those who prevented employees from attending work. This was a harsh warning and stoked the fire even more. On April 24, the martial-law authorities imposed censorship on newspapers in Lahore. This made the Bhutto government look like a tyranny, as censorship reeks of desperate times.

On April 27, the chiefs of army, air force, and navy issued a joint declaration about their support to the government. This was ostensibly to bolster Bhutto’s position, but actually served other purposes.

This declaration did not only give a false impression to Bhutto that the establishment was behind him but also elicited sterner responses from the government towards the opposition. On May 2, 1977, the martial-law authorities issued another warning to protesting students that their demonstrations would face a severe crackdown. It fueled the fire and as the government tried to restore educational activities there were even more troubles in schools and colleges.

On May 11, the government announced a 50 to 100 per cent increase in teachers’ salaries. This was an attempt to prevent teachers from involving themselves in anti-government agitation.

In major cities, thousands of teachers siding with the PNA had incited students to fight for theocracy in Pakistan. Under the guise of restoring order and providing relief to the people, the martial-law authorities imposed price controls. With surging inflation, the mutton and beef prices were fixed at Rs15 and Rs7 per kg, respectively.

The judiciary in Pakistan has occasionally validated martial laws; on June 7, 1977, the Lahore High Court surprisingly declared that the martial law that Bhutto had imposed in major cities was unconstitutional.

This was another blow to an already struggling government that was desperate to reach an agreement with the opposition. On July 1, the country moved from Sunday to Friday as a weekly holiday for the first time. But just four days later when the PPP and the PNA were about to reach an agreement for fresh elections, the late army chief General Ziaul Haq, on July 5, 1977, mounted a military coup, imposed a countrywide martial law and appointed himself the chief martial law administrator (CMLA).

He dissolved all assemblies and the Senate of Pakistan, imposed a ban on all political activities, suspended the constitution, and arrested most political leaders from both sides.

He promised to hold elections within 90 days and leave the government. He was not to fulfil his promises. Initially, the chief justices of high courts took oath as provincial governors. This was a clever move to entice the judges to an unconstitutional setup.

On July 7, Gen Zia barred all courts in the country – including the Supreme Court and high courts – from hearing any petition against any martial-law regulation. Clinging to their new appointments as governors, no judge resigned in protest or raised a voice.

The good old Sharifuddin Pirzada came in handy as the new attorney general of Pakistan. A week after forcefully taking over the country and imposing a ban on all political activities, General Zia banned all trade union activities too. The governors were just show pieces as the real power concentrated in the hands of provincial martial-law administrators.

In Punjab, General Iqbal Khan ruled the roost. Those who think that General Zia used his religious card much later may reconsider. On July 10, he announced that thieves would have their hands amputated, dacoits hanged, and molesters would get lashes.

This was the beginning of a massive brutalization of society. General Zia extended these punishments to anyone involved in political or trade union activities. Even incitement to strikes would result in lashes. With a lightning speed the entire government machinery was put under the direct control of deputy martial-law administrators and sub martial-law administrators.

Since the honourable chief justices of high courts were serving as governors, General Zia appointed new judges. This is how even more judges benefitted from the largesse of the military dictatorship. If it was illegal or unconstitutional, so be it. Who cares?

General Zia’s intentions became clearer within two weeks when he barred all under-arrest political leaders from meeting any visitors. Through the visitors, the leaders were indulging in propaganda of political ideas. Can you believe this? Two days later, on July 21, he issued new martial-law regulations announcing death penalty to those who work against national integrity.

Also, he announced capital punishment for anyone who tried to incite people against the CMLA or against the government in any way. These martial-law orders allowed detaining anyone or barring him/her from political activities, and nobody could challenge any martial regulation in any court of law. Still, no judge resigned or protested.

On July 28, the martial-law government released political leaders including Bhutto. After his release, Bhutto received massive receptions by people at railway stations. As if per plan, on July 30, the murder case of Nawab Muhammad Ahmed Khan against Z A Bhutto suddenly activated. Within a week, the CMLA issued orders that political leaders could not travel by train, and should board a plane. To instill fear in people, a police constable was publicly lashed on charges of bribery in Lahore.

The very next day, on August 12, 1977, the martial-law authorities awarded a sentence of imprisonment and lashes to Jahangir Badr and 11 other PPP workers. The lashes to the policeman were just a prelude to more sinister acts. Since Gen Zia had not yet reneged on his promise to hold elections in October, some people still believed him.

Bhutto – long before Bilawal – used the word ‘selection’ instead of election by expressing his fear that the military government was planning to conduct ‘selection’ in October.

The martial-law administration removed nearly all divisional commissioners, ensuring that no PPP-appointed officer remained there.

Continuing with his religious facade, Gen Zia ordered all TV stations to air prayer calls and telecast special sehri transmissions during Ramazan. Men on TV had to wear sherwanis, and women had to cover their heads. All this happened within the first 40 days of the military takeover.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: