Telling a paradox from contradictions

Gen Zia showed a great contempt for the constitution

Telling a paradox  from  contradictions

“What is a constitution? It is a booklet with ten or twelve pages. I can tear those away and say that tomorrow we shall live under a different system. Today, the people will follow wherever I lead. All the politicians, including the once mighty Mr Bhutto will follow me, their tails wagging”

— Zia ul Haq


ia was unable in the end to get rid of the constitution. He was very powerful for a while but no Napoleon Bonaparte. People of his ilk have always treated the constitution with derision. But he did not dispense with it entirely although he circumvented some of its provisions.

The discretionary powers he arrogated to himself and exercised were enormous. Interestingly long after his demise, not all the interventions he made have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Gen Zia ul Haq perished in a plane crash 34 years ago but a part of his legacy lives on and has in a way outlasted ZA Bhutto’s political bequest to the people of Pakistan.

Zia’s impact has been profoundly etched in the collective psyche and has been deeper and more monumental than any other ruler of the country.

A question put to any teacher of liberal arts or psychology today is whether a ‘contradiction’ found in a human is necessarily a negative trait? It is hard to pass a satisfactory judgment from an objective point of view. One thing is certain, however; contradicting oneself is a trait all humans share. Despite our best intentions, none of us can escape conflicts in our feelings, beliefs and desires.

An anthropologist might argue that having no major contradictions is good for us. On the other hand, the fissures between our principles and our actions can be a source of profound creativity and reflection. Most of us are walking, talking contradictions. We experience internal tensions that can seem irreconcilable. They’re also what make life interesting, make relationships valuable and explain why merit doesn’t always map to the outcome.

Zia’s impact has been profoundly etched in the collective psyche and has been deeper and more monumental than any other ruler of the country. 

But a retrospective scrutiny of Zia as a ruler has pointed out contradictions that have been blamed for completely mauling and mutilating the social and political ethos as well as important national institutions. He was portrayed as a firm believer in the ideology of an organised religion, yet he was starkly pragmatic in his political dealings. He made solemn promises to the people, only to renege later. It may not be out of place here to quote Altaf Gauhar in his critical appraisal of Zia.

“From the ashes rose a great hypocrite, Gen Zia ul Haq. He promised to hold elections and reneged on his promise. He set out to establish what he called an Islamic system of government and for eleven years the country remained enmeshed in the bushes of obscurantism and sectarianism. Gen Zia surpassed all other politicians in corrupting the democratic process. He exploited the politicians, including some leading ulema, with great skill, humility and piety. His grin concealed his arrogance and his cold-blooded nature. He, too, met a tragic end but by then he had distorted and mangled every institution.”

This criticism leads us to infer that he was more of a paradox than a pack of contradictions. Before proceeding any further, let’s clarify the distinction: how is a paradox different from contradiction?

A contradiction is something that cannot be true because it refutes its premises; a statement or proposition that despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems logically unacceptable or self-contradictory. In the strict sense, a paradox can neither be true nor false, because refuting the premises provides an equally false set of premises.

Human nature has its own paradoxes. The paradox of doing things that totally contradict our principles and beliefs is probably the most common one. Because it is inherent in our nature, it is almost impossible for us to resolve it. In simple terms, it is something (e.g., a situation) that is made up of opposites and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible.

His military secretary, Mahmud Ali Durrani, said he believed that Zia had used Islam for political purposes.

Gen Zia was a paradox; he could operate from two positions that appeared to be polar opposites.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts   at the   Beaconhouse National   University, Lahore.   He can be reached at

Telling a paradox from contradictions