General Zia remains one of the most controversial personalities of our era, not for the military dictatorship that was the cornerstone of his rule but rather for the legacy of extremism that he helped cultivate. The onset of radicalism can be traced from his reign, as he armed the Taliban in the bid to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan, in what was promulgated at the time as a holy war. The Soviets were forced to leave Afghanistan, joining the ranks of the British in the long list of imperial powers that had failed to exercise absolute authority in the rugged terrain of the war torn country.
Pakistan, under the supervision of Zia was a major architect of the eventual Soviet withdrawal. Zia’s domestic policies were overlooked by the democratic West, as long as he remained a staunch ally in the Mujahedeen movement, one exclusively organized and financed by the West. It is truly ironic that despite all the talk of the West being the advocate of democracy in the developing world, an authoritarian regime was blindly supported in the inexorable quest to preserve national interest. As is often the case, national interest superseded principle.
What we see in Pakistan today, all the senseless slaughter of innocent civilians, is the culmination of policies that began in earnest with our dear General. Here was a man who had hanged a democratically elected Prime Minister, despite calls of clemency coming from all over the world. A split decision by the Supreme Court should never have been grounds for conviction, and even so, the General was empowered with the power of clemency, a power that he did not exercise and the defiant Bhutto was sent to the gallows. Zia’s refusal to grant clemency to Bhutto is all the more ironic because it was Bhutto himself who appointed Zia as army chief, over many senior ranking military officials. Zia did apparently return the favor, by condemning his benefactor to death despite widespread international protests and domestic unrest.
Elections had been promised in 90 days, but Pakistan has a long history of broken promises and this was no different. In order to cement his standing, Zia played the Islamic card and thus began a protracted process of Islamization. By declaring himself as the self appointed guardian of Islam, he was able to induce a modicum of legitimization to his otherwise totalitarian rule. It has to be said, that his move, manipulative as it was, was a success in the political arena, for it allowed a man not chosen by the people to rule for about a decade.
Zia’s death, that too in mysterious circumstances, only adds to the complex character that he was. Despite his significance in Pakistani politics, little has been actually written about him. I recently read a book titled ‘ A Case of Exploding Mangoes’, which seeks to provide a rationale for his death, but ends up detailing a list of possible reasons without making any clear distinction of which actually caused the plane crash. Every story has a villain, and in light of the current extremism that has gripped our nation, Zia emerges as one of the people who history will mark with restrained contempt, owing to the legacy of fundamentalism he bequeathed to the nation.