Of the dead, say nothing but good…

By Ghazala Akbar:

We have become so accustomed and de- sensitised towards death these days in Pakistan that death anniversaries are not high on anybody’s priority list. In the midst of the ongoing Karachi carnage followed by the mosque bombing, August 17, 1988 came and went, unmarked, unnoticed. That was the day, the self- styled ‘soldier of Islam,’ Zia ul Haq was blown to oblivion, when his plane crashed mysteriously near Bahawalpur, thus ending another sorry chapter in our episodic history.

A grieving Pakistan laid the good General to rest with full Islamic rites although there was little or nothing of his body remaining. However, he bequeathed the Nation plenty.  ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred in their bones.’ Thirty-four years on, daily reminders of his toxic legacy choke Pakistani society at every level. ‘I will rule from the grave’ predicted the populist Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto whom Zia hanged in 1979. He was partially right but in the battle for ideas it his nemesis that is winning. The PPP may rule but the spirit of Zia lives on.

In a month where the body count due to ethnic killings in Karachi and a bomb attack on a mosque in Khyber- Pakhtunwa reaches several hundred it is well worth reflecting that both these incidents share a common thread. The seeds of both seemingly disparate incidents of violence, thousands of miles apart, were sown and nurtured in the period of General Zia’s rule. Present day Pakistan is the fruit of his misguided enterprise. No other ruler has managed to change the character of a state and its people in such short a time. Like it or not we are all Zia’s heirs.

Zia’s legacy is a litany that needs careful recounting: religious extremism and sectarian conflict, persecution of minorities, subjugation of women, introduction of Shariah courts, corporal punishment, blasphemy law, hudood ordinance, state patronage of religious fascists, rise of militant madrassahs, politics of ethnicity in Karachi, drug trafficking, kalashnikov culture, proxy war in Kashmir, creation of the Taleban, suppression of democracy and subversion of the constitution. It is a painful inheritance. And one that needs to be remembered –for all the wrong reasons.

This is the man who announced publicly that elections would be held in 90 days and then reneged on his promise — the man who trampled on the 1973 constitution describing it as ‘a mere piece of paper’ that could be held in ‘abeyance’. Its provisions were put through the shredder until the original document was unrecognisable. Out went the supremacy of Parliament and in came a Majlis- e Shura. Farcical ‘Party less’ elections were held and the office of the Prime Minister reduced to puppet status. The coup de grace was delivered with the infamous article 58/2b that gave the President the right to dismiss the Prime Minister. This has been invoked four times in our history derailing the country and retarding our political development.

However, it is on the societal level that Zia’s Islamification experiment has had the most impact. Under the guise of establishing a ‘Nizam e Mustafa’, this latter-day Aurangzeb would interpret Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan to mean a fascist- Islamic state in which minorities and women would have secondary status. Short of imposing, the Jizya tax on non-muslims, our pious ‘Momin’ brought in separate electorates for minorities, and strengthened the blasphemy law, making the offence punishable by death.

Women were a special target of the misogynist General’s social engineering. They were told to stay behind the ‘chador and the chardiwari.’ It was decreed that a woman’s testimony was equal to only half that of a man in civil cases– that the onus of proof in cases of rape would rest on the woman producing four witnesses –and that the punishment for the offence( if unproven) was death by stoning…for the woman! The absurdity of this cruel logic was brought to the fore when a blind thirteen-year-old brought charges against her rapists but was arrested herself for adultery!

Aided and abetted by sympathetic ideologues a distorted version of our Islamic ethos was force fed into our educational system, media and broadcasting services and culture. Under official patronage, the moral police lathi- charged our collective psyche. It was a theatre of the absurd: Mirza Ghalib’s irreverence was unislamic. ‘The Rape of the Lock’ banned in university curriculums: the title too risqué!  In one bizarre episode a cleric maintained that an on-screen ‘divorce’, play- acted by a couple was legally valid because the stars were married off the screen and more than four witnesses were present! Female TV announcers covered their heads on TV and women gradually disappeared from advertisements. Faced with such constraints, the cinema industry all but died.

In Zia’s Pakistan, boot-leggers were flogged but drug- running was acceptable. Banks deducted compulsory zakat but tax- dodging was a virtue. Usury was discouraged and yet the State borrowed from the IMF at exorbitant rates of interest. Is it any wonder that 34 years down the line that we are suffering from cultural and moral confusion?

Zia was able to force all this on us because he was firmly backed by the same elements of the religious right that had once opposed the creation of Pakistan. He was further emboldened by the support of those self- serving politicians who are always on the right side of the Establishment. The business class who had been severely harmed by Bhutto’s socialist experiment also joined in the chorus of approval. The West turned a blind eye — he was their front- line against the evil Soviet Empire– the bulwark against communism — and besides — the CIA’s biggest listening post was located in Islamabad.

Why is it important for us to remember all this? Because we are still suffering from the cumulative effect of his policies. Because a whole new generation of Pakistanis has risen, untutored and unfamiliar with the requisites of a tolerant, pluralistic society. Because the people who were his loudest cheerleaders, have re-invented themselves and are still in our midst. No. We must never forget Zia ul Haq, our self- appointed saviour. We must continually remember his legacy. For when we ask ourselves— how and where did it all go wrong—the eleven ‘lost’ years of his should be our marker. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum as they say in Latin, ‘of the dead, no evil speak.’ Sometimes there are exceptions.

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