History must be remembered if not to repeat

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By Sarwar Bari

Thirty-two years ago, on August 17, General Zia along with some top military generals vanished into thin air. At the time he had already lost steam and was politically isolated. It became easy to assassinate him. He had many enemies. After his death his following dwindled further over the years. Hardly anybody including Nawaz Sharif — his gift to Pakistan — remembers him on his anniversary publicly. A fate all tyrants share. But his tyranny and modus operandi of his crony generals must be remembered and understood. History after all must be remembered if it is not to repeat. It is also important to revitalise and honour memories of those who heroically confronted Zia’s tyranny. Equally, it’s imperative to examine why some behaved cowardly and some betrayed the cause — civil liberties and democracy. 

The first set of names that should appear at the top of the list of traitors are the duly elected leaders of the most advanced, enlightened and liberal democracies of the West. Isn’t it strange that they wholeheartedly supported a tyrant dictator whose ideology was nakedly opposed to their own supposed progressive values? Even today, the whole world is suffering because of their unholy alliance. Inside the country, the collaborators list is long — clerics, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), feudals, conservative businessmen and some secular-nationalist politicians sided with the martial law authorities. Especially, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) helped the military dictator suppress rising resistance in educational institutions. Together they conspired to sabotage democracy in its infancy and hanged Mr Bhutto on false charges. Despite that, the military regime faced unprecedented resistance. Tens of thousands of political activists faced imprisonment, torture, flogging and exile as a result.

A file picture shows former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Gen ® Zia-ul-Haq (late) discussing ways to resolve their bilateral outstanding issues.

By 1981, some collaborators had earned enough humiliation for supporting Zia. When opposition parties formed the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), some of them were allowed to join it. In 1983, the MRD resistance had reached its peak and seriously damaged Zia’s support base both locally and globally. Finally, Zia was forced to hold general elections in 1985. Some of his old allies however, managed to deceive the MRD leadership by convincing them that, in principle, MRD should not take part in any election as long as martial law is not lifted. The day MRD announced the boycott of elections, Zia sighed relief, according to insiders. Thus, MRD leadership gave Zia an unjust lifeline. He held general elections in 1985 but parties were not allowed to contest. Though it was a muddy mandate, Zia managed to arrest the dwindling support of Western powers. But it proved to be a short-lived affair. Self-determination is inherently possessed by every being. Handpicked parliament and prime minister soon after their creation started challenging Zia even on strategic and not-so-strategic issues. Suffice to mention a few. 

Two sudden disasters though hugely separated by time and space, were similar in nature and had common consequences are likely to help understand the relationship between disasters and political processes. First, on August 4, massive explosions devastated Beirut — the capital of Lebanon – and caused more than 200 deaths and 7,000 injuries, besides rendering 300,000 people homeless. The blast is being linked to more than 2,500 tons of ammunition nitrate that had been stored in the port without proper safety measures for six years. The devastation triggered massive rage and since then the angry citizens were on the streets protesting against the infamously corrupt and callous politicians. Finally, the violent uprising forced the government to resign. Whether the country will be rid of corrupt elites or it may plummet the country into further civil unrest, only time will tell. At least, our experience is a mixed one. In Pakistan, a similar incident acted as a catalyst of change (from dictatorship to democracy) in 1988. We could not sustain the change as democracy was hijacked by extremely corrupt and incompetent politicians and adventurous generals. As a result, they deprived millions of our youth of their future. But we must not tolerate them as they made the country vulnerable to future military takeovers and extremist forces.

The other incident was on April 10, 1988, the people of Rawalpindi experienced a devastating explosion, which according to some sources killed 4,000 people including father and brother of Mr Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. The army reportedly had dumped more than 10,000 (five times more than Beirut) tons of arms and ammunition at Ojhri Camp located in a densely populated area of the city. Mr Muhammad Khan Junejo, a handpicked prime minister of General Zia, ordered an inquiry into the incident. Zia and his crony generals didn’t want him to hold the inquiry. Yet, he constituted two committees — one military and the other parliamentary, which infuriated the generals. The members of the National Assembly also wanted to make the inquiry report public and to punish those found responsible. It was found that the place “was used as an ammunition depot to forward US-supplied arms to Afghan Mujahideen. A Pentagon team was about to arrive to take audit of the stocks of the weapons and that allegedly the camp was blown up deliberately to cover up pilferage from the stocks”. Thirty-two years on, the report remains a secret. All successive civilian governments refused to make it public. 

The generals also did not want Pakistan to participate and sign the Geneva Accords. Four days after the Ojhri incident, Mr Junejo, perhaps one of the most honest and upright PMs of Pakistan, defied the military generals and signed the Geneva Accords along with Afghanistan. The US and the Soviet Union served as guarantors. The agreements also had provisions for the timetable for withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan — ending a nine-year-long presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Though Junejo was sacked on May 29, hardly a month later, it was the beginning of the end of Zia’s dictatorship. Within three months, his plane was blown over Bahawalpur. For the US and Western powers, he had served their purpose well and now was not only an embarrassment but also a liability. Though by that time the MRD movement had already fizzled out inside the country, most leading lights of the movement had to leave the country and reached Western capitals i.e. London, New York, etc. By 1985-86, Sher Muhammad Murree, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib, Miaraj Muhammad Khan, Afzal Bangash, Ahmad Faraz, Ataullah Mengal and other stalwarts had reached there. The anti-Zia movement was now gathering momentum in the epicentres of Zia’s support as their presence reinvigorated hundreds of political activists who had already taken asylum there. As a refugee myself, I vividly remember that the arrival of Rasool Bux Palijo radically enhanced our resolve against Zia’s dictatorship, in the UK. The presence of anti-dictator protesters had become frequent in front of Pakistan’s embassies — a huge embarrassment for host governments. 

Sadly, Zia’s end didn’t end injustices, inequality, poverty and corruption because the electoral system was hijacked by callous and greedy politicians. Political struggles are not just won on streets, they must be won by writing. Despite the passage of 32 years and coming to power thrice since 1988, neither the PPP nor any scholars bothered to write the history of the anti-Zia movement.

“If we don’t write our history, someone else will write it for us.” For “never again” has a funny way of striking back when people do not push back corrupt elites and forget their history.