Pakistan’s Black Day

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Pakistan’s Black Day

How the military engineered its July 5, 1977 coup, leading to 11 years of martial law.

Pakistan’s Black Day

Followers of late Pakistan military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq carry his pictures as they assemble at his grave in Islamabad on August 17, 1996 to mark his 8th death anniversary.

Credit: Reuters

July 5 is a “Black Day” (not necessarily the only one) in Pakistan’s political and constitutional history. Exactly 39 years ago on this day in 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, then Chief of Army Staff (COAS), imposed martial law in the country and dissolved national and provincial assemblies—all in one go. In his first post-coup speech, General Zia clarified that the decision to impose martial law was taken as a last resort and only to save the country from the tumult and chaos that had ensued in the wake of controversial March 1977 parliamentary elections. According to Zia, the parleys between the government and the protesting opposition conglomerate, Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) were going nowhere; a schism within the ranks of junior army officers was taking hold; and the country was at the brink of collapse.

However, in the same breath he reaffirmed that “the survival of this country [Pakistan] lies in democracy and democracy alone,” and that his “sole aim is to organize free and fair elections, which would be held in October this year,” or within 90 days of Zia’s coup. Emphasizing his commitment to parliamentary elections, Zia proclaimed, “Soon after the polls, power will be transferred to the elected representatives of the people. I give my solemn assurance that I will not deviate from this schedule.” (Quotes in this paragraph come from Hasan-Askari Rizvi’s The Military and Politics in Pakistan, pp. 289-93).

Although there’s little conclusive evidence that General Zia’s declaration of martial law was premeditated, or that he extended active support to PNA leaders to create conditions favorable to the military take-over, the events leading up to the 1977 elections and what transpired later however, cast doubt on the credibility of men in uniform. It seems unlikely that the coup was anything but carefully thought out. By 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then-prime minister of Pakistan, had already successfully averted two botched coups by the military establishment since he assumed office in 1971. The military was constantly looking for excuses to get power back from civilians. Bhutto gave plenty of excuses to the generals by arbitrarily sacking government officials, persecuting his political opponents, and nettling the generals by making new security and intelligence agencies — notably the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the Federal Security Force (FSF) — that arguably set Bhutto on a collision course with GHQ. However, that alone was not enough to help military wrestle power from the most popular and charismatic leader with a wide and ferocious fan-base in Sindh and Punjab.

Clearly, the military wanted something concrete to hedge their bets which, according to Husain Haqqani, could reasonably be achieved if a legitimacy crisis was engineered through a “political disorder.” As Haqqani wrote in Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, “Bhutto’s legitimacy as a civilian leader derived from his success in a general election; only electoral defeat or election victory attained by questionable means could render Bhutto’s political legitimacy questionable. The military could not topple Bhutto without [first] delegitimizing his leadership position [among the populace].”

Hence, as Haqqani argues, the Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) position paper to Bhutto recommending that he hold early elections should be interpreted—although not conclusively—as an incipient attempt by the military leadership to entrap Bhutto. The first paper came in April 1976 and a second followed on October 5. Entitled “General Elections” and signed by General Jilani, then director-general of ISI, the 53-page paper suggested that “Bhutto was at the height of his popularity and would sweep the polls in the face of a divided opposition.” Indeed, in hindsight, while facing trial before the Supreme Court and in the deposed prime minister’s private conversations, Haqqani notes, “Bhutto hinted [at] the possibility of having been trapped in a conspiracy by the military and intelligence services.” However, as Haqqani cautions, Bhutto would likely not have taken the military’s recommendations on their face if the empirical evidence had not strongly laid on his side.

In the article “The March 1977 Elections in Pakistan: Where Everyone Lost,” Marvin Winbaum notes the many reasons Bhutto had to be confident: “the rate of inflation at 6 percent was down from an average of 25 percent between 1972 and 1975. Real GNP was growing at 5 percent, up from a 3 percent a year earlier. The agricultural sector was growing after years of stagnation with the help from ‘heavy public investment in tube wells and subsidies for fertilizer, pesticides and other farm inputs.’” Overall, although Bhutto had several potential pitfalls on his side in terms of mass-scale nationalization of industries and his suppression of opponents, he fared well in many sectors, including law and order, political stability, economic progress, and human development. That might have convinced him to reap the political dividends before any spoiler could arise.

Thus the polls date for national assembly elections was set as March 7, 1977, with elections for the provincial assemblies on March 10. The elections, however, did not go as smoothly as predicted. There were incidents of violence and the stealing of ballot boxes from polling stations. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) government was accused of rigging the elections and the conglomerate of opposition political parties took to the streets. Bhutto ordered the military to “act in aid of civil power”—a constitutional right of the federal government— to control the protesters. Nearly 200 people died with even more wounded in less than four months, from March 7 to July 4.

However, that does not mean the warring parties could not have come to the negotiating table. In fact, Saudi-brokered negotiations followed on the heels of the demonstrations. By mid-June, Bhutto had agreed to hold parliamentary elections afresh in October and the PNA agreed to drop its insistence on Bhutto’s resignation. However, Bhutto then went on a tour of Middle Eastern countries, leaving everything up in the air. Although he might have breathed a sigh of relief in the hope that an agreement had been reached and a political cyclone had passed, the opposition and military, on the other hand, got the impression that Bhutto perhaps was insincere or indifferent to the grievances of the opposition.

Upon his return Bhutto was amazed to learn that the opposition was still up in arms. In fact, there are indications that the military was playing the role of a “spoiler” rather than of a “facilitator.” Asghar Khan and a coterie of his PNA hardliners, for instance, tried to block the conciliatory efforts of the PNA moderates under the “iron-clad guarantee from the army headquarters” that generals would hold “free and fair elections within three months of ousting Bhutto,” according to Aqil Shah in The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan. This account is corroborated by Ghafoor Ahmed, then-secretary general of the PNA and a key negotiator in the talks, who later admitted that “we were under constant pressure from the hawks to abort the negotiations. It could not have been just a bluff. Asghar Khan could not have claimed to speak on behalf of the army without the high command’s nod.” Similar claims were made by Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, a key figure in the PNA. In his words, “the ISI was playing each side against the other, sowing mistrust in the minds of the PNA regarding Bhutto and vice versa” (For more, see Shah, pp. 137-138 and Haqqani, pp. 124-25).

The military’s spoiler role, if any, notwithstanding, the warring political parties still reached an agreement in the first week of July 1977. As host Farrukh Sohail Goindi explained in an interview with General Faiz A. Chishti, “the government and PNA had reached an agreement on July 3, 1977. On July 4, both parties had a press conference and on July 5, they were set to sign the agreement. But before that could happen, Zia struck the axe of martial law on the night of July 5.” According to Chishti however, when asked if it was the right decision by the military establishment to impose martial law on July 5, the answer was yes. Chishti explained that the decision to impose martial law was justified but what came later—the prolongation of martial law and reneging on the promise to hold elections within 90 days—was not.

It’s plausible. Martial law is a slippery slope, whereby a general and what Chishti calls his “loyal lieutenants” (and Chishti himself was one of them), initially driven by a desire to stabilize law and order later deem themselves too indispensable to cede power to civilians. However, the fundamental question remains: was the sky really falling when General Zia imposed martial law? In other words, was it really the case that law and order was in shambles and the country was at the brink of collapse?

The empirical evidence on ground does not fully support coup-makers’ claim that the situation was so terribly bad or that the country was on the brink of disintegration. Intuitively, the crisis should have peaked before the negotiations started and incrementally deflated after the parleys seemed to be working. If accounts from Goindi, Shah, and Haqqani, among others, are reliable, then the parties had reached a workable agreement on July 2-3. In that case, the crisis should have subsided if not fully eliminated, (assuming there were only two parties to the agreement and no one was left aggrieved) and the coup would have become anything but warranted.

Indeed, as Shah notes, “After the initial wave of heightened protest and violence between March and April, the levels of violence had [actually] gone down, and curfews in the main cities had been relaxed.” According to PPP sources, “the general law and order situation in the country had remained calm since at least May 26, and there was no immediate necessity for action on July 5, 1977.”

Counterintuitively named as “Operation Fairplay,” the martial law declared on July 5 would be the longest and the most brutal in Pakistan’s politico-constitutional history. Initially, both the senior leadership of PPP, including Bhutto, and the PNA leadership were taken into custody, but later released. Only Bhutto was taken into custody again. He was convicted in a sham trial for the murder of a political opponent and executed. Zia would not hold elections for more than 90 months, after originally promising polls within 90 days. But before that, Zia got himself elected president in a questionable referendum that gave him 97.7 percent support from the electorate.

Yet, despite winning a nearly absolute majority, Zia never doffed his military uniform and continued to wear two hats—the chief of army staff and the president. During that period, most of the parties that made up the PNA (including Jamaat-e-Islami and the Pakistan Democratic Alliance) joined Zia’s cabinet rather than pressing for early elections. However, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, the head of the Pakistan Democratic Alliance, later withdrew from Zia’s cabinet and joined the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), which he co-founded with the PPP to oppose the military rule and restore the democracy. The government brutally tortured and killed the MRD activists and leaders but never ceded power to the civilians.

In 1985, General Zia held parliamentary elections—albeit on a non-party basis—and devolved power to the newly elected prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo. Critics such as Craig Baxter argue that Zia organized elections under U.S. pressure and never transferred real power to the prime minister—simply because the power to sack the government, notably under article 58(2)b, still remained with Zia himself. Burki and Baxter cite evidence to point out that the first victim of article 58(2)b was none other than Junejo himself, as Zia dismissed the government when he saw Pakistan’s controlled democracy getting out of hand.

Nonetheless, it’s significant to note that in 1985 Zia still kept his promise to hold elections and devolved power to the elected government. The fault for the new government’s inability to perform better and stay in power however lay with the civilians not with the general.

Ahsan Chaudhary holds masters degrees in law and international relations from universities in Pakistan and the United Kingdom.  He was a Commonwealth Scholar 2014-15 at the University of Bristol, U.K.