Home Digital Magazine August 2019 issue Gen Zia’s Crash & Return of Democracy: Reflections after 31 Years

Gen Zia’s Crash & Return of Democracy: Reflections after 31 Years

Was it a technical failure in C-130 plane or sabotage by powerful elements; did mangoes spontaneously explode or was there a release of nerve gas inside the plane? Thirty-one years on, there are no clear answers. Assistant Editor of Global Village Space argues how long after General Zia’s death, his impact continues to reverberate in Pakistan through his institutional and ideological legacy.

Zia

On August 17, 1988, ex-president General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq died in a plane crash. General-turned-president Zia (literal meaning light), the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, Pakistan’s senior army officers, Arnold Raphel, the United States Ambassador to Pakistan and Brig. Gen Herbert Wassom, US military attaché were among the dead.

Pakistan’s military dictator, and most who mattered around him were suddenly eliminated from the scene when a C-130 plane carrying him exploded in the midair soon after take-off from the Bahawalpur airbase.

For his self-centered policies aiming to make Pakistan a citadel of Islam, history has put him in a contradictory position in Pakistan. Sharif, once a protégé of the dictator, now maintains a distance from Zia’s name and legacy.

General had gone to inspect military units and to witness a demonstration of the new American Abrams tank on a hot and dusty afternoon. Reportedly, the two-and-a-half-hour event turned out to be a fiasco, as the tank missed its target 10 out of 10 times. Before boarding the plane, he had warmly hugged the generals that stayed back – including Gen Mirza Aslam Baig, who became the COAS after the tragedy.

In the plane, Gen Zia’s friend Gen Akhtar, then Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee – who earlier headed the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for almost a decade, a major architect for the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets – sat next to him.

Read more: An overview of Pakistani politics from 1947 to Gen. Zia

Akhtar had accompanied Zia after he was advised that Zia was on the verge of making some changes in the army, especially, after the Ojhri Camp disaster which saw the end of ex-prime minister Muhammad Khan Junejo’s government on May 29, 1988.

On April 10, 1988, roughly four months before the plane crash, a massive explosion at the arms and ammunition depot at Ojhri, located between Rawalpindi and Islamabad, had rocked the twin cities. All kinds of missiles, rockets and projectiles started raining down in all directions when the depot had mysteriously blown up.

Officially the death toll was 30 but the independent estimate put the figure over 100 men, women and children and hundreds of people were injured when the explosion rained death and destruction on the twin cities.

General had gone to inspect military units and to witness a demonstration of the new American Abrams tank on a hot and dusty afternoon.

Prominent among those killed was a federal minister Khaqan Abbasi, the father of former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, whose car was hit by a flying missile while he was on his way to Murree, his hometown. His son Zahid Abbasi had suffered a head injury, went into a deep coma and died after remaining on artificial respiration for 17 years.

As the high-profile passengers boarded Pak One – an American built Hercules C-130 – Lieutenant General Aslam Beg, the then army’s vice chief of staff, waved goodbye from the runway. He was the only top general in the chain of command who did not aboard Pak One that day. Instead, he took a smaller turbojet after Pak One was airborne.

Read more: General Zia: The 10 Year Reign That Lost Pakistan’s Soul

At 3:51 pm, all 30 persons on board were dead when C-130 slammed into the ground near the Sutlej river. Gen Beg’s jet circled over the burning wreckage for a moment and then headed to Islamabad.

Sabotage, Foreign Hand, Cover-up or ‘Act of God’?

31 years have passed, at least two high powered investigations were conducted, one by Pakistan and the other by the United States; but no satisfactory cause was ever found. US investigators had concluded that the crash was caused by a mechanical problem common with the C-130 cargo plane.

On the other hand, Pakistani investigators’ report pointed out possible problems with the aircraft’s elevator booster package, as well as frayed or snapped control cables. Pakistani inquiry also concluded that the crash may have been due to an act of sabotage, saying no conclusive evidence of an explosion on the aircraft was found, but chemicals that could be used in small explosives were detected in mango seeds – crates of mangoes were among the gifts presented to the late president at Bahawalpur airbase.

31 years have passed, at least two high powered investigations were conducted, one by Pakistan and the other by the United States.

Some conspiracy theorists focused on the crates of mangos placed onboard moments before take-off, while others believed it was sprayed with VX, a poison gas, which only a few countries had. Was it sabotage or was the crash a result of a technical fault, was Pakistan’s ruthless dictator along with US officials assassinated and was there a cover-up after the incident.

No one knows for sure because the findings were never released. Some say Gen Zia had a long list of enemies and the crash happened under circumstances when he had apparently run out of all his options. He had no political allies left, especially, after he unceremoniously dismissed even Junejo’s government (Junejo was his own creation) in the wake of Ojhri Camp incident.

Read more: Pakistan’s Political Scene: Troubled Government and Divided Opposition?

Russians were, then, the most obvious suspects as Pakistan had joined US camp against the Soviet Union in the Afghan war. Soviet retreat from Afghanistan would not have been possible without Pakistani military’s direct involvement along with the Americans.

Apart from Russians, the other suspects who had good reasons to see Gen Zia dead included Pakistan’s historic enemy in the region – India – the Bhutto family, Iranians and maybe even Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Benazir Bhutto had later characterized Zia’s plane crash as an “Act of God”.

For his self-centered policies aiming to make Pakistan a citadel of Islam, history has put him in a contradictory position in Pakistan. Sharif, once a protégé of the dictator, now maintains a distance from Zia’s name and legacy. US and Saudis have long forgotten their feted anti-communist and Islamist stalwart while Bhuttos continued to observe ‘Black Day’ to protest against the coup.

Benazir once again came into power from 1993 to 1996 and Sharif served as the Leader of the Opposition. During the second term, a police encounter in Karachi leaving her brother Murtaza Bhutto dead proved to be a severe blow to her government.

But it needs no magic analysis that she was the main beneficiary of Zia’s sudden disappearance – and the ‘‘Act of God’’ was acting in her favour. John Gunther Dean, the then US Ambassador to India, had claimed that Israel was responsible for Gen Zia’s death.

He was called mentally unbalanced and forced into retirement at that time. In 2005, 80-year-old Dean, himself a Jew, had reignited the debate when he reiterated this claim to the World Policy Journal. He, however, said he had no proof of Israeli responsibility. The plot to seize power from within Gen Zia’s own military establishment could also not be ruled out.

Read more: Political tangles

Even the Americans were dragged into discussions over the incident when the then ISI head (1987-89), Gen Hameed Gul accused CIA killing the powerful military ruler. Nevertheless, it was a big turning point in Pakistan’s history as the political landscape suddenly changed with a thud.

Zia had totally transformed Jinnah’s Pakistan, turning it into a theocratic state being run by military with the help of right wing religious and conservative parties like Jammat-e-Islami and his own creations of Muslim league. Pakistan, in many ways, is still trying to redefine and rediscover itself.

Zia’s Pakistan Continues for Next 11 Years?

Many years later, Gen Zia’s death continues to reverberate in Pakistan – though there are signs that his era may finally be coming to an end. It was the ex-prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who had appointed Gen Zia as the army chief in 1975. Two years later, Gen Zia ousted Bhutto from office.

The Americans were dragged into discussions over the incident when the then ISI head (1987-89), Gen Hameed Gul accused CIA killing the powerful military ruler.

In the next two years after that, the courts convicted Bhutto on charges of ordering the murder of a political opponent and later, this two times Pakistani prime minister, ex-foreign minister and most popular politician after Jinnah, was hanged like a common criminal. The history still weeps at the show trial.

Though Benazir, Bhutto’s daughter, was elected prime minister after Zia’s death, country’s second-largest province, Sindh, developed a deep sense of alienation which became a factor in Pakistani politics. This “Sindh Card” is still being exploited by ‘corrupt’ politicians like Benazir’s husband, Zardari.

Read more: Benazir Bhutto: An Intangible Legacy

Zia had ruled Pakistan for almost 11 years (1977-1988); his death ushered in a democratic era of musical chairs in which both Benazir, her nemesis, and Nawaz, his progeny kept ruling Pakistan for next 11 years – historians will perhaps use the word “misruling”.

Nawaz Sharif had emerged as Zia’s political progeny and heir apparent. In 1981, President Zia had appointed Nawaz Sharif as Punjab’s minister of finance – he was Gen Jillani’s find from Lahore’s trading community that was seen as natural allies against PPP. Later in 1985, Sharif was elected as Punjab’s chief minister.

Benazir, Bhutto’s daughter, was elected prime minister after Zia’s death, country’s second-largest province, Sindh, developed a deep sense of alienation which became a factor in Pakistani politics.

Once the martial law was over in 1988 and Bhutto became the first woman prime minister of a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation, ultra-conservative Sharif became her rival in Punjab; once again becoming Chief Minister with the support of military. In 1990, Sharif led the controversial Islami Jamhori Itehad and became the 12th prime minister of Pakistan. He was ousted in 1993.

Benazir once again came into power from 1993 to 1996 and Sharif served as the Leader of the Opposition. During the second term, a police encounter in Karachi leaving her brother Murtaza Bhutto dead proved to be a severe blow to her government.

Just 11 days after the incident, Farooq Khan Leghari, the then president dissolved the National Assembly and Benazir was again out of power on November 5, 1996. Corruption was one of the main charges against her government – by a president, who was from her own party.

The wreckage of Pak-1 a few miles from the Bahawalpur airfield.

After PML-N formed government in 1997, Sharif returned to the premiership. He soon kicked out the president who had brought him, clashed with the president, fired his army chief and started to rule Pakistan as an absolute ‘dictator’.

He – who was a creation of the military – now came into his own elements and harbored grand designs of a Punjabi family dynasty until his head-on clash with a military headed by Gen Musharraf – who he brought in as a Muhajir general thinking that he will be weak and thus not a challenge.

The dictator may have found the soil fertile for cultivating his brand of hatred, he was so thorough in his execution of the self-assigned job and so heartlessly committed to his creed that he ensured that generations after him will find it impossible to escape his influence.

Musharraf’s rule continued, with the American help, and without facing much trouble. This could have finally buried the political era that followed Zia’s death. But, by 2006, Washington was losing patience with Musharraf’s inability to deliver in Afghanistan.

Lobbyists hired by Benazir in Washington successfully built a narrative of his “double games” and State Department lead by Condoleezza Rice wanted to ease him from the scene – Benazir, with her liberal face, was again Washington’s’ choice. Bhutto and Sharif, who were living in London began the process of reconciliation and signed, in 2006, a Charter of Democracy– a document calling for an end to military rule.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October 2007 – the years which saw mass anti-Musharraf protests known as Lawyers’ Movement but was assassinated on December 27, 2007. A new era began dominated by her husband, Zardari and Nawaz taking turns into power.

Read more: Don’t pass the buck on Zia; political parties are far off democracy

Zia’s Pakistan: Coming to an End?

Fast forward 10 years: On 28th July of 2017, the Supreme Court of Pakistan made history in the Muslim world when it removed Sharif following the revelations of corruption, misstatements and what looked like obvious perjury – that flowed from the scandal of the Panama Papers.

On April 13, 2018, the apex court disqualified Sharif from holding public office for lying and dishonesty. History went full circle when the Supreme Court had ordered Sharif’s disqualification from the National Assembly based on a reading of Article 62 & 63 of the Constitution as the provisions were introduced by none other than Gen Zia and not undone by popularly elected parliaments in the last three decades.

Later, he acquired political support to prolong his rule and this is when religious parties, Nawaz Sharif and others entered into scene.

After Zulfiqar Bhutto’s execution, many believe that Gen Zia transformed Pakistan’s polity and made attempts to build a hardline religious identity, financially backed by America and Saudi Arabia. By adopting the theocratic form of government, the democratic political structure in Pakistan was damaged for years to come.

Since his assassination in 1988, the powerful military dictator has been blamed for many things, including Islamic fundamentalism, altering the social-political discourse and promoting mosque-military relationship. He used Islamic ideology to legitimize his rule and gain support for Afghan war with the help of religious parties.

Later, he acquired political support to prolong his rule and this is when religious parties, Nawaz Sharif and others entered into scene. While giving a boost to Islamization and eradicating non-Islamic practices from the country, he introduced Zakat, Ushr, Islamic Hudood and ordinance for the sanctity of Ramzan.

Read more: From East Pakistan to Bangladesh: What went wrong?

Zakat was to be deducted from bank accounts of Muslims at the rate of 2.5 percent annually on the first day of Ramzan. A Federal Shariah Court was established to decide cases according to the teachings of the Holy Quran and Sunnah, blasphemy was punishable by death instead of life imprisonment.

Teaching of Islamic Studies and Arabic which were made compulsory, extra marks were allocated for people who were Hafiz-e-Quran, news in Arabic were read on TV and radio, female anchorpersons were required to cover their heads and Azan was regularly aired.

Since Zia took charge, religion gained over-riding importance in Pakistani politics and society and the fall of the Soviet Union brought the specter of terrorism as well as a culture of Kalashnikovs. Public flogging and censorship saw new heights during his rule.

The comic novel traces several overlapping conspiracies that surround Gen Zia’s death. … ‘Mangoes’ details Gen Zia had made a lot of enemies by the time he finally died.

For his self-centered policies aiming to make Pakistan a citadel of Islam, history has put him in a very controversial position in Pakistan. Sharif, once a protégé of the dictator, had also started to maintain a distance from Zia’s name and legacy. US and Saudis have long forgotten their feted anti-communist and Islamist stalwart while Bhuttos continued to observe ‘Black Day’ to protest against the coup.

After all these years, one strange aspect of Gen Zia’s legacy is that the army that he had headed makes no attempt to memorialize him. His birth and death anniversaries now pass without official commemoration yet his legacy largely remains intact.

Read more: Opera on Benazir Bhutto’s life set to premiere in US

“The dictator may have found the soil fertile for cultivating his brand of hatred, he was so thorough in his execution of the self-assigned job and so heartlessly committed to his creed that he ensured that generations after him will find it impossible to escape his influence,” Dawn noted in an editorial ‘Zia’s legacy’ published in 2012.

But the contemporary Pakistan of 2019, where religious vote banks have totally shrunk, organizations like TLP and Hafiz Saeed’s JUD have been banned, sectarian leaders often incarcerated and where economic and tax debate now dominates rather than Islam and blasphemy now seems to be moving away from Zia’s legacy.

The Case of Exploding Mangoes’

After the plane slammed into the ground a few miles out of Bahawalpur, Gen Zia resurfaced in Mohammad Hanif’s ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ – his debut novel in 2008 based on the plane crash involving creates of mangoes that had been carried aboard the plane and then had spontaneously exploded.

Hanif’s satirical fiction immortalized the story and the novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Guardian first book award, Commonwealth literary prize and won Shakti Bhatt first book awards.

The comic novel traces several overlapping conspiracies that surround Gen Zia’s death.

The comic novel traces several overlapping conspiracies that surround Gen Zia’s death. Apart from the usual suspects, the international secret service agencies, he has added in Pakistan’s intelligence agency. ‘Mangoes’ details Gen Zia had made a lot of enemies by the time he finally died.

Read more: The civil-military argument – Saad Rasool

Thirty-one years on, Gen Zia’s death remains shrouded in mystery. Following the fateful day in 1988, Vanity Fair magazine’s investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein stated in September 1989, it emerged that there was no ‘Mayday’ signal from the pilot, no autopsies were conducted, no outcries for vengeance, no efforts at counter-coups and no real effort to find the assassins.

“The most eerie aspect of the affair was the speed and effectiveness with which it was consigned to oblivion,” Epstein stated. He argued that: “The Soviet KGB and Indian R.A.W. might have had the motive, and even the means, to bring down Pak One but neither had the ability to stop planned autopsies at a military hospital in Pakistan, stifle interrogations or, for that matter, kept the FBI out of the picture.” “The one uncounted casualty of Pak One was the truth,” he had concluded.

Rizwan Shehzad is the Assistant Editor, Global Village Space. He has previously worked with The Express Tribune. He tweets at: @RizwanShehxad

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