The fall of the Z.A. Bhutto regime in 1977 is one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood events in Pakistan history. For PPP Jiyalas (fanatics), General Zia’s coup d’etat was one of the greatest injustices and travesties of human history. Even for many of Bhutto’s opponents, hatred of Zia’s Islamist rule means that Bhutto’s deposition is viewed as an act of militaristic aggression. However, analysis of contemporary source material leads me to disagree with both of these conclusions: Bhutto nearly brought Pakistan to a state of civil war in 1977 through his intransigence (as Bhutto did during the 1971 secession of East Pakistan) and Zia was compelled to step in before the situation deteriorated beyond control. Zia’s removal of Bhutto from power had widespread support in Pakistan.
Bhutto had governed Pakistan as a tyrant from December 1971 to mid-1977. He created his own personal paramilitary force for use against political opponents (called the Federal Security Force, FSF), a concentration camp in Dalai (AJK), muzzled the press, banned numerous political parties (especially the NAP/ANP), assumed powers of arbitrary arrest, and also banned political gatherings of more than 10 people. Virtually the entire private sector (including banking, textiles, heavy industry, insurance, shipping, education) was all nationalised and placed in the hands of Bhutto’s cronies, driving Pakistan’s wealthiest Muhajir businessmen out of the country. Private sector investment in factories, banks, media etc came to a complete halt. State media was controlled by Bhutto and minimal airtime was given to opponents.
Deadly chaos followed Bhutto’s rigged March 1977 election. After more than 350 deaths of anti-PPP protestors, General Zia had no option but to impose Martial Law on July 6th. Even after Zia’s intervention, Bhutto was released on July 28th and given another chance to calmly proceed to elections. When Bhutto blew this opportunity by trying to ratchet up domestic instability, as well as various of Bhutto’s victims launching legal cases against him, General Zia had no option remaining but to allow the legal process to prosecute Bhutto for crimes committed in office.
Zia should have imposed Martial Law even earlier, very soon after the rigged election. This could have prevented hundreds of anti-PPP protestor deaths, thousands of injuries, and tens of thousands of arrests from March to July 1977.
This does not imply any support on my part for General Zia, or the Islamisation that characterised his rule. Women’s rights, in particular, were severely damaged during Zia’s rule. Despite my distaste for Zia’s policies, an objective and dispassionate analysis suggests that Pakistan Army (led by General Zia) had no option in late 1977 except to depose Bhutto. Zia’s imposition of harsh sharia laws was greeted favourably by many Punjabis, with support from most Punjabi newspapers.
After years of Bhutto’s tyranny and suppression of rival political parties, there was no credible alternative civilian government to govern in place of the PPP. The only remaining option for Pakistan was Army rule. Naturally, and based on Ayub’s precedent, this followed the character of COAS General Zia (well-known as a supporter of Jamaat-e-Islami). Zia was Bhutto’s handpicked choice as COAS, and superseded several senior generals when he was appointed.
In fairness to General Zia, he did at least tolerate APMSO/MQM to be founded in 1978 as an expression of the democratic will of the Muhajir people. MQM grew into a major political party during his dictatorship. There is no doubt that Bhutto would have used all available measures to utterly destroy MQM if he had been in power.
During Bhutto’s regime, it was widely feared that he was using state apparatus to enforce a one party rule system. Throughout his rule, Bhutto governed with special emergency powers which allowed arbitratry arrest and detention. Any PPP Ministers who turned against Bhutto were arrested, with countless instances of senior PPP leaders being tortured or kidnapped. This could only have happened on the personal instruction of Bhutto.
Bhutto rigged the March 1977 election to such a massive extent that even his most optimistic supporters were shocked. The PPP won 155 out of 200 seats. Bhutto even had his Larkana constituency opponent kidnapped, so Bhutto himself was elected unopposed. His cousin, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, rigged his own constituency in the same way. A week after the rigged results were announced, Bhutto imprisoned all of the PNA (Pakistan National Alliance) opposition leaders and refused to hold new elections.
In the disturbances that followed the election, Bhutto ordered the Army to fire on protestors, and moved tanks into Muhajir (opposition) residential areas in Karachi. The Army (led by General Zia) remained loyal to Bhutto, and followed his instructions, even firing on unarmed Punjab protestors. This Army action (on Bhutto’s orders) resulted in hundreds of deaths and several thousand injuries caused by live fire. There were also more than a hundred Muhajir deaths in Karachi and Hyderabad, but I presume these would have been of less concern to Punjabi officers, who had only a few years earlier committed massive genocide in East Pakistan.
There were tragic massacres of anti-Bhutto protestors in Karachi, Lahore, and many other cities all over Pakistan, including even in interior Sindh (anti-PPP areas). These massacres must be blamed on Bhutto, and they placed General Zia and the Pakistan Army in an impossible position.
Protestors continued to be killed and the Army’s reputation in Pakistan was plummetting. Bhutto started accusing USA of conspiring to overthrow him – he publicly accused USA of funding the PNA opposition in order to benefit Israel, and stated that he had bugged USA diplomats’ phone calls. Punjabi Army Brigadiers began to resign due to being ordered by Bhutto to fire on unarmed Punjabi protestors. If this had continued, General Zia could have faced a catastrophic Army mutiny. Bhutto’s chaotic governance and erratic anti-American statements were causing Pakistan’s foreign alliances to break down.
It took almost 3 months (May 26th) for the PPP and PNA to agree to hold discussions, as most PNA leaders (along with tens of thousands of PNA workers) were imprisoned by Bhutto at the time, and armed PPP workers were terrorising the PNA opposition. At times, it seemed as if a PPP-PNA agreement was near (June 15th),but then a few days later the PPP and PNA talks were derailed again (June 19th). At this moment, during critical discussions to end the most acute political crisis in the history of Pakistan, Bhutto decided to go on a tour of 5 Islamic countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Kuwait and Libya). Bhutto’s objective was to gain financial and political support from these countries and thereby pressurise the PNA (and coerce the Army) to back down and allow him to monopolise power based on the rigged March 1977 election.
When Bhutto returned, PPP and PNA were far from agreement with both sides refusing to budge (June 26th). By June 30th, there was still major disagreement even on minor procedural matters.
On July 3, 1977, talks between PPP and PNA failed yet again, with no end in sight to the economic and political crisis engulfing the nation. Pakistan needed fresh elections and it seemed unlikely this could occur with Bhutto at the helm. In this context, Zia had no option but to suspend the political process on 6th July 1977. Bhutto was held in detention in Murree temporarily, and Zia promised Pakistan that new elections would be held in 90 days. Zia warned Bhutto to remain calm and not take steps to plunge Pakistan into further chaos.
Next, and this is the bit forgotten by most Pakistanis, Bhutto was released on 29th July 1977. The video below showing Zia announcing Martial Law on July 5th is often cited by Pakistani analysts as evidence of Zia’s megalomaniac desire to take over Pakistan politics. However, history shows that this assessment is flawed.
Zia declared Martial Law to quell the violent clashes following the rigged election, and remove Bhutto’s ability to carry on massacring Punjabi protestors indefinitely. If Zia had wished at that stage to usurp power permanently, he would not have released Bhutto and the opposition to resume electioneering three weeks after he had declared martial law. Campaigning resumed, and therefore it may be argued that Zia made his promise to hold elections in 90 days in good faith. Zia promised elections on October 18th. Some PPP supporters may argue that Zia cynically released Bhutto in the knowledge that he would shortly have him arrested on various charges. However, it would make little sense for Zia to have taken the risk of letting Bhutto back into national campaigning if it was his fixed decision at that stage to depose him anyway.
Bhutto had promised Zia to campaign responsibly. Instead, he caused uproar immediately by publicly condemning General Zia for imposing Martial Law. Bhutto’s desire to cause chaos was visible at his arrival at Lahore Airport on 8th August – thousands of local PPP workers (with the support of Lahore’s police chief, a Bhutto appointee) stormed the airport. Bhutto then attempted to visit Data Ganj Buksh shrine for electoral purposes, even though politicians visiting shrines was forbidden under Martial Law. In spite of the extreme danger to the political and economic stability of Pakistan, Bhutto later made a threat to boycott the elections.
Meanwhile, with Bhutto no longer in power, countless accusations began to be made against Bhutto by his many victims. These included a murder accusation by Ahmed Raza Shah Kasuri (whose father had been assassinated by mistake a few years earlier, allegedly by the FSF who were targeting A.R. S. Kasuri). General Yahya Khan also claimed damages from Bhutto for keeping him in detention for the whole 5 and a half years of Bhutto’s rule.
After being indicted by the court for the Kasuri murder, Bhutto was bailed (September 12th). With an avalanche of cases against Bhutto building up, the electoral atmosphere became grim. Bhutto had ruled with an iron fist and sent opponents to Dalai concentration camp in the snows of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. His FSF had abducted, tortured and assassinated his opponents, and once even stormed into parliament whilst it was sitting and hauled out an elected Member in the middle of his speech against Bhutto. The Director-General of Bhutto’s FSF was arrested for murder, and he agreed to testify against Bhutto in the Kasuri murder case. Multiple corruption allegations were also made against Bhutto and his cronies. This period (September 12th-16th) was Bhutto’s last chance to escape from Pakistan. Criminal narcissist psychopathic gangster that he was, he declined to do so and was re-arrested on September 16th. He was never a free man again from that date.
As soon as Bhutto lost control of the legal process (i.e. after Zia’s seizure of power), there was no obstacle to all those who had been oppressed by Bhutto from bringing their cases to court. There was no legal basis for General Zia to prevent them from doing so.
There was, however, a major legal impediment to a reasonably fair trial for Bhutto, in that he had packed the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) with his own appointees during his reign. Any fair trial for Bhutto would require the court to be reconstituted. It is not my intention to suggest that Bhutto’s murder trial was conducted according to the highest international legal standards. However, if any trial of Bhutto had occurred to such high standards, Bhutto would still have been found guilty for any number of crimes committed in office. At the very least, this would include the kidnapping of his 1977 Larkana election opponent, as well as multiple torture allegations by former PPP ministers.
It would have been unethical for Bhutto to receive effective immunity because he had spent the last seven years packing the Supreme Court with his cronies. This was the same SCP which banned the National Awami Party in 1975, as well as several other legal outrages on Bhutto’s behalf. The Supreme Court was effectively a tool of Yahya Bakhtiar (Bhutto’s Attorney-General). Those questioning the impartiality of Bhutto’s trial may well have some grounds for concern – however, they should also note that the legal standard of Bhutto’s trial was superior to the standards of justice seen during Bhutto’s rule. Ironically, several legal ordinances put in place by Bhutto to suppress his opponents were applied to his own detriment – this cannot be blamed on Zia.
It has been suggested that Zia strong-armed certain members of SCP to deliver a 4-3 majority to award Bhutto a guilty verdict in his murder trial. If Bhutto had somehow displaced General Zia in late 1977, I suspect he would have awarded many Army officers the death penalty, without having any difficulties in convincing the SCP to give 7-0 verdicts.
It may also be said that the ragtag PNA coalition was also breaking up during this period. Much of the public’s allegiance to the PNA had effectively transferred itself to General Zia, and these voters now looked to Zia to provide them with stability. For every coup in Pakistan, there has been significant support from disgruntled members of the public.
Bhutto had completely suppressed political activities of rival parties during his rule. He had also done all he could to suppress democracy itself in the years he served in Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s regime. Tyrannical “democrats” cannot be allowed to coast to victory against a disorganised opposition.
Bhutto was the architect of his own downfall. I personally do not support the death penalty under any circumstances, but that was (and remains) the Pakistani legal sentence for murder. General Zia had no option but to remove Bhutto; there was no credible civilian alternative to PPP; and Bhutto had to be subjected to the legal process once he lost the ability to quash the legal system. Bhutto had appointed Zia, a fervent Islamist, to become COAS in 1976. Zia’s lengthy dictatorial rule may itself be considered a legacy of Bhutto’s tyranny.
Altaf Hussain founded APMSO (All-Pakistan Muhajir Students Organisation) in 1978, after the fall of Bhutto. APMSO grew into the MQM, founded in 1984. General Zia tolerated the existence of MQM. He could have thrown all MQM leaders into jail after the massive rally at Nishtar Park (Karachi) in August 1986, but he didn’t. He allowed MQM to grow as an expression of the political will of the Muhajir people.
Bhutto was a ruthless gangster, and he would undoubtedly have sought to crush MQM, most probably using his paramilitary FSF. He could never have allowed a major party representing Muhajirs to develop in Karachi and Sindh, in what he considered his sacrosanct territory. At best, he would have rounded up all MQM leaders and workers and sent them to Dalai concentration camp. But I think he would certainly have done far worse. For that reason alone, I shed no tears at the Fall of Bhutto.