It Was The Season Of Darkness

It Was The Season Of Darkness
‘It was the worst of times, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Darkness, it was the winter of despair, we had nothing before us.’

I have borrowed these lines from the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens famous novel A Tale of Two Cities for I haven’t come across a more powerful expression to describe an era that has plagued my generation since the beginning of our youth. I was taking my matriculation examination and when I came out of the examination center after writing my Mathematics paper, I found out that Martial Law had been imposed in the country in the darkness of the night. It was July 5 1977 and martial law administrator was Zia ul Haq.

Next two years of studies in Government College Lahore were a period when colleges and universities closed frequently. It was a period of commotion due to Bhutto’s trial in Lahore High Court and later hearing of his appeal in the Supreme Court. Since the General was busy in handling Bhutto’s trial, he had not yet unfolded his full agenda of Islamisation of the country. We had foreign students in the college, the year of 1977 continued to be celebrated as the centenary of Allama Iqbal.

For a college student focused on his studies and taught Mutala e Pakistan, not aware of the importance of constitution and supremacy of civilian rule, traumatized by the nationalization of schools by Bhutto and thus having to study in a class of 100+ from 7th grade onwards as opposed to 15 students up to 6th grade it was business as usual.

In any case, in my life till that time, civilian regime was there only for a brief period of 5 years and Constitution’s life was barely 4 years. The dictator knew the psyche of the people very well. He started inviting cricket teams to Pakistan. First England and then India was invited. Hockey team was also doing quite well. In squash, Jahangir Khan was winning every match and every tournament he was playing. However, everyone was noticing draconian punishment of lashings to political workers, journalists and other educated segments of the society.

Then came the hanging of Bhutto on April 4 1979. It was shocking. Nobody believed in the fairness of the trial or punishment. Even Bhutto’s worst enemies didn’t want him dead.

Shortly after that came Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and with it, problems of refugees. By that time, I had progressed to BA. I had started forming some opinions of my own. I used to argue with my teachers that Afghan refugees will not return in a short while as problems of refugees are never settled quickly. Before me the examples were that of Palestinians and Biharis. But the worst was still to come.

The General had decided to start a jihad in collusion with Americans. To wage a jihad, he had to obtain support of clergy for local recruitment and gather jihadists from all over the world. This was the beginning of establishment of a new culture and its supporting infrastructure in Pakistan. Hitherto religious groups were either confined to their mosques and madrassas or were in mainstream politics. But now they were at the forefront of jihad. This was another of his act, after hanging Bhutto, that is still haunting Pakistan.

On the political front, in 1978, he embarked on dictators’ favourite agenda of having local governments. Local governments are essential for a deep-rooted democracy, but dictators like Ayub, Zia and Musharaf brought local governments to weaken political parties and tighten their grip on power. Zia’s local governments were elected on non-party basis. Without the support of political parties and any common manifesto, candidates could be elected only on the basis of money. He repeated his experiment of running the country without political parties in 1985 when elections of national and provincial assemblies were held on non-party basis. This was the introduction of the wealthy in our politics. Even candidates belonging to established political parties had to spend huge sums on their election campaign as their opponents were, in many constituencies, rich people without any political background but had the motive of multiplying their assets. In the meantime, in 1981, through a Presidential Order, he hand-picked a 350 members Federal Council (Majlis e Shoora) as a replacement of elected Parliament.

All of these experiments failed: the Federal Council had no powers as all powers were concentrated in the office of the President; he dissolved the National Assembly when it did not tow his line the way he wanted. However, his experimentation in politics by suspending or amending the 1973 Constitution changed the politics of the country in a manner we still are unable to undo.

Despite all these political manoeuvering, dictator was finding it difficult to maintain his hold on the country. As he had served in British Army from 1943 and fought World War II in Burma and Malaya, he borrowed the governance model of Britishers: divide and rule. What better way to divide than religion? In 1985, Anjuman Sipah e Sahaba came into being. A Shia’a organization named Tehrik e Nifaz e Fiqa e Jafria was already in existence since 1979 to resist the agenda of Islamisation of Pakistan rolled out by Zia-ul-Haq. Presence of these sectarian religious organisations in the society along with agenda of Islamisation of economy and society and Afghan Jihad played havoc with the  Pakistan of Jinnah. Religious extremism spread like wildfire in the country. It closed the doors of difference of opinion in the society. Since then, only conformists have a place in Pakistan as the dictator promulgated blasphemy laws also which have only been misused hitherto.

The strategy of divide and rule on the basis of religion alone didn’t fully work everywhere. So urban Sindh was divided on the basis of ethnicity. People who had migrated from India to Pakistan in 1947 were referred to as Mohajirs. They had mostly settled in Punjab and Sind. Despite of being called Mohajirs they had never thought of assuming a separate political identity. In fact, they had assimilated themselves in the mainstream political parties. In 1984, a party was created to give them a separate political identity. The party that claimed to have been established to protect the rights of mohajirs soon resorted to violence, extortion, capture and crime. We are still trying to fix law and order of urban Sind and crying for rebuilding of Karachi and Hyderabad but the things do not appear to be fixable in the near future.

Afghan War brought with it American dollars and Petro riyals.  A new class of people was created by this influx who provided all kind of goods and services to support the war. Since all of this could not be documented, circulation of black money increased in the society. This culture of unaccounted for income is so prevalent in Pakistan that successive governments announced tax amnesties to bring this wealth in circulation in legal businesses.

During that era, the role of military in the businesses also increased many folds. Housing sector was the biggest area where military had the largest stake. Before 70s, property was used to store savings and generate additional income through rent and land was acquired mostly for property development. DHAs made the land a commodity that could be bought and sold like gold and other precious metals. This change in concept and culture has taken away a decent housing beyond the reach of common man as the prices of land have increased beyond imagination. It has also resulted in waste of infrastructural cost incurred for property development. Most of the phases of DHAs in Lahore take around 20 to 25 years to come to a level of occupancy where all facilities required for a cozy living can be provided. A large amount of money that could be invested in industry has been dumped in land. On the social side, it has created classes in the society. Plush housing of DHAs is quite obviously contrasting to the small villages retained in the neighbouring areas of DHAs and the facilities provided by the housing schemes developed by governments’ development authorities.

Private sector was quick to catch up in the housing ventures that gave quick and hefty profits. Today when we travel along the GT Road from Lahore to Islamabad or towards Karachi, there is hardly any town in which agricultural land is not being converted in housing or commercial areas. This phenomenon has already created problem of food security in the country. With growing population and decreasing cultivable land and without any significant effort to increase its productivity, we can very well imagine what kind of problems we are likely to face in times to come.

Zia era has been extensively covered in many books and electronic and print media. But my pain is that it has taken away 45 years of my life that I was entitled to live peacefully in this country. I was entitled to live in a society of religious harmony, social justice and economic development. After a working life of 40 years, I was entitled to retire peacefully in a society that could offer me a secure old age in a politically and economically stable country and not in a country that is infested with religious extremism, political division of irreconcilable differences and an economy on the verge of default. Having lived my life in Pakistan, good or bad, I have a bigger worry: will my children be able to live here?