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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Pakistan: GROWING UP UNDER ZIA’S SHADOW


Tuesday 11 July 2017, by siawi3



Harris Khalique

July 02, 2017

I was 10 years old and had just been promoted to grade six when on July 5, 1977, the civilian government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed and General Ziaul Haq declared martial law. It was the beginning of a flagrantly despotic rule that lasted for 11 years.

My school in Karachi was spread over 14-acres of land; the building, an impressive umbrella dome standing on stoic columns, with the highest central point fitted with circular stained glass. Long corridors comprising classrooms and offices stretched out from the dome in all directions. There were also some linear blocks built around the dome and its tentacles. These building structures were surrounded by large and dusty playing fields, typical to schools in the rain-starved metropolis. It was under that dome and within those corridors and on those playing fields that I witnessed a people change, an outlook alter, a society fragment, and a nation morph.

Since mine was a public school managed by the Cantonment and Garrison Educational Institutions (C&GEI) — a military-run department in those times working under the federal government — some of the changes that came about during and after 1977 were quite rapid while others came a little slower. For instance, the school’s Drama Society and its Music Society were discontinued from that year onward. The school brass band continued, but its conductor was now put under the Physical Training section in the absence of a Music Society. Iqbal’s celebrated poem, titled Bachchay Ki Dua (A Child’s Prayer), “Lab pe aati hai dua bann ke tamanna meri…†, which encourages children to seek knowledge, cherish human values of compassion and sacrifice, and stand up for the poor and the weak, stopped being sung in our morning assemblies. Instead, the band played and we, the students, marched in single file to the tune of the popular military song Ae mard-i-mujahid jaag zara/Ab waqt-i-shahadat hai aaya (O holy warrior! Wake up/It is time to embrace martyrdom).

Remembering how Pakistan changed in front of the eyes of a young boy

On April 4, 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged. The school was shut down and, for a while, we couldn’t march to the beat of the inspiring song of martyrdom.

One morning, my brother and I woke to the screams of our mother and the puttering of an auto rickshaw waiting for her at the door. Nana Jan, our maternal grandfather, had been arrested. He was 85 years old at that time. Eventually, no charges were pressed against him due to his frailty and old age. His crime was writing letters of solidarity to Bhutto when the latter was in prison. After school recommenced, one of my teachers overheard me sharing this story with a group of classmates. The teacher pulled me aside and said: “No politics in school. No politics anywhere. No politics ever.†He was a warm and convivial man otherwise, but the iciness in his voice that day stunned me. I had such fear in my eyes that all my friends, too, felt scared.

In the early summer of 1980, our batch entered into ninth grade. The camaraderie we enjoyed overwhelmed any competitions, rivalries and differences. We were largely blissful in our ignorance, leave alone being bothered about each other’s language, ethnicity, family or faith. But we had an Islamiat class scheduled on that hot afternoon of our first day of ninth grade. The teacher began by saying that non-Muslim students had a choice to take a course in Ethics unless they opted to sit for the Federal Board examination in Islamiat. But which of the Muslim groups would the non-Muslim students sit with? Because the next thing our teacher asked was for Muslim students to come forward and identify themselves as Shia or Sunni. Our textbooks were not the same anymore. Hence, the state of Pakistan officially divided ninth-graders into different religious sects.

Zia’s greatest legacy is the erasure of any memory from before his time

In the middle and latter part of that decade, I was older and conscious about the torture and violence inflicted first on Pakistanis by the Zia regime and then in Afghanistan, to which Zia was party to. I had personally observed and experienced the curbs on freedom of expression and the harassment of anti-regime activists by the authorities and their cronies. I witnessed and survived the ethno-linguistic riots and sectarian clashes. I observed the rise of a diverse range of militant outfits fuelled by the regime — from that of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement to Sipah-i-Sahaba — and the official and material patronage of orthodox groups such as Jamaat-i-Islami and the anti-intellectual proselytising groups such as the Tableeghi Jamaat. On the one hand, Zia wished to suppress diversity and pluralism in all matters of politics and religion, language and literature, culture and art. And on the other hand, his policies and strategies consciously fragmented the Pakistani polity and society. What he did is absurd, puzzling and paradoxical.

However, for me, General Zia’s greatest legacy is the erasure of any memory from before his time — the elimination of any sense of history from our collective national psyche. In 1986, two years before Zia was killed, the military-led administration of my school decided to pull down the dome and raze all the old blocks. Two separate junior and senior schools were quietly built on a small piece of land instead, while most of the original land was converted into a housing colony. Today, there is neither the sign of that dome nor does the Cantt Public School exist. When you visit the site, it appears as if the area has always been like this — flats, townhouses, shops, roads, mosque, and two subdued schools occupying the land on the margins. There is no other memory.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. He recently published a collection of essays titled ‘Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering, and Creativity in Pakistan’

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