1977 coup: Ouster of Bhutto and Zia’s loyalty
Pakistan was about to celebrate its 30 years of independence when, on July 05, 1977, the third martial law was declared in the country. The politically ambitious Chief of Army Staff General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had overthrown then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and it happened unexpectedly, according to one of the last accounts of Bhutto’s premiership.
Seven hours before his supposedly loyal army chief staged a military coup against the government of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Bhutto told General Tikka Khan, a former COAS, that his disapproval regarding the appointment of Zia as his successor was all wrong while assuring him of Zia’s loyalty.
Back in 1976, after his retirement from military services, General Tikka Khan had left the post of army chief and nominated seven people–only one to be appointed as a new COAS.
In his book, The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan,Owen Bennett-Jones writes: “Zia was not named (in the list of the nominees) on the grounds that he was the most recently appointed lieutenant general and consequently lacked sufficient experience.”
Zia-ul-Haq was to be the most junior nominee for the seven generals who was eventually made to hold the most crucial office in Pakistan, agaisnt the advice of Tikka Khan. Interestingly, the very first elected prime minister of the country had made that choice who had remained close to two of the former dictators–Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan.
Many beleive that Zia’s appoinment as the army cheif was out of turn and it helps them reach a conclusion as Zia left no moment to impress Bhutto who was known for his authoritarian policies against dissenters.
“Zia always made the most of any interactions he had with Zulfikar. On one occasion he presented Zulfikar with a sword in recognition of his services to the country and its armed forces. Similarly, Zia made Zulfikar honorary commander-in-chief of the Armoured Corps and had a special uniform made up for him,” the British author states in the book.
Hardly, a year had passed when Zia had taken the oath of his loyalty to the prime minister Bhutto, the country was witnessing a political turmoil amid 1977 general election. Bhutto’s PPP claimed victory in the election with far greater number of seats but a joint opposition called Pakistan National Allaince (PNA) had asked people to take over the streets in almost every part of the country as a protest agaisnt Bhutto’s government while accusing it of “massive rigging”.
The choas seemed to contniue despite several negotiation attempts. Before a politician of aggressive and chauvinist nature like him, could reach any agreement with the opposition, Bhutto saw the demise of his power, orchestrated by the man who, Bhutto thought, was least likely to challenge him.
Pakistan Journalist Khalid Hasan, in his book ‘Rearview Mirror: Four Memoirs‘, wrote about an incident which he narrated from Raja Anwar who was an advisor to premier Bhutto.
Khalid quoted Anwar as saying: “Bhutto said to Tika Khan, ‘General, you remember that you had opposed making Zia the army chief, now you have to admit that I had made the right decision. If there was another army chief, he would have taken over this power by making an excuse of law and order.’ “
Seven hours later, General Zia removed Bhutto in a bloodless coup while declaring martial law. The military regime later executed Bhutto on April 4, 1979, by reopening a murder case against him. The PPP along with many others who suffered under Zia’s 11-year rule remember the fifth of July as “Black Day” for democracy and Pakistan.