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  • Generals Zia and Ershad : my role in their dictatorships

    Posted On November 19, 1999

    By Karan Thapar

    Dictators can be fascinating. This is partly because of the absolute power they possess but also because of their personalities. Only truly extraordinary people end up in such situations.

    In my time I have known a few.  Well, forgive the exaggeration, but I’ve met two.  Zia of Pakistan was the first.  Ershad from Bangladesh followed in quick succession.  I don’t know how they compare with General Musharraf – may be they don’t – but last week, as the world deliberated on how to treat the latter, I couldn’t help recall my meeting with his two predecessors.

    “Welcome to Pakistan, Mr. Thapar” General Zia greeted me as I stepped across the threshold of Army House in Pindi in 1985.  He was at the peak of his power.  I was just 29.  He was an absolute ruler pretending to devolve power to a hand-picked civilian prime minister.  I was the young whipper-snapper interviewer seeking to expose the fraud.

    I had not expected to be so welcomed and I had certainly not anticipated that General Z would ‘recognise’ me.  Of course, it had not occurred to me that the greeting was a well-planned PR exercise.  Consequently, I was completely taken-in.  I looked lost for words.

    “I served under your father” the dictator continued.  Now this was always possible –  even if I had not thought of it – although later on reflection I realised it was unlikely.  At the time, however, it completely stumped me.  How do you respond to a man who wields the power of life and death – and after Bhutto’s hanging death was no empty phrase – flattering you with such glib and easy references to your Dad?

    “Oh” I muttered.  In the circumstances it was a pretty articulate reply.

    With a deftly placed hand across the small of my back the General guided me into his drawing room.  It was lined with men in uniform.  Later I noticed they each carried guns.  I presumed they were loaded.

    After we had made ourselves comfortable – he with his back well settled-in, me with my bottom perched at the edge of the sofa – he smiled.  General Zia had thirty-two highly whitened teeth.  They were in immaculate order.  There was no doubt that his dentist had done a flawless job.

    “Are you comfortable?” General Z finally asked.

    “Oh yes” I replied.  I realised I was tongue-tied but I decided to wait for my fright to thaw.  If each reply was longer than the last I knew I was on the right track.

    “No, I mean your hotel.”

    “Ah” I said.  The General looked on expectantly and soon, more out of embarrassment than conviction, I found myself spinning a story.  A man will say anything to fill a silence and I certainly did.

    “My problem is the bathroom shower.”  It wasn’t.  Honestly, there was nothing wrong with it.  But now that I had claimed there was there was no turning back.   “It doesn’t give out a proper jet of water.”

    The General’s smile grew wider.  So wide I could see his molars.  They were as white as the incisors at the front. 

    “I know what you mean” he replied.  “There’s nothing I like more than a good shower in the morning.  Take my advice and complain.  When things don’t work properly you must never hesitate to complain.  I always do.”

    If my wits were working I would have noticed the irony of a dictator advising a journalist to complain.  But, sadly, they weren’t and I did not.

    An hour later and the interview over I found my calm had returned and my ability to hold my own in conversation was restored.  The man in front of me was the smartest, the shrewdest operator I had so far interviewed.  He made democrats look silly, in fact inept.

    When I said goodbye the General escorted me to the porch.  The car had been summoned and was waiting.  He reached out and opened the door.

    “Do look me up the next time you come to town” General Z said.  It wasn’t likely but it sounded right. 

    I climbed in.  He shut the door.  The car drove off.  As it covered the half circle of the round front garden and then straightened itself for the drive to the gate the ADC on the front seat who, like me, was looking the other way suddenly said :

    “Look back Mr. Thapar.  The General is waving.” 

    He was.  Under the yellow light of the porch he stood there in his black sherwani, his well-creased smile in place, his hand erect waving from side to side.

    It was the perfect gesture of politeness but it gave the game away.  The only way the ADC could have known about it when he, like me, had his back to the porch was if this sort of thing happened every time.

    Ershad, on the other hand, was very different.  He wasn’t shrewd, he had no concept of PR and until I introduced myself he had little idea who I was.  In fact, in comparison to Zia, he was a rough stone to the other man’s polished diamond.  But Ershad had sincerity or, at least, his conversation so suggested.  I doubt if it was made up.  The man did not look as if he could make up anything.

    As he set on a large powder blue sofa, a foot higher than the rest of us, patiently waiting for the cameras to roll, I asked if he had a large family.

    “Only my son” he replied and we lapsed into silence.  But clearly I had struck a chord somewhere deep within because minutes later he opened up like an over-flowing well.

    “He’s five and when my wife and I fight – you know we do fight sometimes – he comes and sits between us and holds our hands together.  Papa, he says, please don’t fight with Ammi.  Now you have to say sorry to her.”

    Ershad’s face softened with the emotion of the story he was telling.  A dictator’s face in repose can be disarming.  It almost makes you like him.

    “At such times” he abruptly continued “I always forgive my wife.  It happened last night.  Initially I was not prepared to forgive her but the boy made me.  He’s very intelligent, you know.”

    It was the most interesting thing General Ershad said to me that day.  The interview which followed was a bore.


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