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Bahawalpur Tragedy



Zia-ul-Haq was killed in an air crash on 17 August 1988 near Bahawalpur on his way back from a demonstration of tanks. He was in uniform and was accompanied by a number of generals, including the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Chief of General Staff, and other high military officials. He was also accompanied by the US Ambassador to Pakistan and his Military Attach. The two American diplomats also died with him in the crash. The Vice Chief of Army Staff, General Mirza Aslam Beg was also present at the tank demonstration but he did not accompany Zia in the C-130 plane which crashed. He later admitted to having flown in his own military plane over the crash site and seen the plane burning. He did not stop but flew directly to Islamabad where the question of succession to Zia had to be decided.


On the confirmation of Zia’s death, a meeting was held in Islamabad to decide the question of succession. Some of the participants like General Fazle Haq, Chief Minister of N W F P, were in favor of the imposition of martial law. However, the military chiefs present there, including Mirza Aslam Beg, did not support the idea and allowed transition to take place constitutionally. Under the Constitution, when the office of President becomes vacant by reason of the death, resignation, or removal of the President, the chairman of the Senate acts as President until a new President is elected under the Constitution. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, chairman of the Senate, took over as acting President. One of his First acts was to appoint Mirza Aslam Beg as Chief of Army Staff. He was thus immediately rewarded for his support to the peaceful transition of power in a constitutional manner.


Zia was initially seen as an unassuming and ‘reluctant coup maker’. He was constantly underestimated by his friends, and foes. Most people saw him as a transitional figure. There were few expectations attached to him and the earlier years allowed him to grow in office, particularly because of the exclusive attention that was devoted to the Bhutto trial.

Zia came form the middle class. He hallmark was humility. His double hand-shake and triple embrace as the style of greeting  became a legend, together with his routine opening of car doors for his visitors and waiting in the driveway till the visitor departed. The army remained his primary power based and he headed it for over twelve years, the longest in the history of Pakistan.


With his sudden death on 17 August 1988, Zia left Pakistan in the same state of uncertainty and fear of the future that existed eleven years earlier when he seized power in a military coup. After the death of Zia, the transition to democracy took place constitutionally. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who was chairman of the Senate at that time, stepped in as acting President. He announced that the general elections fixed by Zia for 16 and 19 November for National and Provincial Assemblies respectively, would be held on schedule. He also promised to hold free, fair, and impartial elections. But his sudden death, doesn’t allowed him to do so.

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