ANALYSIS: General Zia as Macbeth —Elf Habib
Carried away by this cloying obedience, Bhutto made Zia the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. His elevation as chief of the strongest, most funded and disciplined organ of the state, was somewhat similar to Macbeth’s installation as the Thane of Cawdor
The events surrounding Zia’s debut, draconian dictatorship and death have some stunning similarities with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, portraying the generals’ intrigues that blighted the British Isles in the early centuries of the last millennium. The play known for the splendour of its soliloquies and narrative is set in Scotland, torn by rebellions against the reigning King Duncan, and Macbeth, his confidant general, being sent to contain his archrival, the Thane of Fife. Macbeth, while returning from his victory along with Banquo, another brave general, is encountered by three witches on a heath, who prophesy that Macbeth will be made the Thane of Cawdor and then a monarch and that Banquo will also beget a long line of kings. Entering the capital, Macbeth soon learns that he has been actually proclaimed the Thane of Cawdor. Amazed at this ominous prescience of the witches, he wonders over the fulfilment of their second prophecy and shares these innate thoughts with his wife. King Duncan, meanwhile, visits their palace at Inverness, where Lady Macbeth, anxious to expedite her husband’s ascent to the throne, conspires to kill the king, Macbeth murders the king, manipulating the implication of the drunkard guards of the monarch. Duncan’s princes, however, flee to England.
Macbeth becomes the king but being haunted by the prophecy about the crown slipping to Banquo’s heirs, he has Banquo murdered. His son nonetheless, manages to escape unscathed. Smitten by his guilt and insomnia, Macbeth again approaches the witches and learns that he will not be vanquished until the Birnam Woods come to his Dunsinane Palace and that no man born of a woman can harm him. Bolstered by this, Macbeth unleashes a rule of terror and torture, alienating Macduff, the powerful Thane of Fife, who contacts Duncan’s son Malcolm in England and helps him raise an army. Macbeth, enraged at this impudence, eliminates his entire family. Malcolm, meanwhile, invades Scotland and reaches the Birnam Woods. His soldiers cut branches from the trees to camouflage their assault on Dunsinane. Macbeth, to his despair, finds that the Birnam Woods are indeed coming to his castle. Before being killed by Macduff, he also learns that his slayer was not born the normal way but had been prematurely ripped from his mother’s womb.
In 1977, Pakistan, a land of valiant martial races, like Duncan’s Scotland of gallant highlanders, was torn by a riotous movement of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) aimed at Bhutto’s ouster. General Ziaul Haq had contrived to prove himself Bhutto’s most loyal and obsequious lieutenant general. He even stooped to hold Mrs Bhutto’s dog as she alighted from her plane. Just like Macbeth, he was also commanded to contain the 1970s insurgency in Balochistan, and to reinforce the credentials of his feigned loyalty, he pressed for the severest possible punishment to the participants of the Attock Conspiracy and sponsored lavish receptions for the premier. Carried away by this cloying obedience, Bhutto made him the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. His elevation as chief of the strongest, most funded and disciplined organ of the state, was somewhat similar to Macbeth’s installation as the Thane of Cawdor.
Then again, as the PNA protests turned violent, the army was called in and a limited martial law was imposed in some cities. Zia, despite his Machiavellian manipulation, maintained a veneer of devotion and allegiance. Bhutto, already beguiled by Zia’s posture to protect his government, summoned him to brief the cabinet and the PPP and PNA negotiators striving for a settlement.
Zia could thus aptly analyse the stand, strength, and strategies of the contenders, the strains eroding the emaciated embryonic democratic institutions and their susceptibility at this juncture. Two of his predecessors had already struck with impunity, tempting him too for an adventure. But his ambitions certainly were also fired by the lobbies and factions anxious for Bhutto’s nemesis and reminiscent of the three witches mentioned in Macbeth.
The first witch can be compared to the interests of the religious parties and their cognate outfits. Being repeatedly repudiated by the electorate, they preferred a proxy dictator who could implement their version of Islam or at least stem the surge for popular representative institutions. The second was the ravenous spirit of profit and influence of big business, the industrial and commercial magnates and the fledgling traders eager for expansion. Nationalisation had directly affected their power to manipulate the supplies and prices of essential items. So they were determined to support and proffer generous funds to the PNA as its success promised to suppress labour rights and the consumers’ concern for quality, cost, and access.
The third witch, obviously, was the ambitious bureaucracy, trained and tuned to serve as faithful functionaries to rule and control the natives on behalf of their imperial masters. They had inherited a disdain for their lowly compatriots and their representatives and felt more at ease with their congenital khaki breed. Their contempt for commoners had congealed through the elitist institutions, academies, clubs and the perks and privileges far more plump and succulent than those provided to the people who sustained them through their toil and taxes. Any genuinely representative government determined to dismantle this bureaucratic mould and hold had to be deceptively derailed.
The execution of his benefactor by Zia was almost similar to Duncan’s murder by Macbeth. The onus here also lay on the guardians of justice, inebriated with the imperious authority of dictatorship. Equally parallel to the string of macabre assassinations committed by Macbeth were the series of draconian edicts, flogging, hanging and other ghastly punishments inflicted by Zia to prolong his rule.
The meeting of the witches on a heath also has a striking symbolism in Pakistan. A heath as a vast wasteland covered by heather and low shrubs, signifies a soil devoid of political and democratic plantation. It also suggests an arena where conflicting interests and powers were battling like wild winds and rain. The lowly shrubs growing in it similarly imply the incompetence of the PNA leadership to emerge like towering fruitful trees. Banquo being the victim of Macbeth’s brutalities symbolises the democratic enthusiasts ferociously vandalised by Zia. They adored and encouraged Bhutto’s heirs even in exile. The correlation between Macbeth’s death in a seemingly improbable bizarre encounter and Zia’s cremation in an air crash under equally strange circumstances can be compared. Pressing the analogy still further, Duncan’s crown after Macbeth’s slaughter passed on to his son. Bhutto’s mantle, similarly, was retrieved by his daughter.
The writer is an academic and freelance columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com