Upon British withdrawal from the subcontinent in 1947, Zia's birthplace was located in the newly independent (and predominantly Hindu) India. As with millions of other Muslims, he and his family migrated to Pakistan, settling in Peshawar, and he joined the officer corps of the Pakistani Army. After Zia received further training in the United States and steady promotions, Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appointed him chief of the army staff in 1976.
The following year Zia led a coup by fellow army officers, removing Bhutto from power. Over the next several years, Zia was the head of the military junta, amassing increasing power. He ruled Pakistan as its self-appointed president by disbanding parliament, increasing the power of the presidency, and imposing martial law. His assault on political opponents included the execution of Bhutto on 4 April 1979 for allegedly participating in a murder plot against his own rivals while in office.
Although a ruthless dictator, Zia was nevertheless popular among the lower classes in Pakistan. This was largely because of his reputation as a pious Muslim and his efforts at increasing the role of Islam in government, including the creation of Islamic courts. Zia was killed under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash on 17 August 1988 in Bahawalpur, Pakistan.
Brent M. Geary
Burki, Shahid Javed, and Craig Baxter, eds. Pakistan under the Military: Eleven Years of Zia ul-Haq. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.; Ziring, Lawrence. Pakistan in the Twentieth Century: A Political History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.