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The life and death of Bhutto

A book that portrays Zulfikar Bhutto as a protagonist of a Greek tragedy, who is cursed by gods and his final destiny is pre-ordained due to his fatal flaws

The life and death of Bhutto

In his book The Hero in History, Sidney Hook, a noted American philosopher and political theorist, made an important distinction between “eventful” and “event-making” leaders. Eventful leaders respond to a momentous situation and influence the course of subsequent developments by their actions or inaction. Event-making leaders just don’t find a fork in the historical road but help to create it. Event-making leaders are transformational and change the course of history by their actions.

Event-making leaders are credited with making the political weather. In Pakistan’s chequered history, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was certainly one such event-making leader. From his first appearance on the political horizon in 1957, when he was named member of a delegation to the United Nations, to his tragic death at the gallows in 1979, Bhutto either dominated the political landscape or at least played a leading and active role in all significant political events that took place during this period.

He first became minister in President Iskander Mirza’s cabinet after the 1958 coup and was retained by General Ayub Khan after he eased out Mirza few weeks later. Educated at Bombay Cathedral, Berkeley, and Oxford, Bhutto served in four of President Ayub’s five cabinets and was instrumental in reorienting Pakistan’s foreign policy towards China (1963) and representing Pakistan at the United Nations during 1965 War. He fell out with Ayub after Tashkent Agreement (1966), launched his own left of the centre political party (1967), and successfully led the protest movement against Ayub (1968) which brought about his eventual downfall.

Under President Yahya Khan, he energetically participated in the country’s first national adult franchise elections (1970), won majority of seats in West Pakistan but refused to accept Sheikh Mujib Rehman’s outstanding victory in East Pakistan. Although the primary blame for the civil war in East Pakistan and subsequent secession after 1971 war with India rests squarely on the shoulders of General Yahya Khan, Bhutto also shares blame for refusing to accept election results and playing second fiddle to military junta during East Pakistan military operation.

After the fall of Dhaka, Bhutto became president of truncated Pakistan, picked up the pieces and rebuilt the new country. He brought back prisoners of war after successfully negotiating Simla Agreement with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Two of his most significant achievements were promulgation of the 1973 Constitution, with overwhelming backing from all provinces, and starting the nuclear programme in response to Indian tests in 1974.

Co-hosting OIC Summit with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in Lahore in 1974 was a diplomatic masterstroke and the greatest PR event in Pakistan’s history. He sent Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi to Dhaka who brought Mujib to Lahore and Pakistan diplomatically recognized Bangladesh at the Lahore Summit. Bhutto moved Pakistan closer to oil-rich Muslim countries in the Middle East and deftly exploited economic opportunities for migrant Pakistani labour in the Gulf, who remain a vital source of foreign exchange to this day in the form of remittances sent back home.

One of the key themes in his electoral campaigns was to reduce economic disparity in the country and to rein in 22 super-rich business families who dominated the economic landscape. Once in power, Bhutto nationalised the banks and main industries — a decision which seemed in line with the prevalent thinking at that time but which has cast a negative shadow for long over the country’s economy. He also introduced land and labour reforms in the country as part of his Islamic Socialism centered electoral agenda.


Creation of paramilitary force FSF and its involvement in extrajudicial killings not only tarnished his government’s record in terms of human rights violations but also proved to be a costly mistake for Bhutto in personal terms: his henchmen Masood Mahmood, head of FSF, turned approver against Bhutto after his government’s ouster and testified against him in the court — leading to Bhutto’s conviction and subsequent hanging.

Bhutto appointed General Zia-ul-Haq, a junior general of fawning behaviour, mediocre-intellect and modest background, as chief of the army staff in 1976 as he assumed that such a person will not be able to impose martial law. It turned out to be not only poor judgment but also the worst decision of his life. What Bhutto failed to judge properly was that behind the façade of humility and servility hid a very shrewd person who was a hypocrite to the core.

In 1977, Bhutto announced early elections, faced rigging allegations after a huge win, and entered into prolonged discussions following violent protests by the opposition Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) — a coalition of disparate right wing and left-wing parties.

His handpicked army chief Zia-ul-Haq took advantage of the situation and overthrew Bhutto’s government in July 1977, jailed his former boss and benefactor, put him on trial on murder charges, and hanged him after a split verdict by the country’s Supreme Court following a controversial trial which has been described as judicial murder.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto lived like a Roman emperor and died liked a hero in a Greek tragedy. In her insightful and interesting biography titled Born to be hanged-Political biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Syeda Saiyadin Hameed portrays him as a protagonist of a Greek tragedy, who is cursed by the Gods and his final destiny is pre-ordained due to his fatal flaws. An interesting comparison between Bhutto and Oedipus is made at the outset and it continues to guide her narrative.

She has borrowed book’s title from a phrase in the British High Commissioner’s dispatch in 1965 in which he describes Bhutto as a gifted but flawed person who is doomed to destroy himself. Morrice James, British High Commissioner to Pakistan, painted him as Lucifer, a flawed angel who is born to be hanged.

Syeda Hameed is a writer, a human rights activist and educationist based in New Delhi. She has served as Member Planning Commission of India as well as Member National Commission for Women in India.

A niece of Dr Mubashir Hasan, co-founder of PPP and ex-finance minister of Bhutto, Syeda has written a sympathetic biography as her views are based mostly on her conversations with her uncle over the last two decades and the precious material in his personal archives. She was also allowed access to Bhutto’s fabled library at 70 Clifton by Ghinwa Bhutto.

It is not a comprehensive biography as it just focuses on the political course of Bhutto and does not discuss his personal or family life. As such it cannot be compared to other more detailed biographies written by academic Stanley Wolpert or Bhutto’s associate Rafi Raza or PPP leader Salmaan Taseer (arguably the best political biography on the subject).

The most interesting chapters in the book shed very important light on his ascension years when he formed PPP and spent time in jail during the last years of Ayub Khan’s rule. Syeda quotes in detail from letters written by Bhutto from jail to his close comrades — J.A. Rahim or Mubashir Hasan — illuminating both his brilliant strategic mind as well as his authoritarian streak.

Bhutto has been praised and pelted equally by religious parties and liberal circles for his amendment declaring Ahemdis Non-Muslims in 1974 and for introducing religious measures seen as appeasement to religious parties in his last days as premier. Syeda’s book does not discuss the Ahmedi issue and briefly touches upon the religious measures. Maulana Kauser Niazi and Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, cabinet ministers and part of Bhutto’s negotiating team with PNA, are blamed for poorly advising Bhutto in his last days in power.

She echoes Mubashir’s view on many subjects such as nationalisation and Bhutto’s trial by the judiciary. Bhutto’s lawyers, she opines, dragged the trial in the hope that Zia will come under more pressure from international powers but this strategy also meant that a number of judges on the bench sympathetic to Bhutto retired during this period leaving more pro-Zia judges on the bench to deliver the final verdict.

It is commonly believed that Zia had made up his mind to hang Bhutto in the initial weeks after the military coup and did not take international pleas for clemency or exile seriously despite false promises to a number of foreign leaders. However, the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in February 1979, after 16 year exile, sealed Bhutto’s fate as Zia would never risk exiling Bhutto to find himself in a similar situation few years later.

In retrospect, Bhutto’s years in power were unique in Pakistan’s history when military was subordinated to civilian authority, a Constitution was given to the country by the elected parliament, and wide-scale reforms were introduced. However, despite his brilliance and diligence resulting in monumental achievements, Bhutto suffered from many contradictions and fatal flaws which finally led to his undoing.

French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot has aptly described these contradictions and their consequences when he wrote: Less a democrat than a populist, more an authoritarian than a parliamentarian, more a centralizer than a federalist, and as much a socialist as a product of his social background, he turned his back on parts of his platform — and thus on the middle and working classes that supplied much of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leadership — to co-opt the landowning elite. Most of all, having little respect for basic freedoms, including that of the press, he denied Pakistan free elections in 1977, giving the army, already reinvigorated by military operations in Balochistan, the arguments it was waiting for.

Born to be hanged. Political Biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Author: Syeda Hameed
Publisher: Rupa Publications Private Limited
Publishing year: 2017
Pages: 264 (Hardback)


Ammar Ali Qureshi

Ammar Ali Qureshi
The reviewer is an independent researcher based in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @AmmarAliQureshi

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