The complex legacy of a flawed leader … remembering Zulfikar Ali Bhutto


On 4 April 1979, long before dawn, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, pictured, Pakistan’s first elected leader, was hanged, on the pretext of a Supreme Court verdict but really on the patent orders of its third military ruler, General Ziaul Haq, in Rawalpindi jail.

It was a tragic end to the life of a man in whom ambition overrode principle. He made a difference for Pakistan. And yet he ended up, in his days in power, as a politician like so many of his predecessors in his country.

Four days into the emergence of Bangladesh out of the ashes of East Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over as President of what remained of Pakistan. It was the evening of 20 December 1971. Bhutto had flown into Rawalpindi from New York in the morning and then gone into a long session with General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, the disgraced military leader who had just presided over Pakistan’s defeat in the Bangladesh war.

It was a complex situation for Pakistan, as bizarre as it was embarrassing. But for Bhutto, it was a moment when ambition had finally been translated into fulfillment. The prize he had always wanted, the power he had always craved, was finally his. It did not matter that it was the remaining half of a broken country of which he was now president. It was immaterial, to him, that having contributed in a big way to the making of circumstances that would lead the Bengalis of Pakistan to independent nationhood, he was taking charge of a rump country.

All that mattered to Bhutto was that power was finally his to exercise. It was power he would not permit to be given to the leader of the majority party, in this instance the Awami League, elected to the national assembly in December 1970. On 20 December 1971, therefore, he took charge as president of Pakistan by default. And Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who ought to have been the legitimately elected leader of Pakistan, was in prison. The people who had chosen him to lead the country were now out of Pakistan’s orbit. And he was in prison in Mianwali, in his new role, as yet unbeknown to him, as Bangladesh’s founding father.

Yahya Khan, the last President of a unitied East and West Pakistan.

It remains a fact of history that Bhutto, moments before he replaced Yahya Khan, would not countenance the latter’s request that the Bengali leader be executed in line with the sentence of death imposed on him earlier by a secret military tribunal presided over by Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan before a hand-over of power. The shrewd politician in Bhutto knew that not a single Pakistani prisoner of war taken in Bangladesh would come back home if the founding father of the new nation were to be done to death.

On 20 December 1971, glory was Bhutto’s. It was glory which he had begun to seek in the mid-1960s when he set out on a mission to discredit his benefactor, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, on the provisions of the Tashkent Declaration the military ruler had worked out with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966. There were, said Bhutto darkly, secret clauses in the declaration which undermined the interests of Pakistan. He would, he said, reveal them to the country in good time. Of course, there were no such clauses. He would never make those promised revelations. What disturbed Bhutto, who was present beside Ayub at Tashkent, along with Information and Broadcasting Minister Khwaja Shahabuddin, was what he considered to be a climb-down by the president in that nothing had been resolved about Kashmir.

Having pushed Ayub and the army, through Operation Gibraltar, into the September 1965 war on the premise that it would lead to the ‘liberation’ of Kashmir, he was unhappy that in Tashkent no one spoke of Kashmir. Alexei Kosygin and Andrei Gromyko were clearly irritated by his attitude and would ignore him, preferring to deal directly with Ayub. Hence Bhutto’s grievance and, yes, his untruths about the secret clauses in the Tashkent Declaration. It was not long before Ayub would ask him to resign or face the prospect of a dismissal. A shaken Bhutto chose to resign. He would take about a year and a half to gather a group of politicians around him who together would give shape to the Pakistan People’s Party in November 1967.

Switching loyalties

Bhutto’s popularity soared and so did his ambition as he began touring Pakistan to call for change. It was ironic. Here was a man who, as secretary general of Ayub Khan’s Convention Muslim League, had barely a few years earlier — that was in 1963 — recommended that the military ruler be declared Pakistan’s president for life and who now was asking Pakistanis that democracy be restored through pushing the president from power. But, then again, it was quite in the Bhutto character to repudiate himself in the expectation of reinventing himself. In early October 1958, within days of being inducted as the youngest minister in Pakistan’s martial law regime, he sent off a fawning letter to President Iskandar Mirza, extolling the latter as a leader greater than Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Barely a fortnight later, once Ayub Khan had pushed Mirza out of office and into exile, Bhutto switched his loyalties to the new man. By mid-1966, his infatuation with Ayub was at an end. In 1968, he declared his candidacy for Pakistan’s presidency, elections for which were scheduled under Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracy system in early 1970. It did not occur to Bhutto that his calls for democracy and his desire to gain the presidency under the BD system was a contradiction in terms. Time magazine carried the news of his announcement in one of its issues. Ayub’s popularity, noted Time, was on the wane.

The rest of the Bhutto story is now part of history. His call for Islamic Socialism, never explained in detail but nevertheless propagated by his acolytes, drew millions of Pakistanis to his cause. It was not enough, though, to beat back the more mature leadership demonstrated by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangabandhu to Bengalis, in Pakistan’s eastern province. In the end, the eastern province existed no more.

Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Even so, on the night of 20 December 1971, President Bhutto spoke in a live radio broadcast of his resolve to build a New Pakistan. He spoke of his feelings for the people of ‘East Pakistan’, of his belief that they would soon return to being part of Pakistan. He was in a state of denial. Bhutto knew there was no more an East Pakistan and yet he pretended there was one. For him, the war had not ended, would not end until Pakistan came together as one country again.

On that night, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said not a word about Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He made no mention of the miseries inflicted on Bengalis by Pakistan’s soldiers. He was silent on the circumstances in which those soldiers had capitulated in Dhaka.

But before the night passed into a new day, Pakistan’s new leader had his predecessor Yahya Khan and the chief of general staff, General Abdul Hamid Khan, placed under house arrest. He appointed new chiefs for the three armed services, letting Pakistanis know that henceforth they would not be called commanders-in-chief but chiefs of staff.

It was a demoralized Pakistan that looked forward to an ambitious Bhutto to lead it out of the darkest period in its short history. He would appoint Nurul Amin, the Bengali politician who had collaborated with the Yahya Khan regime all through Bangladesh’s war of liberation and was now trapped in Pakistan, his vice president.

And on his team to administer post-1971 Pakistan would be Aziz Ahmed, Mubashir Hasan, Rafi Raza, J.A. Rahim, Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Abdul Hafiz Pirzada and Ghulam Mustafa Khar. There was too the Bengali politician from Sylhet, Mahmud Ali, as well as Tridiv Roy, the Chakma raja who had opted to support the army in its genocide in occupied Bangladesh.