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Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: The Man Who Was In A Hurry

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Murtaza Solangi writes about the life of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his early years, his education abroad, his entry into politics and subsequent falling out with Ayub Khan, the formation of the PPP and beyond. He sheds light on his philosophy, work ethic, political populism and how he stood his ground even while facing the gallows.

There are many people who live long. There are many people who cross their eighties and enter nineties. Some even cross the century mark. How many people do we remember who made it to their nineties? Not many. At the end of the day, it is all about what they did and achieved in their lifetime. Some on the contrary have very few years in their physical life but leave an indelible mark in history. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was one of them.

Born into a feudal aristocratic family of Bhuttos, the Rajputs of Rajasthan who had migrated into northern Sindh many centuries ago, he was a spoiled brat of his dad, Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto.

In his twenties, he had finished his education from the universities of Berkeley, California and Oxford, had started teaching law at S.M. Law College Karachi and had setup his law firm in the city and started his law practice.

He was only 23 years old when he married Nusrat Isfahani in 1951. That was his first love marriage, but she was his second wife as Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto had gotten him married to Shireen Amir Begum in 1943 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was only 15 years old; a secondary school going kid.

It was the Karachi social circle of the elites that got Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into the power circles since Karachi was the federal capital then. Begum Naheed Isfahani and Begum Nusrat Isfahani (who later became Bhutto’s spouse) were friends. That is how he got connected to Iskander Mirza who became Pakistan’s first president after the first coup detat of 1958 with Ayub Khan as the defence minister. Bhutto became the commerce minister at the age of 30.

Despite his aristocratic upbringing, Bhutto got infected with the values of liberal democracy, egalitarianism and socialism during his education in the US and the UK. As a young man interested in politics, he could have either chosen the path of Che Guevara or gotten involved in the politics in vogue. He chose the latter.

Like many young people, he chose the path of getting into the system and tried to change it from within. He was closer to Iskander Mirza and Ayub. They liked his finesse, education, western flavour and style. He liked being part of the power elite. For a while it looked like a marriage written in heaven. It did last for a while. The 1965 war was a watershed moment. He didn’t like the way Ayub Khan handled post-war issues with India at Tashkent. He resigned from the cabinet, was hounded by Ayub Khan for a while and dragged in fictitious cases like the use of government tractors on his private land. He even languished in Mianwali jail for a while when he wrote a letter to his beloved nephew, Tariq Islam, explaining what he wanted to do for Pakistan.

He went to UK to think it through. Many intellectual giants of that era suggested to him to launch a new political party. Socialism and anti-colonial national liberation movements defined that era, hence he got closer to the same lot. Jalaudin Abdur Rahim, popularly known as J.A Rahim, then foreign secretary, a graduate of Dhaka and Calcutta University, a Bengali communist and people like Dr. Mubashir Hassan, Meraj Mohammad Khan, peasant leader Sheikh Rasheed and many more got closer to Bhutto then. This is how upon his return, J.A. Rahim helped him write the first foundation document of the party at the house of Dr Mubashir Hassan on the Thursday afternoon of November 30, 1967. He was only 39 years old when he founded the PPP and J.A Rahim was the first party secretary general. He named it as the Peoples Party. Interestingly, his father Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto had helped form the Sindh Peoples Party when Zulfikar was only six years old.

A youthful politician from an aristocratic family, a dethroned minister, educated overseas, raising leftist slogans, quoting world philosophers, intellectuals and legends of the arena in his interactions and speeches was a big hit. That was the genesis of the young charismatic populist politician, a charisma he retained till he kissed the gallows in Rawalpindi.

A quintessential and voracious reader, Zulfikar Bhutto was a known insomniac. He would probably sleep only a couple of hours and was more of a workaholic machine. In Rawalpindi, as a federal minister, he remained busy in understanding the statecraft of Pakistan. His daughter Sanam, born in Rawalpindi, the only Bhutto scion alive once told me about her father, then a young minister once.

“We would ask him what job did he perform? What did he do? He would always say, I am a public servant. So we would pick on him when talking to him. So, Mr Public Servant how are you doing today, we would bother him often,” Sanam revealed to me once.

The Bhutto signature on Pakistan politics is populist politics. Nobody did that in Pakistan before him. The student movement of the last years of 60s, from 66 to 69 bore visible Bhutto marks. He was extremely popular in students. Everywhere Bhutto went, students followed him. But that was the era of peasant and working class movements too. They too galvanized around his party.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto blended anti-India nationalism with his socialistic slogans making it the most popular party in the Punjab. That is why his party had a landslide in the province. Out of 180 seats in the Punjab Assembly, Bhutto’s PPP had achieved 113 seats. Council Muslim League of Mumtaz Daultana, the party that came second had bagged only 15 seats. Dr Mubashir Hasan remembers the night after the polls closed. He told me that he had gone to sleep at 10 PM as he was too tired after the electioneering. “I woke up around midnight on the ring of the house phone. Bhutto was on the line. He was screaming. What is this Mubashir. I asked him what had happened. Bhutto was wondering how come his party had won so many seats. I told him, you resonated with people’s aspirations and the magic worked. I told him to sleep and let me sleep,” Mubashir Hassan said.

Had the results of 1970 elections been accepted by the drunkard sleazy Yahya Khan’s military regime, Bhutto would be sitting as the Leader of the opposition or if both had worked it out, he might be lording out as the president of Pakistan. That didn’t happen.

The military operation launched on March 25, 1971 broke the country ending in the surrender of Pakistani forces on December 16, 1971. Bhutto and other politicians siding with him were wary of the fact that if six points of Sheikh Mujeeb were accepted, it would not only create a confederation between east and west Pakistan but would give the same autonomy to Sindh, Balochistan and then NWFP on the same lines of the East Pakistan. This was not acceptable to the ruling elites of the Punjab, where Bhutto based his populist politics, as Sindh was not a stronghold of the PPP then. The PPP did not even have a simple majority in Sindh Assembly after the 1970 elections. Out of 60 seats in Sindh Assembly, the PPP of Bhutto had gotten only 28 seats. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had to persuade some independents like Piyar Ali Allana to join his party to form the government in Sindh afterwards.

It was clear that after the ignominious surrender at the Ramna Race Course Ground in Dhaka on the sad Thursday of December 16, 1971, Yahya Khan had no desire to  hand over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In his speech on the surrender day, aired on Radio Pakistan, Yahya Khan easily discernable as drunk with speech slur quite visible, announced that he wanted to give a new constitution to the country. Justice A. R Cornelius, the only dissenting voice in Molvi Tamizuddin case, was working as the advisor to Yahya Khan and had drafted a new Legal Framework Order to extend the rule of the general. It was the popular revolt within the military ranks that had forced Yahya Khan to hand over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had returned from the meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.

On Sunday night on December 19, 1971 when Bhutto landed back in Rawalpindi, he was asked to stay in the Punjab House Rawalpindi as the negotiations for the handover of the power between his interlocutor, Ghulam Mustafa Khar, continued.

Agha Nasir, then General Manager PTV Rawalpindi told me that they had standing instructions to get ready to record the speech of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on Monday, December 20, 1971. We kept waiting all day that cold day, late Agha Nasir had said.

“Finally, we saw Bhutto walking down to us,” he told me once. Bhutto asked Agha Nasir why were there too many people to record. Agha introduced himself, a floor manager, make up people, and two cameramen. Bhutto asked what the floor manager was doing there when the general manager was present. Agha threw the floor manager out. Then, Bhutto asked why two cameras were needed. Agha said he told Bhutto the second camera was a backup camera in case one broke down. “Your camera might break down but I won’t,” quipped Bhutto known for his wit and slapsticks.

Agha Nasir said that Bhutto pulled out a folded piece of paper with notes on it and said, “Let us record.” Agha Nasir said he told Bhutto to get some make up done to cover up the shine on his face. Agha told me that Bhutto who had been travelling had shaved that day. “Make up? What make up? Do you have any idea that I have lost half of my country and you want me to do make up? No makeup. Let us record,” Bhutto said. That is how the first speech was recorded and aired on PTV and Radio Pakistan. Legal experts, he himself was one, told Bhutto that since a president and a Chief Martial Law administrator ruled the country so he had to assume the same position for the power to be transferred to him. That is how he became the president and the first and the last civilian Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan at the age of 43 and within 16 months he was able to give the first unanimous constitution passed by the remaining constituent assembly. That is how he became the prime minister at the age of 45.

In five years of his rule, Bhutto worked day and night. Many old bureaucrats would tell us that he did not believe in summaries of the cases sent to present day rulers. He would demand entire files before issuing orders. And those orders mostly would be many pages long with quotes from history, philosophy and books he would love to read. Many people would tell us that the best bookshops of Pakistan had standing instructions to get the copies of the new arrivals and send them to him. Undoubtedly, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the most well-read politician ever to rule this country.

We can talk about what was achieved by Bhutto in the five years that he ruled Pakistan some other day but what defined him in the end was his commitment with peaceful parliamentary politics and the courage not to bow before the worst military dictator of Pakistan. He would neither accept exile nor would agree to get any concession from the dictator. There were two attempts to take him out of the country. He declined both.

During his trial in Lahore when he used to be transported from the Kot Lakhpat jail to the Lahore High Court before Molvi Mushtaq, he was offered one. Dr Mubashir Hassan told me that we made a plan to attack the police convoy and kidnap Bhutto and somehow send him out of the country. “When we told the plot to Bhutto, he firmly rejected it,” Dr Hassan said.

The second time, his nephew Tariq Islam gave Bhutto the message of Yasir Arafat just four days before his execution. Tariq Islam visited Bhutto on March 31, 1979 in Rawalpindi jail. He told me that he conveyed the message of Yasir Arafat to agree to be sent out of the country as they planned a commando operation at the jail and take him out of the country. “Convey my thanks to my brother Arafat. Tell him that I appreciate your gesture but would not like to be recorded in history as the runaway politician fearing his death,” Tariq told me.

That pretty much sums up Bhutto’s life. He departed at the age of 51. Had he, the just man, not been killed by an unjust dictator, he would have been 92 years old today. 1092 months exactly. There are many people who are lucky to be alive in that age group but unlucky to have the same grandeur and respect Zulfikar Ali Bhutto commands today.

He was a man in hurry. He finished everything too quick and left us wondering about him. Abraham Lincoln was right. It is not about the years in one’s life. It is all about the life in those years. And what a life he lived!

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