Thirty eight years ago, on Apr 4 1979, long before dawn, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 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, 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 Dec 20, 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 fulfilment. 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 state.

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 Dec 20 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. He was in prison in Mianwali, having become, unbeknownst to him, Bangladesh’s founding father. It remains a fact of history that Bhutto, moments before he replaced Yahya Khan, would not countenance the latter’s request the Bengali leader be executed in line with the death sentence imposed on him by a secret military tribunal presided over by Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan prior to the hand-over of power. The shrewd politician in Bhutto knew 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 murdered.

On Dec 20 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, 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 retreat by the president regarding 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 no one spoke of it. 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.

Bhutto’s popularity soared, as did his ambition, when 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 — in 1963 — recommended that the military ruler be declared Pakistan’s president for life and was now asking Pakistanis that democracy be restored through pushing the president from power. But, then again, it was quite in Bhutto’s character to repudiate himself in the process 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 the Bengalis, in Pakistan’s eastern province. In the end, the eastern province existed no more. Even so, on the night of Dec 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 East Pakistan and yet 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 demoralised 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 against his own people 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, JA Rahim, Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Abdul Hafiz Pirzada and Ghulam Mustafa Khar.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a bdnews24.com columnist.

8 Responses to “April memories of ZA Bhutto”

  1. M.S.Mustafa

    “Udher tum, edhar hum” was the last nail in the coffin of the Pakistan of Jinnah and Bhutto played Yahya card shrewdly to get to what he wanted: a truncated Pakistan of which he craved to become the President which he did. Ultimately become only to be sized by the military whom he humiliated both in 1965 as well as 1971 war which saw over 90,000 soldiers lay down their arms and swallow the emergence of Independent Bangladesh.
    “As you sow so you reap” could not have been more appropriate than for late ZA Bhutto.

  2. M F Fakhru

    This man did not accept the 1970 election result where he came second. But he used this as a card to go to power. He could have saved united Pakistan but he choose not to. As Bangabandu’s popularity was too much for him to deal with.
    This ‘secular’ man declared Ahmedia’s as non-muslim. He could have saved the humiliation for Pakistan army by accepting ceasefire resolution in the UN a week before the defeat. He did not, instead he walked out from the UN. May be he wanted to humiliate the army to grab power, which he did.
    The fact that Bhutto dynasty is still very popular speaks volume about the feudal society of Pakistan. God bless Pakistan.

  3. Mukul Mia Talukder

    Extreme hunger for power made him blind. He destroyed everything in his path to power, including himself.

  4. Hakim

    He got what he deserved for different reasons. A clever man too ambitious for his own good. He was part of games that forced East Pakistan to secede. Bengalis had no choice, Yahya was too stupid and Bhutto looked after his own ambitions, and nobody cared for the best interests of Pakistan. Can this happen again? Hope not.


    Bhutto became an Elected Parliament Member in 1970 Election. He was the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, which won only 81 seat against Awami League (160, lead by Sheik Mujib). Now I wonder: How Bhutto Became Elected President of Pakistan?

  6. M. Emad

    Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was an evil-genius and highly ambitious person. He was not the ‘Pakistan’s first elected leader’, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the first and last. Post 1971 war, ‘Pakistan’ became a different country though its establishment kept the old name. Bhutto was a Berkeley-Oxford coated typical Sindhi vindictive feudal lord.

  7. Anwar A. Khan

    A flagitious baddie in Pakistan’s politics!
    An ill star as he was in politics, ZA Bhutto’s life highlights a notorious, guileful egotistic politico; his character; and his actions were a full load of lies and buncombe. As a public persona, he was as ticklish as an imaginary creature, he diddled with politicians, people and even mulcted his party stalwarts and the army clique. He used to love to play with everybody only to gain control of the throne of Pakistan by hook or by crook. The word “principle” was never found in his lexicon. The writer is correct when he says : “in whom ambition overrode principle.”
    An educated politician with brightness and extremely intelligent must be a principled one, humble, and unpretentious, but Bhutto possessed demoniac pitilessness in Pakistan’s politics. Like Yahya military junta, an ill star Bhutto was evenly accountable for Bangladesh’s human tragedy in 1971. He was a swaggering character only to harm people and their legitimate rights. Hence, no memory is for such a highway man of third-rater; and his right place should be the outfall at a grime place. A power-hungry, he ghosted the Pakistan’s throne was his only and to ascent to it, he didn’t bother for any rationales; rather, he danged to invoke evils. Shakespeare’s famous words are appropriate to identify him: “He is not what he is.”

  8. Dr A Rahman

    Z A Bhutto’s death by hanging might be viewed as inhumane and barbaric, but the crimes he committed in his lifetime befit his death not once but twice – once by hanging and thence by a hail of bullets. He was the main architect for the destruction of Pakistan (and paradoxically for creation of Bangladesh). It was he who observed from the 7th floor of hotel intercontinental the unleashing of Pakistani Army’s brutality on the civilians on the night of 25th March and commented, “Thank God, Pakistan is saved.”
    Little did he know that Pakistan died on the very moment when he said that Pakistan was saved. It was he who said, he would not play second fiddle to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. How arrogant and undemocratic a person could be to utter such mind-boggling despicable thing! Bhutto destroyed Ayub Khan, Bhutto destroyed Yahya Khan, Bhutto destroyed Pakistan. He was the agent for destruction and as luck would have it, he was destroyed by events.

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