‘I am the destiny’
- The Terrorist Prince: Life and Death of Murtaza Bhutto by Raja Anwar, translated by Khalid Hasan
Verso, 254 pp, £16.00, January 1997, ISBN 1 85984 886 9
- Memoirs of a Bystander: A Life in Diplomacy by Iqbal Akhund
Oxford, 500 pp, £15.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 19 577736 0
- Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan by Rafi Raza
Oxford, 420 pp, £15.95, April 1998, ISBN 0 19 577697 6
In London last month Benazir Bhutto called on Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to respond without delay to India’s nuclear tests. ‘It’s an opportunity for Pakistan to detonate nuclear weapons,’ she said, claiming that her own government had known of India’s intentions and had ‘prepared a contingency plan’ for Pakistan to react ‘immediately’. Returning to Pakistan on 20 May, she called for a government of national unity. Two days later she was leading marches demanding instant nuclear tests or Sharif’s resignation. The glass bracelets worn by South Asian women symbolise effeminacy and cowardice in this macho culture. Benazir took hers off and, tossing them into the crowd, thundered: ‘Go tell Nawaz Sharif to put these on.’ Now that his government has tested no fewer than six nuclear devices, he is being hailed as a national hero while she continues to face a hostile world of prosecutors and judges.
Benazir has a family claim on Pakistan’s nuclear programme. In 1974, when India tested its first nuclear device, her father, then prime minister, responded ‘immediately’. He held secret talks with China, made a deal of sorts with Libya, struck an agreement with France to purchase a plutonium-reprocessing plant and hired Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, a metallurgist then employed in Holland and now regarded, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as a parent of Pakistan’s ‘peaceful’ nuclear programme which competes with, but does not quite match, the still more ‘peaceful’ Indian one. There is a widespread belief among Bhutto supporters that their leader was overthrown and executed at the behest of the United States, as a punishment for having equipped his country with the nuclear option. Did not Shaheed (‘Martyr’) Bhutto promise the people that he would tell the truth about the American conspiracy against him? Had he not brandished the document that would have confirmed it? Had Kissinger not threatened to make a ‘horrible example’ of him for refusing to back down? Had he not then sacrificed himself for the sake of national security? For the Bhuttos, Pakistan’s nuclear capability has always been an instrument as much of political prestige as of national interest.
South Asian dynasts have not always been good to their countries and, in turn, their countrymen have not been kind to them. Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was murdered by her Sikh guards. Her son Rajiv was killed by a Tamil female-bomb. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who headed the first decolonised government of Sri Lanka, was assassinated by a Buddhist zealot. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family were massacred by military putschists. His daughter, Bangladesh’s current prime minister, is the family’s sole survivor. Father Bhutto was executed by his protégé and usurper, General Mohammed Zia ul Haq. One son committed suicide; the other was killed in a shoot-out with the police. At the time, sister Benazir was Pakistan’s prime minister.
The Bhutto story is by far the most dramatic – as well as ironic. Z.A. Bhutto, the dynasty’s founder, was a feudal chief from Sindh, where serfs are still incarcerated in their lords’ private prisons. Yet millions of disinherited peasants and workers saw him as a defender of their rights. He was an authoritarian figure whose formative years in politics were spent in the service of a military dictator. Yet he rose to power as a champion of democracy. He moved the multitude with an extraordinary repertoire of patriotic gestures and populist rhetoric. Yet he contributed significantly to Pakistan’s defeat and dismemberment. He moulded the Army and bureaucracy to serve as instruments of his personal power, but fell victim to his creations. His failure to fulfil his promises turned large numbers against him. But from his incarceration, trial and execution by a hated military dictator rose the legend of a hero and martyr. When Benazir inherited his mantle, an unlikely dynasty was born.
Three events define Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s style of politics: the Pakistan-India war of 1965, the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 and his fall at the end of the Seventies. Raja Anwar’s The Terrorist Prince tells the macabre story of Bhutto’s son Murtaza’s efforts to avenge his father and bring about an armed revolution in Pakistan. Iqbal Akhund, a diplomat, served under Bhutto at defining moments in Bhutto’s and Pakistan’s life. Rafi Raza was a close friend and aide to Bhutto during his years in power.
Unlike Nehru, Bandaranaike, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who spent their lives in nationalist politics and are regarded as founding fathers of their countries, Bhutto entered politics through the back door, as a civilian supporter of military rule. Two men led Pakistan’s first coup in 1958: General Iskander Mirza, the titular President, and General Mohammed Ayub Khan, the army chief. Bhutto, then an obscure lawyer, was a protégé of General Mirza, who commended him to Ayub Khan and, at the age of 30, Bhutto became Minister of Commerce in the dictatorship. Youthful dynamism and a talent for flattery ensured his rapid rise to prominence. In his Life of Bhutto published in 1993, Stanley Wolpert quotes from a letter Bhutto wrote to assure Mirza of his ‘imperishable and devoted loyalty’: ‘When the history of our Country is written by objective Historians, your name will be placed before that of even Mr Jinnah. Sir, I say this because I mean it, and not because you are the President of my Country.’ Then this demurral: ‘I do not think I could be found guilty of the charge of flattery.’
Ayub Khan ousted his fellow conspirator, Mirza, a mere three weeks after the coup. Bhutto stayed in his cabinet for eight years. The Sandhurst-trained, spit-and-polish General liked the young barrister. Bhutto was well educated, with degrees from California and Oxford, elegantly dressed, articulate and politically useful – in Sindh he rallied support for military rule. He was an invaluable adviser and trouble-shooter – and an amusing drinking companion. He was one of the two men who drafted the authoritarian constitution of the military regime in which he served as the Minister for Basic Democracy, though he would later denounce the system as ‘basic fascism’. It was Bhutto who advised Ayub to become a field marshal, ‘since it was essential for him to stay head and shoulders above the others’. The General thought this a ‘brilliant’ suggestion. According to Altaf Gauhar, Ayub’s Information Secretary, ghost-writer and biographer, ‘Bhutto saw Ayub first as Pakistan’s Abraham Lincoln and then adopted him as Salahuddin Ayub, the Muslim crusader.’ In January 1963, Bhutto became Minister of Foreign Affairs. From then on, he could envisage himself as Ayub’s successor.
He also won admirers. His speeches on the evils of imperialism, on behalf of Palestinian and South African liberation, appealed to young Pakistanis in the Sixties. Above all, with his consistent attacks on India, he came to be seen as a bold patriot struggling to liberate the Indian-occupied state of Kashmir. At the same time, he was trying to wean Pakistan from its dependence on the US and to put it at the centre of Third World diplomacy, in the vanguard of the Muslim world. There was evidence to support his progressive image. Photographs and news reports showed that he was a friend of Sukarno and Nasser, an architect of Pakistan’s close ties with China, a statesman favoured by Mao and Chou en-Lai. A boundary agreement with China, negotiated by his predecessor, was signed in 1962, soon after the Indo-China border war. Its details, largely advantageous to Pakistan, were made public in 1963 by Bhutto and the treaty was widely perceived as his personal achievement. In April 1965, Ayub was the first Pakistani head of state to make agreements on trade and aid with Soviet leaders in Moscow. Who else but Bhutto could have arranged that? Washington disapproved, which only added to his popularity in Pakistan.
‘The 1965 war became Zulfi’s booster rocket,’ Wolpert wrote. There is a broad consensus that Bhutto was the civilian engineer of this war. Yet nothing in his background gave indications of a latent anti-Indian outlook. His pampering mother, born Lakhi Bai, was a Hindu dancer who converted to Islam on marriage. His adolescence was spent in Bombay, a cosmopolitan city where his friends were Zoroastrians and Hindus. He was neither a victim of, nor a witness to, the horrors of Partition. Yet, in the government of Ayub Khan, himself a cautious soldier of moderate disposition, Bhutto emerged as a hawk who spoke of India in the Cold War vocabulary of Dulles and Nixon. ‘Kashmir,’ he declared, ‘is to Pakistan what Berlin is to the West.’
In November 1962, following the war with China, in which India incurred severe losses, Nehru offered Pakistan a ‘No War’ pact. Bhutto refused: ‘A No War pact can have the effect only of lulling us into a false sense of security ... Then we could become easy victims of Indian aggression.’ In the fall of 1963, there was agitation in Kashmir against Delhi’s moves to reduce the province’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy. The protests intensified after a relic which Kashmiri Muslims believed to be a hair of the Prophet disappeared. Bhutto alleged that the relic was stolen by ‘the Indian occupation authorities and their agents as part of India’s plan to reduce the Muslim majority in Jammu and Kashmir to a minority, by bringing home to its Muslim population the feeling that the lives, honour and religion of Muslims were not safe, and that, therefore, they must leave the state.’ The holy hair reappeared as mysteriously as it had disappeared. But the agitation, being political at root, continued until Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s nationalist hero, was released from prison. He had been incarcerated for 11 years for seeking more autonomy than India was willing to concede.
These events may have persuaded Nehru of the need for a political solution in Kashmir and, in a bold move, he sent Sheikh Abdullah to Pakistan to find one. The Sheikh was still there on 27 May 1964, when Nehru died; and with Nehru, the peace initiative. Sheikh Abdullah, who now inclined towards Pakistan, toured the Middle East and Europe canvassing support for the plebiscite which a 1949 UN resolution had recommended to determine whether the Kashmiris wished to join India or Pakistan. In Algiers, he had a ‘secret’ meeting with Chou en-Lai, courtesy of Bhutto, which greatly alarmed Delhi, but his tour did little for the Kashmiri cause.
The conclusion Bhutto drew from the agitation in Kashmir was different from the one Nehru had drawn. By then a Third World liberationist, he was greatly taken by the examples of China, Algeria and Vietnam. Nor was he the only advocate of armed struggle. Senior army officers, exposed to the ‘limited war doctrine’ alternately encouraged and feared by American national security experts, were thinking the same way. Among them was the head of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the powerful organisation which later gained notoriety for managing the US-aided anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. The idea was to infiltrate elements of the Pakistan Army into Kashmir and ignite a popular uprising. If India did not withdraw expeditiously, a protracted war would ensue, attracting world attention and international mediation, which would eventually yield a satisfactory settlement for Pakistan.
Wolpert and Akhund agree that Ayub was wary of the plan, but differ on the extent of Bhutto’s role in overcoming Ayub’s reluctance. It was, in any case, overcome. With unequivocal support from Ayub, Operation Gibraltar, named after the eighth-century Arab conqueror who burnt his boats on landing on the southern coast of Spain, began on 25 July 1965, when some seven thousand Pakistani soldiers divided in small guerrilla units began crossing into Indian-occupied Kashmir. Ayub left for a resort, to mislead the world about Pakistan’s role in the ‘Kashmir uprising’, leaving Bhutto in charge. All Pakistani calculations proved wrong. There was no uprising in Kashmir. The Kashmiri leaders, including Sheikh Abdullah, had already been imprisoned by the Indian authorities and Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nehru’s self-effacing successor, took the decisive course of widening the war. The adventure was a fiasco. A conventional army was thrown into unfamiliar territory with none of the logistical, ideological or political moorings essential to a successful guerrilla campaign. In the following weeks many died, some were captured and most beat a hazardous retreat. India’s forces, on the other hand, were close to their bases, under an effective chain of command and on the offensive. To relieve the pressure of the Indian advance across Kashmir’s ceasefire line, Bhutto authorised an attack on Akhnur: Pakistani forces now crossed an international boundary in what appeared to be an attempt to cut India’s logistical link with Kashmir. This had an unintended but predictable result.
At dawn on 6 September 1965 the Indian Army attacked Lahore, the capital of the Punjab. As Indian tanks rolled into the suburbs, Bhutto told Ayub that India’s action ‘cannot be explained except in the light of positive US complicity’. It had become ‘increasingly clear’ to him, he wrote, that since 1959 the US had been trying to ‘secure a foothold in India’. A few days later, he shot off a ‘top-secret’ memorandum recommending that the Army carry out a ‘lightning thrust across the narrow strip of Indian territory that separates Pakistan from Nepal’. He envisaged ‘liberating’ Nepal and Sikkim with Chinese help and gaining a ‘stranglehold over Assam, whose disposition we could then determine’. ‘Your cousin is a madman,’ Ayub later said to Mumtaz Bhutto.
Pakistanis were shocked by the attack on Lahore. State-controlled press and radio had given them only the exciting news of a popular uprising in Kashmir. The Air Force, Navy, and senior commanders of the Army had been kept in the dark lest the great secret of intervention in Kashmir get out. Even now most Pakistanis still believe that in 1965 they were victims of India’s unprovoked aggression. Pakistan’s Army gave an impressive performance; the media – and Bhutto, of course – made out that Pakistan had won the war on the battlefield, only to lose at the negotiating table. Ayub knew the game was up and on 23 September agreed to a UN ceasefire.
Ayub, embarrassed by failure, was disinclined to address the country. Bhutto alone gave heart-warming orations, arousing national pride with his praise of the outnumbered army which had worsted the treacherous enemy. The Kashmiris were ‘people of Pakistan in blood, in flesh, in life, in culture, in history, in geography’, he declaimed before the Security Council, swearing that they would ‘wage a war for a thousand years, a war of defence’. Pakistanis revelled in his patriotic fervour.
In January 1966, however, when Pakistan and India negotiated in Tashkent, Bhutto kept out of the public eye. Again he put pressure on Ayub to refrain from signing a ‘No War’ pact. The Tashkent Declaration was an innocuous document that committed the two countries to ‘peaceful relations’ and ‘the ceasefire terms on the ceasefire line’. Discreetly, Bhutto let it be known that he had objected to Pakistan’s ‘surrender’ in Tashkent. He alleged that there was a ‘secret clause’ in the document which he would reveal at a suitable time. Accusations of betrayal were soon followed by innuendoes about a sell-out. It became obvious that Bhutto was aiming to oust Ayub, who sent him abroad on a ‘long holiday’. By then, popular unrest against the military government was spreading from East to West Pakistan. Bhutto returned from his government-paid vacation in time to lead ‘the people’s revolution’. It was the end of Ayub and the beginning of the Bhutto era.
The anti-Ayub agitation in West Pakistan was started by Sixties student radicals like the author of The Terrorist Prince. Bhutto now spoke the language of revolution. He addressed Pakistanis as ‘the proletariat of the world’, analysed ‘objective conditions’ and ‘basic contradictions’ before rapt audiences, decried the ‘misery, squalor, filth and poverty’ of the masses and roundly denounced ‘capitalist and feudal exploitation’. He was joined by prominent leftists, who drafted his Pakistan Peoples Party’s ‘socialist’ programme and organised it as a national party. I.A. Rahman, a leftist intellectual, has recalled the day of Bhutto’s conversion to the left in 1966:
Thousands of students were at the Lahore railway station to receive him. They were shouting anti-Ayub, pro-Bhutto slogans but most of all: ‘Surkh hai, surkh hai. Asia surkh hai’ (Red it is, red it is. Asia is red). Mr Bhutto was upset. ‘What is this nonsense? Stop this nonsense,’ he said several times as he got into the car. But who could stop the students? When the slow cavalcade reached the YMCA and Bhutto got out of his car, he was vigorously shouting ‘Surkh hai, surkh hai, Asia ...’ People around him said: ‘There is a leader who follows the masses.’
As the unrest spread, the Government imprisoned Bhutto for three months. The statement he gave to the court in his defence was an adaptation of Fidel Castro’s ‘History shall absolve me’ speech. He was released in February 1969, an authentic revolutionary by then, in a Mao cap and jacket. Hard-headed and soft-hearted, he had the flair of a rock star. At rallies he would thunder, tear the front of his shirt daring imaginary enemies – ‘Come on, fire bullets at me’ – weep at the mention of popular suffering, take off his cap or jacket and throw it to the frenzied masses. ‘Tears poured down his face as he was carried out of the station,’ Wolpert writes of one such occasion. ‘The handkerchief which he used to wipe his eyes was sold later for 10,000 rupees.’
On 25 March 1969, after some five hundred people had died in the unrest, Ayub abdicated in favour of General Yahya Khan, then Commander-in-Chief. As Yahya Khan was sworn in, it was already evident that the future of the Pakistani state itself was in doubt, and not merely because of the country’s geographical absurdity. Bhutto’s detractors hold him entirely responsible for the break-up of Pakistan, but as Iqbal Akhund argues, the roots of Bengali alienation were deep, and not Bhutto’s creation. The meagre representation of Bengal in both the military and the bureaucracy – the mainstay of the post-colonial state – was a major source of tension, especially after 1954, when Pakistan entered into security alliances with the West, and their power was greatly augmented. Lacking equal access to these redoubts, the Bengalis received a grossly unequal share of Pakistan’s economic resources. Neither Ayub nor Bhutto had visited East Pakistan during the 1965 war, when the country was under military rule. Even the army chief didn’t bother. With Ayub’s departure, East Pakistanis anticipated a return to democracy and compensation for their grievances in a decentralised federal system. Bhutto need not have stood in the way of that, but he did.
The elections that Yahya Khan had promised were held in December 1970. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 161 and Bhutto’s Peoples Party 81 seats in the Parliament. With an absolute majority, Mujib should have formed a government. But within days it was clear that Bhutto would not allow his own prime ministerial ambitions to be frustrated by his Bengali rival’s majority. He had the majority vote of West Pakistan, home of the Armed Forces, had been a minister in the military government for eight years and enjoyed close friendships with the Generals. By contrast, Mujib had no friends in the Army and the Generals viewed him with suspicion because he opposed the military’s role in politics and advocated a decentralisation of power.
Hasan Zaheer, then a senior bureaucrat in Dhaka, has given an admirable account of the events which led to the tragedy of 1971 in The Separation of East Pakistan (1994). His apparent neutrality does not spare Bhutto. Sheikh Mujib had based his campaign on his party’s Six Point Programme, which envisaged maximum provincial autonomy, limiting the role of a federal government to defence and foreign affairs – a common federalist proposal but one which the military-bureaucratic establishment regarded with trepidation. Bhutto played on those fears. He regarded a partnership between himself and the Army as more appropriate for Pakistan than a decentralised democracy.
After the election, General Yahya met Sheikh Mujib in Dhaka and felt reassured enough to describe him publicly as ‘the next prime minister of Pakistan’. From Dhaka he went ‘hunting’ at Bhutto’s estate in Sindh, where Bhutto argued that the Six Points ‘spelt the end of Pakistan’. But Mujib would not renounce his programme. Bhutto demanded six months’ delay before convening the newly elected Parliament, which would mean extending Martial Law by at least that many months. When Yahya Khan ignored this demand and scheduled Parliament to convene on 3 March, Bhutto decided on a boycott and warned his party’s MPs that he would ‘break the legs’ of any member who dared attend the session. A Peoples Party MP named Ahmed Raza Kasuri – an important figure, as it turned out – went anyway.
On 21 March, Bhutto in turn arrived in Dhaka and sent a message to Sheikh Mujib: ‘Tell him that I am the destiny.’ When they met, Mujib took him aside and offered him the prime ministership of Pakistan in return for ending Martial Law and ‘leaving East Pakistan alone’. Bhutto later wrote that he told Yahya he could not accept these terms – they ‘inevitably meant two Pakistans’. He also gave the drunken General the pretext for a military solution. ‘Martial law was the source of law then obtaining in Pakistan’: lifting it would remove all ‘legal authority’ from the President and Central Government. ‘In such a situation nothing could stop the secession of East Pakistan.’ For the next three days, amid rising tension in East Pakistan, he met with the Generals several times. At midnight on 25 March 1971 Bhutto was woken by gunfire and, from his hotel room, could see that Dhaka was ablaze. Operation Searchlight began with a massacre by the Pakistan Army of students and faculty in Dhaka University. The next morning Bhutto returned to Karachi and told waiting journalists: ‘Thank God, Pakistan has been saved.’ He was as wrong as it was possible to be.
Nine months and a million lives later, on 16 December 1971, after India’s intervention, 93,000 Pakistani soldiers and officials were taken prisoner, among them Hasan Zaheer. But the televised surrender ceremony did not take place until Bhutto, who was again promising to ‘fight for a thousand years’, had made a last stand in New York. Iqbal Akhund, who was then posted at the UN, describes the scene:
He stormed at the members: ‘You can keep your Security Council. I will not be party to the ignominious occupation of a part of my country!’ He then stood up, and tearing up a sheaf of papers that he had in his hands, flung the pieces into the air and stormed out of the Council chamber, followed by a buzzing swarm of reporters. Council members stared at his retreating figure in dumbfounded silence and members of his own delegation sat petrified for a moment before scrambling after him. Only Agha Shahi [Pakistan’s Permanent Representative] claimed not to have been surprised. ‘I am sure he had rehearsed it all in front of a mirror before coming to the meeting,’ he said to me later.
A hero once again, Bhutto was sworn in as President and Martial Law Administrator of the newly truncated Pakistan on 20 December 1971.
As the chief executive of a defeated and dismembered country, Bhutto sought chiefly to prevent confusion and further chaos. He displayed great skill in negotiating with India the release of the 93,000 prisoners – among them officials whom Bangladeshi leaders had wished to prosecute for crimes against humanity. His efforts to normalise relations with Bangladesh were realistic and successful. His energy, style and flair for diplomacy helped restore Pakistan’s tarnished image. Above all, he reached an accord with the opposition parties which made it possible for a new Constitution to be unanimously adopted. Pakistan had the air of a functioning democracy. An editorial in the New York Times described it as ‘a strange phoenix-like country’ that always seemed to rise from its ashes.
At the same time, however, Bhutto was bending the rules, violating laws, muzzling the press and distorting state institutions to suit his own ends. The Constitution, his crowning achievement, was repeatedly amended by the rubber-stamp Parliament bestowing on the prime minister the powers of a medieval monarch. Bhutto packed the judiciary with cronies, qualified and not so qualified; in a single sweep he purged the higher bureaucracy of some 1500 experienced officers; then re-employed most of them on contract, his aim being to cow them into submission. He created intelligence agencies that spied on each other, and a 20,000-strong Federal Security Force that served as his personal goon squad (its director’s deposition to the court subsequently led to Bhutto’s conviction for murder). He went on a spree of nationalisations – of banks, insurance companies and industries – that produced massive capital flight, economic crisis, and urban protest in which workers were killed by police. In his drive to monopolise power, he dissolved the opposition-led provincial government of Baluchistan and forced the resignation of the Government of the North West Frontier Province. The outcome was unrest in NWFP and an armed insurgency in Baluchistan, allowing him to put his secular opponents in prison and impose a regime of repression. He got rid of the intellectuals and activists who had given teeth to his populist programme and discipline to his party but who now showed a tendency to be critically independent, and surrounded himself with cronies and enforcers. To overcome his political isolation he turned increasingly to politicians with a feudal background like his own and courted the right-wing religious parties, with whom he reached an agreement to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state. To satisfy the extremists among them, he also declared the Ahmedi, a Muslim sect, to be a non-Muslim minority under the law, thus setting them up for persecution.
It was in this environment of conformity and repression that Bhutto appointed General Zia ul Haq Army Chief of Staff in 1976. There was nothing in his service record to qualify Zia. Yet six senior officers were passed over. Bhutto believed him a toady and treated him with contempt. According to Wolpert, ‘he often made Zia the butt of his public ridicule, shouting at him from the head of the dinner table, “Where is my Monkey General? Come over here, Monkey!” He would pretend to pull Zia towards himself on an invisible string, and then introduce him to a distinguished foreign guest, quickly dismissing him, even before Zia finished bowing, ever smiling.’ This was his worst but by no means his only error of judgment.
With his critics silenced and the Army on a string, Bhutto contemplated big changes. He hired Professor Leslie Wolf-Phillips of the LSE to draft a new constitution for a presidential form of government. He needed a commanding Parliamentary majority to change the Constitution and scheduled fresh elections for March 1977. But by now his popularity had waned, the economy was in recession, his party apparatus had collapsed, bureaucrats were planning his electoral strategy and feudal lords made up a majority of his party’s nominees to contest the election. Intelligence reports indicated that he might win a simple majority but not the minimum two-thirds he needed. By then the state apparatus was Bhutto’s handmaiden, and it went to work with more enthusiasm than even he may have wished. Rigging was widespread and the results astounding.
Rafi Raza and Wolpert report that Bhutto knew the results lacked credibility yet he resisted fresh elections. The opposition launched nationwide protests, its support increasing daily despite the repression, which led to 300 deaths. There was such distrust between Bhutto and his opponents that negotiations failed to resolve the crisis. To placate the Islamic parties which had joined the agitation Bhutto announced measures – prohibition, a ban on gambling and nightclubs – that presaged the transformation of Pakistan into an Islamic state ‘within six months’. But nothing availed him. He ended up calling in the Army and on 4 July 1977, General Zia staged a coup. The ‘monkey’ had a will to mastery.
Behind the humble man in uniform lay a calculating, cold-blooded and shrewd dictator who out-foxed Bhutto and built ruthlessly on his mentor’s least attractive legacies. Zia violated his pledges to restore constitutional government and, after some temporising, threw Bhutto into a dark, damp prison and put him on trial. The charge against Bhutto was the murder of Nawab Ahmed Khan Kasuri, father of Ahmed Raza, once an ardent Bhutto supporter but more recently the MP who had attended the Parliamentary session Bhutto boycotted in 1971. Father and son had run into an ambush while travelling together in November 1974 and Nawab died of gunshot wounds. The son had filed charges against Bhutto but the case had not gone to the courts: Ahmed Raza, who, like Bhutto, had a feudal background, was reconciled with his former leader, while the charges remained in the police dossier. Zia simply re-opened the case.
The evidence against Bhutto was circumstantial. The main witnesses were his henchmen. His secretary recalled secret funds and pay-offs, misappropriations, mistreatment of subordinates and cruelty towards colleagues. The star witness, formerly his chief enforcer and head of the dreaded Federal Security Forces, eagerly confessed to dark deeds apparently carried out at Bhutto’s behest. As the only one to allege that Bhutto had ordered the ambush, he was the decisive witness, but he was not credible – Zia had granted him immunity. It was a long and depressing trial which culminated in the death sentence. The appeal was heard in Pakistan’s Supreme Court. One sympathetic judge fell ill, another retired during the hearings. Of the seven who remained on the bench, three voted for acquittal and four upheld the sentence. Zia ignored the appeals from many world leaders and hundreds of thousands of citizens to spare Bhutto’s life. Among his few memorable lines: ‘If the court says hang the blighter, I shall hang the blighter.’
On 3 April 1979 Nusrat and Benazir visited Bhutto for the last time. They were with him when the prison superintendent came in to inform him that he would be executed that night. In the early hours of 4 April, he was hanged inside the prison, not far from the Prime Minister’s official residence. Mother and daughter were not informed of the funeral details. An army photograph shows six men unloading a simple coffin from a military helicopter; the caption identifies the place as Garhi Shahu, the Bhuttos’ ancestral village. Another shows a simple ‘charpoy’, or cot, on a bare floor; on it an object covered with a cloth and on top of that a prayer rug. A few steps away a score of men stand in a row, heads down and arms folded in prayer. It is a familiar scene – the funeral of a poor worker or peasant. In death, at least, Bhutto was a man of the people. In his native Sindh, a culture steeped in mysticism and reverence for saints, his grave became a martyr’s shrine.
During the trial and the appeal, Nusrat and Benazir had stayed in Pakistan, working with the lawyers, visiting Bhutto in his cell and bearing with fortitude the miseries that Zia inflicted on them. Between 1977 and 1984, Benazir was arrested nine times and spent five and a half years in prison or under house arrest. Thereafter, she was active in exile. The Harvard and Oxford-educated young woman stood for resistance against a harsh and retrograde military dictatorship. Bhutto’s sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, went abroad to mobilise diplomatic support on their father’s behalf. After his execution they organised an armed group to avenge his death and bring about a revolution in Pakistan. Shahnawaz died in Cannes of a drug overdose, though the family put about the idea of foul play.
Among the makers of the legend of the Bhuttos were Peoples Party ‘jiyalas’ – a rich local word meaning ‘devotees’. Raja Anwar was a ‘jiyala’, one of the few who participated in nearly all phases of the Bhutto story. He was a prominent student leader in the 1968 anti-Ayub uprising that marked Bhutto’s rise to power, served on his advisory staff, aided in his wife and daughter’s struggle to save him and finally joined his son’s armed movement abroad. Like many ardent admirers of the Bhutto family, he became disillusioned and fell from favour. It was Murtaza Bhutto who, for reasons he does not make clear in his book, had him thrown into the notorious Pul-i-Charkhi prison of Communist-ruled Afghanistan. The Terrorist Prince is a bitter, largely secondhand account of Murtaza’s People’s Liberation Army, later named al-Zulfikar.
The movement of which Raja Anwar was a principal organiser began by encouraging Bhutto supporters to court arrest and public flogging. But this, and the more extreme strategy of self-immolation, failed to ignite popular protests. Raja Anwar describes a group of men who burned themselves to death: ‘They had reached that strange mystical state where the most unbearable pain provides joy beyond comprehension ... Khokar left a young wife and a daughter just 18 months old, plus his parents. Before the fire brought him to the ground he was heard intoning Christ’s moving words on the cross: Eloi, Eloi. Lama sabach thani.’ The Bhuttos did not urge these immolations, but did nothing to discourage them. With pride rather than sadness, Bhutto told the judges of the Supreme Court: ‘Eight of my party workers committed self-immolation. This was no joke; one does not even singe one’s finger for another’s sake.’ And Benazir said: ‘Those brave men were idealists whose dedication and decency transcends their own pain. We salute them.’
It is ironic that the Bhutto dynasty came into existence at the peak of Zia’s power. He appeared unaware of it and in 1986 permitted Benazir to return from exile in London. Her arrival in Lahore was an event without parallel in the sub-continent’s history. Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah: no one ever had a public reception like hers. More than a million people converged on the airport to welcome her. Portraits of Bhutto, Nusrat and Benazir, Murtaza and Shahnawaz covered the walls of the ancient city. Murtaza, too, eventually returned to Pakistan and, after a series of violent confrontations with his sister, died in a police shoot-out in front of the Bhuttos’ residence in Karachi. By then, of course, Benazir had begun to squander her extraordinary political gains. It is unlikely that the nuclear device she so desperately wanted tested will bring her back to power.