When Bhutto forgot his people . . .

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Thursday, July 6th, 2017


The government of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by the country’s chief of army staff, a Bhutto appointee, General Mohammad Ziaul Huq, on 5 July 1977. Forty years on, it is time to reflect on the life and career of Pakistan’s first elected leader, by default of course.


I have been leafing through Rafi Raza’s work on his late leader yet once again. Rafi Raza speaks of no nightingale in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan: 1967-1977 (published by Oxford University Press quite a good number of years ago). As a political ally of the eventually executed politician, Raza was witness to the eventful ten years that were to mark Bhuto’s rise and fall. Naturally, therefore, the book begins with 1967, when Bhutto linked up with Raza, Mubashir Hasan, J.A. Rahim, Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada and others to give shape to the Pakistan People’s Party. The month was November; and Bhutto had been out of public office for over a year since he had been forced to quit by a disappointed Ayub Khan. Between July 1966 and November 1967, therefore, it was an apprehensive, almost fearful Bhutto who pondered his future. For all his criticism of the field marshal over the Tashkent Declaration — Bhutto had been harping on, without anything to show for it, a secret clause in the declaration he said proved Ayub’s treachery to Pakistan — he had not expected to be given the sack. But he was. After July 1966, he was a frightened man. Ayub yet wielded unchallenged authority and had over the years jailed political rivals relentlessly. He might do a similar thing in Bhutto’s case.


President Ayub Khan eventually did send Bhutto to prison, but that was in November 1968, a full year after the PPP had been formed. And then, Bhutto was to be freed within three months as regime began to totter in the face of growing popular disaffection in both East and West Pakistan. In terms of history, though, 1967 remains a defining moment for Pakistan obviously because of the arrival of the Pakistan People’s Party. For the first time in the history of the largely feudal region that was West Pakistan, a party had come forth with patently populist slogans. Bhutto promised a curious mixture of Islam, democracy and socialism to Pakistanis, not offering, of course, to explain how he would go about achieving. What mattered was how the people received his mantra. And they did receive it well. He was mobbed everywhere he went; huge crowds blocked railway stations and roads to see him pass and hear him speak. Never in the history of West Pakistan had a politician so swiftly transformed himself into a popular hero. And it was happening at the same time as the Bengalis of distant East Pakistan were finding their voice in one of their own, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.


Obviously, Rafi Raza’s work is of an adulatory nature. And yet there are the instances where cites his differences with Bhutto. For all that, though, it is a fact that Reza is one man who did not end up earning Bhutto’s wrath (and Pakistan’s first elected leader, by default of course, began to demonstrate the arrogance of power soon after taking over from a humiliated Yahya Khan in December) as many others did. Bhutto’s goons would leave J.A. Rahim and Mairaj Mohammad Khan beaten black and blue for the audacity of questioning the wisdom of the leader. But that was in the days when Bhutto was first president and then prime minister. Prior to that, it was a team of idealistic men who saw as their mission a transformation of Pakistan’s politics through the PPP vehicle. The dream would expand and would translate into electoral triumph for the party in West Pakistan in late 1970. There was a slight problem, however. Bhutto and his party soon realized that their moment of glory had been a brief moment in the sun, for the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had beaten everyone else to emerge as the majority party on an all-Pakistan basis.


The rest of the story is now part of the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Rafi Raza, in manner typical of others in the PPP at the time, carefully glosses over his party’s refusal to accept the results of the elections but does acknowledge the complications that arose over the subsequent weeks and months. Raza counts himself among the few moderates in the PPP when he states that at a meeting of party leaders on 23 March 1971 in Dhaka (and that was the day when Bengalis refused to celebrate as Pakistan Day and instead hoisted Bangladesh flags on rooftops all over the city), almost everyone present advocated military action against the Awami League by the Yahya Khan regime. J.A. Rahim, himself a Bengali, loudly denounced Mujib as a fascist who could only be countered by the army. And military action was not long in coming. When the army went into action late on 25 March, it was the state of Pakistan that lay grievously wounded.


Raza’s ultimate focus is on the years of the Bhutto government from late 1971 to mid 1977. He duly notes the achievements of the government despite the various constraints it operated under. He records as well the deep flaws in the Bhutto character, those that would take him to his doom. In Raza’s words, ‘If (the people) had short memories, so did ZAB who, within a few years of assuming office, forgot the power of the people which the PPP had helped to galvanize — his only real source of power.’

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