There remains a powerful, persistent, possibly growing, but certainly undying, mystic belief held by millions of Pakistanis, not only Sindhis but Punjabis, Baluchis and Pathan Frontiersmen as well, that “Shaheed (martyr) Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was never hanged, that he never died, “Zulfi Bhutto lives on”, they say, “and he always will”..
Stanley Wolpert had written these prophetic lines somewhere in 1993, the last lines in his biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, some 14 years after the midnight execution of April 4, 1979; but these sound even truer almost 40 years after his death.
Zia’s henchman may have extinguished the physical expression of Bhutto, but in the process, Zia immortalized him for all times to come – and earned his own place as the most despised and dark character in Pakistan’s history.
Countless thousands, each year, appear to sing, to pray, to cry, to seek Lord’s benevolence at Bhutto’s mausoleum in Garhi Khudda Baksh while few, even in Islamabad, know that body parts of General Zia were buried in a lone corner of Faisal Mosque.
Those who came to bury Zia in August of 1988 – his political creations and inheritors – have since then been compelled to abandon Zia, they are afraid and ashamed to mention his name in public; continuing their own politics instead under Bhutto’s references. Could Bhutto – with his innate sense of history – have asked his Lord for bigger revenge?
Bhutto: A Pakistani House of Mirrors
But Bhutto’s place in Pakistan’s history is far more complex than what these lines can ever reveal: his saga of quantum success and painful failure is a quintessential Pakistani tragedy; an emotional mosaic, a colorful kaleidoscope, an “Alice in Wonderland” experience with thousands of mirrors in which we all can find ourselves with our desires and contradictions, our beauty and our beastliness.
He was a polarizing character in his life inspiring unbelievably strong emotions: adored for championing the cause of downtrodden; hated for being a feudal; accepted as the founder of Pak-China special relationship; blamed for wrongly advising President Ayub Khan for Operation Gibraltar in 1965; loved for his position on Kashmir in the UN and his campaign against Tashkent Agreement; credited for the creation of Pakistan’s only political party of the “masses” that still survives after 50 years of traumas and tribulations; often blamed for separation of East Pakistan – Idhar hum udhar tum; ridiculed for being the first-ever civilian Martial law administrator; praised endlessly for giving Pakistan its first-ever consensus constitution but blamed for making person-specific amendments; worshipped for giving millions of workers and farmers their human dignity but condemned for unwise nationalizations and land reforms.
He is remembered for his liberal values, his secularism, his promotion of arts and culture and carries the burden of accepting in public that he “drinks alcohol but not the blood of poor” – but then also condemned for exploiting the Ahmedia issue for courting the ultra-religious right.
Is that all? No! ZAB was endlessly demonized for arrogant treatment of his colleagues like JA Rahim, for tortures and murders of his political opponents, for Dhulai camp and Lahore Fort, for vulgarity to PIA stewardesses and flirting with wives of his friends; blamed for being an American creation in 1960s, for calling Ayyub Khan “Daddy” for campaigning against Fatima Jinnah in 1964 elections, for being secular, for being atheist, for being uncircumcised Hindu, for an agent of Jews, for massively rigging March elections, for calling PNA’s 1977 Islamist movement a CIA agenda, for literally everything – but despite all this almost 40 years after his death he has become the most uniting, cementing factor in Pakistani politics and history.
Bhutto: Divisive in life but Uniting in Death?
Today in Pakistan’s political gossip, drawing room discussions, college debates, and ferocious TV Talk Shows – where consensus is rare – most remember him for his razor-sharp intelligence, his intellect, for his passionate nationalism, for his incomparable worldview, his brilliant writings, his vision, his charisma, his powerful oratory, his ability not to woe women but Muslim leadership; turning Pakistan into the center of global attention.
He is remembered for his discovery of China as a friend, his courage to stand up against the United States and the west, and above all for being the political father of Pakistan’s nuclear program and for giving common man this exaggerated false, but seductive idea that he matters in a realm dominated by feudal lords, rapacious industrialists, cunning bureaucrats, and arrogant generals.
In a country where today, almost 70% of citizens are less than 35 years of age – born after Bhutto’sfateful execution – he is the most known and cherished historical figure after the founder of a nation: Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
This is called “legacy”. Zulfikar Ali was third child of Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto and Khursheed Begum, born Capricorn, 5th Jan, 1928. His father was influential Dewan of the princely state of Junagadh; he tried unsuccessfully for state’s accession with Pakistan – an attempt that failed with Indian intervention.
Read More: Benazir Bhutto: An Intangible Legacy
After initial schooling in Bombay he landed in the University of Southern California in 1947 from where he moved to Berkley in 1950 completing his BA studies there before reaching Christ Church, Oxford for law – a place later cherished by his able progeny: Benazir. While defending his life from Zia’s assembled circus of henchmen, he had once written, “my wife will mourn me”. That was true.
Blamed for being a flirt all his life, scandalized for his affair with Husna, he was nevertheless madly in love with his Iranian-born wife, Nusrat Ispahani, whom he married in Karachi in 1951 – after she refused eloping with him to the UK.
Benazir was the first child in 1953. Karachi, in 1950’s, with its free spirit, nightclubs, and Arabian sea’s balmy seductive breeze, was what Dubai has become in the first quarter of 21st century. Nusrat was not only stunningly beautiful with her high cheekbones and aquiline features but she also opened gates into the corridors of power for him.
She was friends with Naheed Iskander wife of Iskander Mirza who later became the governor-general. This is how young Zulfikar Ali Bhutto entered the closely-knit power circle of 1950’s Pakistan becoming the youngest cabinet member in 1958.
Political Founder of Pakistan’s Nuclear Program
As Minister for Fuel, Power, and Natural Resources he got the opportunity to shape Pakistan’s nascent Atomic Energy Commission. He played an important role in successful negotiations to obtain from Canada, Karachi’s 157 MW nuclear power plant.
Together with Dr. Usmani, ICS from Imperial College London and Dr. Abdul Salam (who later became the first Pakistani to win Nobel Prize) Bhutto created a powerful team inside Karachi, then Pakistan’s capital, building an argument for nuclear energy in a country which, at least then, had sufficient potential hydro-electric resources.
But unlike Usmani who believed in the atomic potential only for peaceful purposes, Bhutto the strategist knew that Pakistan will need nuclear weapons – and he was determined to acquire them. When he finally assumed power, in December 1971, in the peculiar circumstances of the division of Pakistan through Indian armed intervention, one of his first steps was the creation of Ministry of Science and Technology.
Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was made directly answerable to the Prime Minister. He went on a “talent hunt program” and got rid of pacifist, Dr. Usmani, replacing him with Dr. Munir Ahmed Khan as Chairman of PAEC. Munir had previously headed the Nuclear Power and Reactor division of IAEA.
This “talent hunt” also imported the man who later became the controversial figure of the Pakistani nuclear establishment: Dr. Abdul Qadir Khan. Khan was a brilliant metallurgist, with experience of working in Urenco’s Gas Centrifuge plant at Almelo in Holland and played an important part in Pakistan’s quest for Uranium enrichment, through gas centrifuges, at Kahuta.
In later years, when Bhutto was fighting United States, defying his old friend, Kissinger, in the pursuit of French Reprocessing Plant, he knew fully well that French would budge under the US pressure but his wailing across the world focused all attention on “Reprocessing Plant” and away from the uranium enrichment his scientists were making progress with.
Did CIA Dislodge Bhutto from Power?
Was he punished for his nuclear quest? Was Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), a motley combination of all opposition parties, assembled against him, in January 1977, dominated?
by Islamists, was a creation of CIA? Was General Zia, Allah’s soldier – who overthrew his troubled government in the early hours of 5th July 1977, when he had almost struck a deal with PNA opposition – acting in cahoots with Langley and Foggy Bottom?
Two generations of Pakistanis have struggled with these awkward questions without finding clear unambiguous answers. Bhutto had created sharp polarization in Pakistani politics and society; his open admissions of secularism, his nationalization of industry, his land reforms, and his undisguised contempt for his opponents had ended up collecting and uniting a formidable opposition of notables – who used all kinds of slogans and below belt tactics against him.
While he enjoyed tremendous support in rural hinterlands his enemies were concentered in large urban centers like Karachi, Hyderabad and Lahore. These enemies were reinforced by rising Islamist identity of Pakistan – something that rapidly happened after the separation of former East Pakistan.
A foot in Dacca, till 1971, had kept Pakistan positioned between South Asia and South East Asia; it had seen itself– though wrongly perhaps – as a broken cultural part of India in South, but a loss of East Pakistan quickly made Pakistan identify with Muslim Middle East. (Something that has seen reversal after 9/11).
Bhutto’s attempts of rallying around causes in the Middle East, his Islamic summit in Lahore, spread of mass democracy without widening and deepening of liberal education of the 1960s, strengthened the common man’s Muslim identity of Pakistan.
The arrogance of his rule and use of force projection against his political enemies remained unchallenged by a defeated army and tamed bureaucracy.The army, after surrender in Dacca in 1971, till the prolonged agitation of PNA (March– July 1977) was never in a situation to breathe on to him(military dictation: a phenomenon that effectively developed since the return of civilian rule in 1988; but did not exist in1977).
He had effectively neutralized the power of erstwhile CSP class which offered reasonable checks on political elites in 1950-60s – being part of power elite themselves till the civil services reforms and purges of 1972-73.PNA agitation, spearheaded by Jammat-e-Islami militant gangs and its student wings (Jammiat) from 10th March onwards played havoc.
Benazir, in her memoirs, “Benazir Bhutto: Daughter of the East”, has deliberately played down the significance of these ferocious agitations which according to government figures had taken more than 300 lives and unofficial figures were above a thousand; school and colleges remained closed for several months, children were promoted to next grades without exams, government offices were attacked across the country, private and public properties and transport worth billions (in today’s figures) were burnt down.
Bhutto’s twenty thousand strong Federal Security Force (FSF) – headed by Masood Mehmood, the man who later became the state approver against him – battled endlessly against the agitators till Army had to be called.
Troops used force and bullets in several cities before producing a moral effect but it brought them into power play and the agitation of the streets penetrated the officer ranks who started seeing Bhutto as the ultimate problem.
Could all these elements alone – without invoking CIA theory – explain what happened between March and July 1977? To anyone who reads from books and periodicals that should be sufficient to explain the dynamics of his fall.
But most who have existed as players or direct observers of what was happening on the ground – in Karachi, in Hyderabad in Lahore, and Islamabad – would not agree to describe all that merely a domestic battleground.
Even Bhutto’s worst possible enemies – those who played a definitive role in his final execution – remain convinced to this day that American strategy, money, direction, and support was at play.
Bhutto himself was convinced that he was facing an international situation, a conspiracy if we may like to call it; but calling it a situation, a play of international forces against him will be more appropriate.
Bhutto discussed this endlessly with foreign diplomats – especially of Muslim countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Soviet Union – brought it up in his public speeches, argued in his court defense, and wrote extensively in his book, “If I am assassinated”.
His biographer, Wolpert, faithfully narrates all those discussions. We don’t have access to what most diplomats thought, but from Wolpert’s book, we know that Soviets were clear that Americans stood behind all the circus and were afraid of a possible change in Pakistan’s foreign policy under Bhutto.
Almost all Pakistanis are convinced that Bhutto was removed and made into a horrible example the way Mossadegh, in Iran, was made two decades earlier and Qaddaffi and Saddam were made two decades later.
Problem is that in the Mossadegh saga – at the hands of MI6 and CIA through a rented crowd in Tehran in 1953- was later declassified, much has been written by credible western researchers about Allende in Chile, removal of Faisial in Iraq, Farooq in Egypt, (read for instance recent “Silk Roads” by Oxford researcher, Dr. Peter Frankopan) and US-supported insurgency in Syria but forty years and nothing has been declassified by CIA or MI6 (which is more secretive than CIA) and no western academic has touched the subject.
Bhutto had mentioned Kissinger’s threat of August 1976 of turning him into an “extreme example”; Benazir mentions it in her memoirs and almost everyone in Pakistan remembers that by heart.
But few have bothered to correlate that with the timeline; in January 1977, Jimmy Carter Administration had taken over and Cyrus Vance had replaced Kissinger. And in hindsight, one wonders: what CIA gained by the overthrow of Bhutto? If the objective was to prevent Pakistan from becoming nuclear then Zia and his junta relentlessly pursued the nuclear option; Pakistan for all practical purposes was a de-facto nuclear power by 1984/5.
Would CIA sponsor PNA movement only to punish Bhutto for his past sins – meddling in Middle East’s politics and pursuing nuclear option – or there was something bigger at stake? Was a turbulent Afghanistan, where Russians finally intervened in 1979 already on chessboard? Benazir in her autobiography had most carefully touched the subject.
She had returned back to Pakistan to a hero’s welcome in 1986, seven years after the execution of Bhutto, with tacit approval from Washington. Under the new understanding call it a deal, she, perhaps humbled, matured or wisened by the tyranny of her times, toned down her rhetoric against the United States and all firebrand leftist extremists of erstwhile PPP were given a shut-up call.
What she then headed was a new tamed PPP, just like now Bilawal heads another new PPP. But she brings this up in her book published in 1988. She admits that Cyrus Vance had replaced Kissinger but argues that CIA often acts autonomously; it has its own “worldview” and is not tied to changing administrations.
She narrates that at the height of the PNA movement, almost two months before the coup, Pakistan’s then foreign secretary was sent to meet Cyrus Vance in Paris; he took a 50-page long report of Pakistan’s foreign office that elaborated why Pakistan suspects American involvement in its politics.
Vance kept the report on one side and said: “No, Mr. Aziz, we want to start a new chapter with Pakistan” and added: “We value greatly the long and close friendship we have with your country.” Apart from telling us few bits from intelligence reports– recorded chats of US diplomats, 30% fall in dollar price in Karachi markets, and regular payments to striking PNA agitators – she tells us of her efforts, through friends in the US, to acquire information from CIA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
She cites from the letters she received in which the CIA refused providing any information on ZA Bhutto around 1977. Though Wolpert remained far more suspect of Bhutto’s claims of direct US interventions he, being the credible investigator did reach out to CIA under FOIA and was turned down.
He reports that in the “Notes” of his book. Given the opprobrium that exists after the declassification of Mossadegh drama, of 1953 Tehran, can we blame CIA for keeping its mouth shut? Maybe a future generation of US researchers and historians will be able to find out exact role played by CIA in the stormy days between March and July 1977. We will have to wait – meanwhile, Bhutto and his legend lives on…
Moeed Pirzada is Editor of Global Village Space. He is also a prominent TV Anchor, a known columnist, and has previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. He studied international relations at Columbia University, New York, and Law at London School of Economics, UK as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. This piece first appeared in the issue of April 2018 and has been reproduced given ZA Bhutto’s 42nd anniversary in April 2021. Twitter: MoeedNj