Thirty eight years ago today, on 5 July 1977, the state of Pakistan went under martial law for the third time in, up to that point, its brief thirty-year history. And the man committing the deed was General Ziaul Haq, the soldier who had been picked by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto over six generals senior to him as the chief of army staff to succeed General Tikka Khan. It was Bhutto's belief, mistaken as it turned out, that Zia was a soldier loyal to him and would certainly do his bidding. As for Zia himself, he gave little sign of anything but ingratiating loyalty to his benefactor, who often referred to him contemptuously as his Monkey General.
All of that changed when a political crisis erupted on the heels of the general election the Bhutto government called for March 1977. It was only the second general election in Pakistan, the first being the one in December 1970 which led to the break-up of the country and the emergence of East Pakistan as the independent state of Bangladesh a year later. In March 1977, the ruling Pakistan People's Party won the election with a huge majority, one that did not look credible. There was little question that the PPP would have won anyway, but it was the scale of the victory --- rigging, as the opposition Pakistan National Alliance put it --- that quickly led to violence all across the country.
The Bhutto government stayed in denial mode over the charges of rigging for weeks, until it became clear that negotiations with the opposition on a possible end to the crisis needed to be gone into. By 4 July, as subsequent reports would testify, the government and the opposition reached a deal that called for fresh elections. That deal was never to be made public or implemented, for a suddenly ambitious General Zia struck in the early hours of 5 July. The army took Bhutto as well as the leaders of the opposition PNA into detention. In a moment of supreme irony, Zia met Bhutto at the rest house where the latter had been detained and promised him that new elections would be organized. Power was Zia's, but the army chief misled Bhutto into thinking that he was yet loyal to his prime minister, that the ground would soon be cleared for the ousted leader to return to high office.
That was not to be. The coup of 5 July 1977 would spell the end of the political career of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Zia regime would charge Bhutto with murder and eventually send him to the gallows less than two years after the coup, in April 1979. Bhutto was only fifty one when he died. He had led a tempestuous life driven by ambition that was obscene in all its manifestations.
When he lived, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a complex figure for those who observed his rise and fall. Thirty eight years after his fall from power, he remains that way. There are his fans, largely within Pakistan, who have consistently believed that he is a shaheed, a martyr, in the defence of democracy. And then there are those who remain convinced that having ridden to power on the slogan of democracy, he did everything he could to bury it under his civilian dictatorship.
A fairly large number of books on Bhutto's life and career have appeared across the years, with the promise of more to appear in the times ahead. And especially since the assassination of his daughter Benazir in December 2007, the Bhutto myth has taken on a new and expanded dimension. And do remember that we are speaking of the man who almost behaved like a maniac when he spoke to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in the early 1970s. Megalomaniac he surely was before her, but the extent to which certain streaks of madness manifested themselves in him left even the shock-proof journalist surprised. Bhutto's aspersions on Indira Gandhi, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and nearly everyone else were too outrageous for polite ears. And even he realized that, subsequently, which is when he sent Pakistan's diplomats in Italy scouring for Fallaci, to ask her to withdraw the interview or to 'admit' that she had made it all up!
Bhutto was a bright young law professor in the early 1950s. By 1958, he was a cabinet minister, happy to be under the tutelage of General Iskandar Mirza, a man not too well-disposed toward democracy. Bhutto was keen to demonstrate his gratitude to Mirza in return. He fired off a fawning missive to the president, informing him in unabashed fashion that history would record that Iskandar Mirza was the greatest man Pakistan had produced, greater than the founder of the state, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. By late October 1958, with Mirza and his wife Naheed on their way to forced exile in Britain, Bhutto made sure that Ayub Khan kept him on. For the subsequent eight years, he was never to look back. He was minister for commerce and for industries and natural resources, in that order. In 1960, he worked out a deal on energy with the Soviet Union, impressing almost everyone in Pakistan and outside. By early 1963, on the death of Mohammad Ali Bogra, he was foreign minister in the Ayub regime. Added to that position was the job of general secretary of the Convention Muslim League, the clutch of pro-Ayub politicians propping up the dictatorship. It was Bhutto's finest hour, from the point of view of genuflection. He proposed that Ayub Khan, already in occupancy of the presidency, remain in power for the rest of his life.
But a moment would come when Bhutto, grown ambitious and decidedly hubristic, would begin to mock Ayub himself. He was unhappy with the Tashkent Declaration signed by the President and Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri at a summit organized by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in January 1966. Informed by foreign secretary Aziz Ahmed late in the night in Tashkent, a little after the accord had been signed, that 'the bastard is dead', Bhutto asked, 'Which one?' That was one of the many indications of the disdain, even hate, in which he viewed not just his mentor but Indian politicians as well. That said, do not forget the confidence Bhutto brought back to a post-1971 Pakistan, a time when the emergence of Bangladesh and the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers had left his people traumatized. One needed little persuasion to understand that he had been one of the principal elements responsible for the disaster that had befallen Pakistan, but it was the one thought Bhutto was unwilling to accept. He blamed everyone else, including Mujib, for the country's break-up, but he would not bring himself to acknowledge his own guilt in the genocide that led to the Bengali armed struggle for freedom. But he did eat humble pie in the end. He freed the incarcerated Mujib and saw him off at Chaklala airport. As the Bengali leader flew off into the night sky, Bhutto murmured, to no one in particular, 'The nightingale has flown.'
Bhutto wrote books. One was If I Am Assassinated. Acknowledging the reality of the work being Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's own, Pran Chopra writes:
'He is speaking to history from the platform of his own brilliant mind and his unique experience of one of the most interesting countries of the developing world.'
It has been given out that Bhutto composed the work in his final days as a prisoner condemned to death over a disputed murder case. In a sense, it is a mea culpa, an enumeration of his thoughts over his role in Pakistan's modern history. Brimming over with ideas, it is vintage Bhutto at his best. He examines the role of the army in Pakistan's politics, including the break-up of the country in 1971 (though he says nothing about his own contribution to the disaster). He dwells on the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report. And he provides readers with his assessment of his own administration and the pressures, local as well as foreign, it worked under.
Bhutto's tragedy remains unique: it was the army that raised him to prominence --- and it was the army that destroyed him. Along the way, he showed promise but then declined into things Machiavellian. His shrewdness gave him glory. His cunning caused the death of millions in what would one day be Bangladesh.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer