Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: Politics of a fascinating, but tragic hero

Syeda Hameed in her <i>Born to be Hanged </i> draws a parallel between the Oedipus and Bhutto, but there’s not much to justify it

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
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Kuldeep Kumar

Writing a political biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is not easy, especially when so much has already been written about him after he was hanged nearly forty years ago in 1979. Undaunted, the author worked on the book for twenty years and made as many trips to Pakistan to research for it. Piloo Mody’s Zulfi, My Friend and Stanley A. Wolpert’s Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times had already offered detailed and exhaustive accounts of the charismatic leader’s life and activities, and it would not have been easy to find new material to offer an alternative narrative.

Syeda Hameed tried to solve this problem by treating Mubashir Hasan, one of Bhutto’s closest associates, as her principal source of information. This has resulted in Hasan enjoying a rather unduly large presence in the book, larger than even its protagonist’s. Consequently, one is left with the feeling that Hameed, as it were, looks at Bhutto through Hasan’s eyes. Therefore, one finds it rather rich that she accuses Wolpert of “bias” simply because he has dedicated his book to Ardeshir Cowasjee, who was, in Mubashir Hasan’s view, an ‘inveterate Bhutto hater’.” If this is indeed a “giveaway” of Wolpert’s bias, what about that of her own as she has dedicated her book to Hasan who could easily be described as an “inveterate Bhutto admirer”.

Hameed draws a parallel between the tragedies of Oedipus and the Bhuttos but, beyond a superficial resemblance that both had two sons and two daughters, it fails to offer us any new insight into the lives and destinies of Bhutto and his children. While Oedipus realised that he had committed the sin of patricide, Bhutto—if one were to go by the existing evidence including Hasan’s testimony—had no such realisation about his political mistakes or crimes. And, his son Murtaza was first arrested for charges of terrorism and then killed in 1996 under mysterious circumstances while his daughter Benazir was the prime minister of the country. Later, Benazir too was assassinated in 2007 in Rawalpindi but President General Parvez Musharraf was even metaphorically no uncle of hers. Tragic though these deaths certainly were, they do not have much resonance of the myth of Oedipus except for the common traits of extreme hubris and other tragic flaws in both Oedipus and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The latter was always blind to his wrongdoings. However, Mubashir Hasan in his foreword agrees with Hameed regarding the parallel drawn between the mythical Greek character and the larger-than-life image of Bhutto.

Yet, there is no denying the fact that Bhutto was a fascinating character who typified how a modern leader with aspirations to bring about social and economic transformation is born in a backward feudal society, how he consolidates his power without caring much for modern values of democracy and how he meets with his nemesis. Born in a hugely wealthy feudal clan of Sindh, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the youngest son of Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto who had also acted for some time as the Diwan of Junagarh, a state that, like Nizam’s Hyderabad, prominently figured in the story of the nascent nations of India and Pakistan and required Vallabhbhai Patel’s resolute efforts for its integration into the Indian Union. Educated at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Berkley and Oxford, Bhutto was an ardent admirer of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his two-nation theory. Zulfikar’s mother was the second wife of Sir Shahnawaz. She was a lowly-born Hindu dancing girl who had embraced Islam at the time of her marriage. This is a fact that might reveal to us the secret of Zulfikar’s life-long hatred of the Hindus and compel us to ponder over the coincidence that his idols—Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the great poet and progenitor of the idea of Pakistan, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the great leader (Quaid-e-Azam) and founder of Pakistan—too belonged to families that had given up Hinduism in favour of Islam in not-too-distant a past.

When General Ayub Khan staged a coup d’état in 1958, Bhutto became the youngest minister in his cabinet and served for eight years. Like other politicians before and after him, he too took recourse to uncompromising anti-India stance and rose to stardom on the strength of this popular as well as populist plank. His moment of glory came in September 1965 when after the India-Pakistan war, he thundered at the United Nations Security Council meeting: “We will wage a war for a thousand years, a war of defence.” Knowing full well that it was Pakistan that was the aggressor, as has been explained by the late Air Marshal Asghar Khan, the first native head of the Pakistani Air Force, who unequivocally said in several interviews that all the four wars with India were started by his country, Bhutto played victim, invoked the principle of self-determination for the Kashmiri people and declared: “We shall fight for honour; we are not aggressors; we are the victims of aggression.” As Syeda Hameed has shown on the basis of the evidence provided by Mubashir Hasan and others, it was this speech as well as his revolt against Field Marshal Ayub after he signed the Tashkent Agreement with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri that catapulted Bhutto into the most popular mass leader in West Pakistan, especially Punjab.

In a very well written and sympathetic account, Hameed adroitly unfolds the process of Bhutto’s emergence as a hugely popular mass leader, becoming the country’s President and Prime Minister, falling into the trap of the intelligence agencies and becoming suspicious and paranoid on account of their dubious reports about his closest political colleagues and friends, and ultimately becoming almost totally divorced from the changing power equations in the country.

However, when one takes into account the fact that Indira Gandhi had imposed Emergency in India on June 26, 1975, and Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman and several members of his family were assassinated the next year, one can understand the paranoia of Bhutto because the political environment in the subcontinent was becoming increasingly insecure and dangerous.

Like Indira Gandhi, Bhutto too sold the dream of socialism to his countrymen. However, his own feudal background, the stanglehold of the feudal lords and moneybags on the economy and polity of Pakistan where no government sincerely tried to carry out land reforms were serious structural constraints within which he had to operate. Like Gandhi, he too unsuccessfully tried to make use of the regressive religious leaders and parties and unwittingly started the process of Islamisation much before Zia ul Haq arrived on the scene. All this militated against his professed ideals. Rigging elections, suppressing dissent and opposition, and using strong-arm tactitcs dented his image to a great extent.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is a tragic hero because despite having many sterling qualities, he inexorably drifted towards his end. Born to be Hanged offers a very readable account of his extraordinarily rich life.


Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture

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