Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto: A Controversial Legacy


Syed Atiq ul Hassan

“Those who don’t learn from history are destined to become part of it.” It’s been 45 years since the demise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, yet the echoes of his legacy persist in the political landscape of Pakistan. The intriguing question arises: Is Bhutto remembered as an opportunist or a loyalist for Pakistan?)
If asked to define Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a single sentence, one might characterize him as an “evil genius politician.” The current eagerness of Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Zardari to revisit Bhutto’s death penalty case raises eyebrows. Chief Justice Qazi Faiz Isa swiftly assembled a full bench to address the four-decades-old case, with Zardari pushing for a declaration of “judicial murder.”
However, amidst this fervour, one cannot ignore the apparent paradox – why does Zardari seek justice for Bhutto while seemingly indifferent to the unresolved assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto? Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, a prominent figure in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government, once suggested in an interview that the quest to challenge Bhutto’s death verdict is a political manoeuvre by Asif Zardari, using Bhutto’s tragedy for personal gain. Bilawal, following in his father’s footsteps, appears to be continuing this legacy for political survival.
While Bhutto’s case is given precedence, investigations into the killings of journalists like Arshad Sharif and other political activists face neglect. This selective prioritization raises questions about the judiciary’s commitment to justice and its susceptibility to external influences.
Examining Bhutto’s murder case reveals a politically charged prosecution and defence, leading some legal experts to question the validity of the death penalty. Bhutto’s historical significance is undebatable – a national hero for some, and a controversial figure for others. His contributions include pivotal strategies like the Islamic bomb, a global platform for the Muslim world, and the atomic bomb for Pakistan. Conversely, critics argue that Bhutto’s political manoeuvres caused divisions, economic losses, media assaults, and a culture of corruption and injustice.
Within the PPP, Bhutto’s leadership is viewed more as that of a landlord than a political figure. This perception has resulted in the establishment of a political monarchy within the party, devoid of fair democratic practices. PPP, despite its claims to democracy, has never conducted a transparent election within the party.
As discussions surrounding Bhutto’s legacy persist, it becomes imperative to separate political manoeuvring from the genuine pursuit of justice. Reopening Bhutto’s case should not overshadow the pressing issues of the present, such as unresolved assassinations and disappearances, demanding equal attention and diligence from the judiciary.
As we delve into history, the narrative surrounding Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s ascent to power reveals layers often overlooked by those perceiving him solely as a nationalist leader. Let’s explore the lesser-known chapters of his journey, shedding light on his role in pivotal moments and the intricate dynamics that shaped his political trajectory.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto induction in Pakistani Politics and the Era of Genera of Ayub Khan Era (1958-1969)
In 1958, Pakistan witnessed the imposition of martial law by Field Marshal General Ayub Khan, initiating a decade-long rule characterized by the promotion of landlords within the political and bureaucratic echelons. Bhutto, initially a frontline for Ayub Khan’s customized democracy, played a significant role in the transformation of the political landscape. However, beneath the surface, Bhutto’s familial ties and historical roots painted a different picture.
Educational Pursuits and Personal Life
Following in his father’s footsteps, Bhutto pursued higher education in the United Kingdom and the United States, earning degrees in political science and law. His second wife, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, hailing from an Iranian Kurdish background, brought a Western influence on his life. Together, they had four children – Benazir, Murtaza, Sanam, and Shah Nawaz (Junior).
The Political Pivot
Bhutto’s political journey began within Ayub Khan’s Conventional Muslim League. As Secretary General, he flourished, earning a reputation as a charismatic speaker with international influence. Quietly, Bhutto orchestrated a rebellion within the league, forming the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in 1967.
The Fall of Ayub Khan, Role of Bhutto and the Birth of Bangladesh
Bhutto’s campaign against Ayub Khan, backed by Western capitals, led to Ayub Khan’s resignation and the subsequent announcement of general elections in 1970. The election results saw Bhutto’s PPP winning in West Pakistan and Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman’s Awami League in East Pakistan. Bhutto’s rigid stance, refusal to accept autonomy demands, and unrealistic approach contributed to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
Bhutto’s Presidency and Controversies
Assuming power on December 20, 1971, Bhutto became the first civilian Commander-in-Chief and President. His presidency saw the creation of the Federal Security Force (FSF), accused of targeting opponents. Bhutto’s socialist reforms included nationalizing educational institutes and major industries, leading to criticism of political appointments and corruption.
Internal Strife and Ethnolinguistic Divisions
Bhutto’s rule witnessed the introduction of divisive policies, such as the Quota System and the Sindhi language bill, causing unrest. Political victimization, torture, media censorship, and nepotism reached unprecedented levels. Bhutto’s military operations in Baluchistan and suppression of opposition voices led to a volatile political landscape.
The Political Chaos and the Downfall
As discontent grew, Bhutto’s administration faced increasing opposition. Political leaders, poets, writers, and journalists found themselves behind bars, and newspapers were banned. Bhutto’s involvement in alleged political victimization, attacks on opposition leaders, and military operations contributed to his downfall.
In retrospect, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s legacy is a complex tapestry woven with political intrigue, familial history, and a leadership style that left an indelible mark on Pakistan’s history.
In January 1977, Bhutto announced the scheduling of national and provincial elections for March of the same year. To counter Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), nine major political and religious parties formed the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). Despite a record of rigging in the 1977 elections, the PPP claimed the majority of seats in the national assembly. Promptly, the PNA contested the results, citing rigging, and called for a new election. Bhutto, adamant in rejecting PNA’s demands, imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, restricting political assemblies. The PNA initiated a nationwide movement against Bhutto’s government, leading to historic strikes, with airports, seaports, railways, industries, and educational institutions shutting down. However, Bhutto, displaying a feudal attitude, refused to relinquish power. On July 5, 1977, the military intervened, arresting political leaders, including Bhutto, and imposing martial law.
General Zia ul Haque initiated Bhutto’s trial on charges of conspiring to murder Mohammed Ahmed Kasuri, forming a full bench of the High Court on October 24, 1977. During the proceedings, it was revealed that Bhutto had issued an order to “eliminate” Ahmed Raza Kasuri. The director-general of the Federal Security Force (FSF), Masood Mahmood, confessed that Bhutto had ordered the elimination of Ahmed Raza Kasuri, leading to the unfortunate death of Kasuri’s father during the operation.
Many legal experts believe that Bhutto’s death penalty was orchestrated by the Zia government. The High Court sentenced Bhutto to hang till death, with Chief Justice S. Anwarul Haq presiding over the trial. Bhutto’s lawyers secured his right to conduct his defence before the Supreme Court. The appeal concluded on December 23, 1978, and on February 6, 1979, the Supreme Court issued a guilty verdict with a 4 to 3 majority. Bhutto was given seven days to appeal, but he did not, and appeals on his behalf were rejected on March 24, 1979. Despite international appeals for clemency, General Zia ul Haque upheld the death penalty, and Bhutto was hanged at Central Jail, Rawalpindi, on April 4, 1979.
Despite these experiences, the PPP, now led by Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Zardari, seems determined to rewrite history by reopening Bhutto’s case to portray him as a great leader. However, the people of Pakistan, especially those who have witnessed the era of corruption from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, remain sceptical. As the Supreme Court of Pakistan reevaluates Bhutto’s case, it is essential to consider his deeds while in power and the motives behind revisiting the case.