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The Rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

From his entry to politics in 1957 through his execution in 1979, the PPP founder played a role in several momentous events of Pakistan’s history

by Khaled Ahmed

Roger D. Long, writing in A History of Pakistan (Oxford 2015), reviews the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928-1979), who led Pakistan from Dec. 20, 1971 until the early morning hours of July 5, 1977, when he was overthrown by General Ziaul Haq (1924-1988). From 1957, when he became the youngest member of Pakistan’s delegation to the United Nations, until his death in 1979, Bhutto was present at several momentous events in Pakistan’s history, starting with the first coup d’état of General (later President and Field Marshal) Muhammad Ayub Khan (1907-1974) in 1958.

He was a player—at times a major player—in these events: the opening to China (1963); the 1965 war with India; the mass movement that overthrew Ayub Khan (1968-1969); the country’s first national full franchise election (1970); the civil war and secession of Bangladesh (1971); the superbly negotiated Simla Agreement with India (1972); the forging of a new Constitution and the launch of a program for nuclear weapons capability, the debacle of the 1977 elections, and the subsequent coup. And then, of course, there is the last act of his life, when he went to the gallows on April 4, 1979, convicted of conspiracy to murder—a dramatic and tragic event that has left an indelible mark on Pakistan’s politics.

Born with a golden spoon

Bhutto was born in 1928 in Larkana, Sindh, the center of the historic Chanduka Pargana, known for its fertile soils, golden rice, deep forests along the Indus, the gentleness of its cultivators, the lyricism of its mystical poetry, the eccentricity of its Sufi saints and the feudal culture of its landed notables. It is a land of long habitation, with Mohenjo-Daro perhaps the best known of ancient city sites of the Indus Valley Civilization only a few miles to the south. It is one thing, of course, to live in a little Eden and another to hold it; in Bhutto’s case, from marauding Baloch tribes coming down from the Kirthar Mountains and the uplands to the west. The powerful old Sindhi houses like the Soomro, Rajput clans spun off from the Jaisalmer Bhattis who had dominated the Thar Desert for centuries, and recently settled Baloch—that succeeded in holding their lands did so by fortifying their strongholds and leading their own armed bands in small wars of skirmishing horsemen. Inevitably, in the scheme of things, these were also the feudatories of more powerful rulers, the states and empires so well known in Indian history. This was a form of feudalism deeply autocratic in nature; the common man in the countryside, the village cultivator (hari), lived in absolute subservience and dependence on his feudal lord—a condition that has not changed much in many parts of Sindh today.

After they conquered Sindh in 1843, the British set themselves to gain from the benefits of peace and order, not to change the social order. Men like Lieutenant John Jacob (1812-1858), who arrived to settle the Upper Sindh Frontier, allied where they could with the natural leaders of the people—tribal and clan Sardars, the pirs,  the holy orders, the notables—waderas and pathariadars—who controlled the countryside. In time, British rule brought roads and railways, and more importantly, a barrage-canal system that brought large areas under irrigation, much to the benefit of the notables, who had been invested with proprietary rights of the land—a new concept in the subcontinent—by the Raj. With 250,000 acres of land—by one estimate—the Bhutto clan benefited directly from the Sukkur Barrage (1934), an engineering marvel in its time, and the Rice Canal on the Indus Right Bank passed close to Garhi Khuda Bakhsh and Larkana. A growth in trade followed the spread of law and order. The colonial administration, the spread of district towns; canal market centers, the expansion of old cities like Hyderabad and Sukkur, and the building of new ones, Jacobabad, and the great port of Karachi, on the coast.

Son of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh

The  British Century meant many things: new schools and colleges; new professions in agronomy, civil engineering and medicine, journalism, and the law; new communications; new forms of business in the corporation, factory, insurance, and banking; new social groups (factory workers); travel to Great Britain and access to its universities for the most privileged; and new social and political ideas. Most of these developments, economic and political, buoyed and lifted the class of ashraf (notable) landed families, including the Bhuttos, and co-opted them into the administration and larger imperial protocols of the Raj. The horizons of the Bhuttos expanded in many ways, including graphically, from the ancestral home at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh to the spacious compound in the district town of Larkana, Clifton in Karachi, and eventually, to Bombay. All those from Sindh involved in the law, government, and electoral politics had to make their way to Bombay at least until it achieved, in 1937, separate provincial status as a result of the Government of India Act of 1935.

One of those involved in electoral politics and the movement of separate Sindh from Bombay was Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto (1888-1957), father of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and founder of the modern Bhutto political dynasty. Knighted by the British, Sir Shah Nawaz was a prominent leader of Sindh, a member of the Bombay Cabinet, and participant at the Round Table Conference in London to argue vigorously for separate provincial status. As stellar as his political career was, however, it did not survive the Partition period, when, as prime minister of the princely state of Junagadh in Kathiawar, he invited the new Government of India to take over the Hindu-majority state. Bhutto had acted after the Muslim ruler of Junagadh had fled to Karachi and Indian troops were standing on the principality’s borders. It was the only sensible thing to do, of course, but Pakistan claimed—and continues to use—Junagadh essentially as a bargaining chip for Kashmir, and Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto was not forgiven for seeming to have given it up so easily.

Privilege of Shah Nawaz

Bhutto’s mother was the second wife of Shah Nawaz, an attractive Hindu woman of uncertain social origins, who took the Muslim name, Khurshida, upon her marriage. Zulfikar always spoke of his mother with great affection, and wore her reputed early poverty as the Badge of Honor of a ‘leftist’ politician. Reportedly, he bitterly resented the treatment the high-born feudal ladies of the Sindhi landed elite meted out to Khurshida, although later in life, she sometimes complained that Zulfikar was unkind to her. Whatever her origins, the marriage was a ‘love marriage,’ something that can happen in society where first marriages are arranged. The couple always remained devoted to each other. By all accounts, Zulfikar was doted on by his father, who came to see him as his political heir, when the two older sons did not turn out well. Sir Shah Nawaz ensured that Zulfikar would have the best schooling that Bombay would provide. By accounts, Zulfikar had a first rate intellect. He attended the University of Southern California for two years, then graduated summa cum laude from the University of California at Berkeley in 1950. From there, he went on to Oxford University and was remembered by all his teachers as a brilliant student. In Britain, he met the philosopher Lord Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who always asked after him. On his return to Karachi in 1953, he studied in preparation for a political career. Shah Nawaz was reluctant to see Zulfikar get into politics too soon and advised delay, but with his father’s death in 1957, the way into politics opened more quickly than might have been expected.

The public career of Zulfikar began in 1957, when, at the age of 29, he was appointed a member of Pakistan’s delegation to the U.N., and then, the following year, as the country’s representative to the U.N. Conference on Law of the Sea. His major break came in late 1958 when he was appointed as the Minister of Commerce in the martial law government of General Ayub Khan. Initially, Bhutto’s contact was with Iskander Mirza (1899-1969), the President of Pakistan (1956-1958), who came to the Bhutto shikargah (game preserve) each winter to hunt as a friend of his father. In 1958, the hunting party near Larkana was joined by Ayub Khan, who was then the commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army, and there is reasonable speculation that the forthcoming coup was discussed there, though not necessarily with the younger Bhutto. In any event, the October coup of 1958 was bloodless and successful. Bhutto’s appointment as cabinet minister was undoubtedly at the behest of Mirza, but Ayub decided to keep the young Sindhi on after Mirza, who had given legitimacy to the army takeover, was packed off to London by the real coup-maker.

Shining star of the Ayub cabinet

Bhutto served in the first four of five Ayub cabinets, quickly taking on additional portfolios and sub-portfolios of Minority Affairs; National Reconstruction, Information and Basic Democracies; Fuel, Power, and Natural Resources; and Kashmir Affairs. In January 1963, he was appointed foreign minister, a post he had craved. In all these positions, Bhutto displayed his lifelong capacity for hard work, intellectual brilliance, creativity and unconventional approaches to the established policy. His major contribution was to reorient Pakistan’s foreign policy away from a near exclusive dependence on the United States, something worked on from his earliest discussions with President Mirza and continued with General Ayub Khan.

Bhutto believed independence had not brought about the sovereign equality of the new states, that the foreign domination of the colonial period had been replaced by foreign intervention, taking away the power to take decisions radically affecting the lives of peoples. He was a realist, decrying sentimentality in foreign affairs and observing that all states pursued their own ‘cold-blooded interest.” He understood that medium-sized states like Pakistan should not win in ‘an endless and unequal confrontation’ with global powers, but argued that its maneuverability in foreign relations would be enhanced by developing a wider array of bilateral ties—including ties with major powers on both sides of the Cold War, including the Soviet Union and China. In particular, a wider array of relationships would enable Pakistan to play off dominant world powers against each other. For Bhutto, this would enable Pakistan to engage in preventive diplomacy to avoid Global Power interventions that subject weaker nations to punitive diplomacy, and expand ties with the Afro-Asian bloc.

Bhutto and conflict with U.S.

The policy implications of this view were not immediately acceptable to Ayub Khan, who had told a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 1959 that Pakistan was America’s ‘most allied ally’. As an ally, Pakistan had a Mutual Defense Agreement with the U.S.; it was a member of SEATO and the Baghdad Pact, replaced by CENTO; and it was the recipient of considerable economic and military assistance. What gave Bhutto a strong hearing in the inner councils of the Ayub regime was the short war between China and India over their disputed Himalaya border in October 1962. In particular, Islamabad was exercised by the response of Washington and other Western capitals to the collapse of India’s forces in both Ladakh and the North-Easter Frontier Agency.

The continuing provision of military aid to India well after the fighting had been ended by a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal by Chinese forces clearly threatened to upset the military balance in the subcontinent achieved by Pakistan due its ties to the U.S. One result of Pakistan’s recalculation of its strategic interests was its forging of a new relationship with China, urged by then-foreign minister Bhutto. This included a Sino-Pakistan Border Agreement (1963) and expanded trade and barter agreements. In February 1964, Premier Zhou En-Lai (1898-1976) led an official visit to Pakistan and announced Beijing’s decision to back Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute. Bhutto could rightly take credit for the connection with China that has remained a key factor in Pakistan’s foreign policy ever since.

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