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Both Sides of the Coin

Written by S.G. Jilanee  •  Special Features  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Both-Sides-of-the-CoinZulfikar Ali Bhutto’s colorful personality and controversial rule has left an indelible mark on Pakistan’s history.

Pakistan’s ninth prime minister and fourth president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was as colorful a personality as he was controversial; loved and hated with equal passion. Born on 5 January 1928, he was educated at U.C Berkeley and Oxford University and trained as a barrister at the Lincoln’s Inn. His father, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto was prime minister of the Indian princely state of Junagadh. His mother, Khursheed Begum was a Hindu convert.

Bhutto entered politics in 1957 as a cabinet member in President Iskander Mirza’s government. When Ayub Khan took over from Mirza in 1958, Bhutto became the youngest Pakistani ever to hold a cabinet post. He held several ministries before he was appointed foreign minister in 1963. However, Bhutto’s relations with Ayub Khan soured after he supported sending infiltrators into Indian occupied Kashmir in Operation Gibraltar. The plan backfired and led to the 1965 war with India, in which Pakistan was severely humiliated. After Ayub signed the Tashkent Agreement with India to end hostilities, the gulf between the two widened. Ultimately, Bhutto was sacked in 1966.

The next year he founded the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP). In the 1970 general elections, the PPP emerged as the majority party in West Pakistan. After East Pakistan seceded in December 1971, Bhutto was offered the presidency by a shell-shocked nation. In 1973, he gave the country a new constitution and became prime minister. In the general elections of 1977, Bhutto’s party swept the polls. The opposition cried “foul,” alleged large scale rigging and took to the streets. In July, the army deposed Bhutto. He was jailed and later hanged on April 4, 1979, after a trial for authorising the murder of a political dissenter, Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan.

Bhutto’s achievements are as numerous and shining as his faults are galore and serious. His first major performance as foreign minister was to conclude the Sino-Pakistan boundary agreement on March 2, 1963 under which China ceded 750 square miles of territory to Pakistan. He forged strong ties with China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Libya as well as founded the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) with Iran and Turkey.

One of Bhutto’s most spectacular achievements was the Simla Agreement of 1972. Barely seven months after becoming president, he secured the release of 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war and the return of 5,000 square miles of Pakistani territory that India had occupied during the 1971 war, all without any quid pro quo.

In 1973, he gave the country its first consensus constitution. In 1974, he hosted the second Islamic Summit in Lahore. The same year he initiated the country’s nuclear program, after India exploded its first nuclear device, Smiling Buddha. To Bhutto, also goes the credit for holding Pakistan’s First Seerat Conference in 1976.

Among his other gifts to the nation are three major universities: Quaid-e-Azam, Allama Iqbal Open, and Gomal besides the Institute of Theoretical Physics. Bhutto established a large number of rural and urban schools, “including around 6,500 elementary schools, 900 middle schools, 407 high schools, 51 Intermediate Colleges and 21 junior colleges.” Bhutto’s land reforms re-fixed the maximum ceiling for landholding by reducing it from 500 acres to 150 acres of irrigated land and 1000 acres to 300 acres for semi-irrigated land. All lands in excess of 100 acres allocated to government servants was resumed and redistributed. Bhutto also led the foundation of Pakistan’s first and largest steel mill; the country’s second deep sea port at Port Qasim; and inaugurated the first Pakistani atomic reactor. His labor reforms gave more rights and perks to factory workers, such as the scheme for workers’ participation in management. This scheme provided for 20% participation by workers in management committees set up at factory level. The Workers’ contribution to the Social Security Fund was abolished. Instead, the employers were made to increase their contribution from 4% to 6%. Compensation rates for workers under the Worker’s Compensation Act were also increased and provision was made for group insurance under the Old Age Benefit Scheme besides pension after retirement. As a result of Bhutto’s economic reforms, concentration of wealth had declined compared to the Ayub Khan era when 22 families owned 66% of industrial capital and also controlled banking and 97% of insurance.

However, not all was as rosy as it seemed.

Bhutto’s first critical misstep was to nationalise everything he could lay his hands upon: basic industries like steel, chemical and cement, banks, insurance, flour, rice, cotton and edible oil mills, heavy mechanical and electrical engineering industries as well as schools. Indiscriminate nationalisation even of small rice husking and wheat crushing mills led to economic stagnation due to fall in investment and flight of capital. Next was the dissolution of assemblies in Balochistan and army operation to control unrest in which thousands of civilians were killed. It was also Bhutto who declared the Ahmedis out of the pale of Islam under pressure from religious parties. His Federal Security Force became the prototype of the dreaded Gestapo, notorious for repression of dissidents.

Bhutto was dynamic, resolute, a skilful diplomat and a powerful demagogue. All these attributes put him in good stead to achieve his goals. But he also had an acerbic tongue, an arrogant mien, a short temper, a vindictive attitude and often acted like an absolute monarch who must not be crossed.

For example, in reaction to a critical remark on his inordinate delay in attending a function, Bhutto had J.A. Rahim roughed up by the FSF, even though Rahim was a minister and co-founder of the PPP.  He was also totally unprincipled. For him, it was the goal that mattered, not the means. Thus, he equated Ayub Khan with his father when he wanted to become a minister, but after Tashkent denounced his benefactor publicly.

Ultimately his arrogant behavior with the army chief Zia-ul-Haq cost him his life. As Stanley Wolpert writes, once at a banquet for a visiting head of state, Bhutto called Zia to him addressing Zia as “my monkey!” Bhutto’s execution was Zia’s answer to that insult.


S. G. Jilanee is a senior political analyst and the former editor of Southasia Magazine.
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