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Review: Born To Be Hanged; Political Biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by Syeda Hameed

Born To Be Hanged presents a fascinating portrait of the former president and prime minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed on 4 April 1979

books Updated: Mar 30, 2018 18:19 IST
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman
Hindustan Times
Pakistan,Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,Syeda Hameed
Indira Gandhi (L) meets Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Shimla on June 28, 1972.(AFP)
Born To Be Hanged: Political Biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Syeda Hameed, Rs 500, 270pp, Rupa

Despite having a common history and people of largely the same stock, how did India become a stable democracy while Pakistan did not? No scholar has yet had the final word on this puzzle. But Zia ul Haq’s decision to hang Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979 is often seen as a key point in Pakistan’s history -- more as a clue to grasp the terrible turn that Pakistan took towards Islamic militancy. If Bhutto had not been hanged and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had been institutionalized under his leadership, perhaps we would have a more positive portrait of Pakistan. Perhaps the story of India-Pakistan relations could have been normal, and Kashmir could indeed have been a paradise! There are such ‘ifs’ in the history of most nations and this Bhutto puzzle is one such intriguing ‘if’ of South Asian history.

Full of interesting details, this book, whose author Syeda Hameed seems to want to unburden herself of a question that has lain heavily on her heart for years, presents a portrait of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) that is almost as adorable as the one presented in Benazir Bhutto’s Daughter of The East (1988).

Here is an interesting insight into Bhutto’s mind. On his 21st birth day, he received two gifts: one was a five-set volume of Sloane’s biography of Napoleon Bonaparte; the other was a pamphlet inscribed with Karl Marx’s famous slogan: “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.” Bhutto considered Napoleon one of his ideals. How does one make sense of a politician whose ideology combines Marx and Napoleon despite their radically conflicting world views?

What drove Bhutto to politics? In some of his writing, such as If I Am Assassinated, he comes across as a politician whose primary ambition was to grab power; one who was driven more by lust for it than by any urge to transform society. Unsurprisingly, in an interview, he said: “You do not get into politics just for fun of it. You go in to take power in your hands and keep it. Anyone who says the opposite is a liar.” It is not fair, however, to judge a public figure’s entire life based on a few interviews as the statements in them could have been in response to a particular context. As a result, sweeping extrapolation could be grossly misleading. Whatever the context, there is little evidence from Bhutto’s role that he was a convinced democrat like Nehru.

On one occasion from prison, he wrote to fellow party leaders: “Please remember that Islam is the fount of this state. We are progressive Muslims not reactionaries, but we are not communists either.” Ever since his childhood, Bhutto had been obsessed with the idea of Pakistan. Like the majority of his generation of Muslims, his fascination for Pakistan was also grounded in a deep mistrust and hatred of India. India was seen as an existential threat. The politics of the 1960s and 1970s clearly bore out such interpretations. War and the arms race was part of the thinking of the elite and Bhutto was integral to the conduct of Pakistan. Yet, Bhutto was able to strike a sympathetic cord with people of the region, even in India. That is partly because he was a lesser evil. The political events of later years confirms that speculation, as does the narrative in this book based on interviews with key figures.

Author Syeda Hameed (Courtesy Rupa)

The chapter entitled The Founding Convention 1967 details the birth of the Pakistan People’s Party(PPP). Letters from Prison is another fascinating chapter. The author had access to 17 such letters, most of which were written to Mubashir Hasan, a key founding member of the PPP. They present interesting details about how Bhutto’s mind was working. The chapter There was a Man also makes for fascinating reading.

Bhutto was undoubtedly the most prominent mass leader in post-Jinnah Pakistan. What was the relationship between Zia Ul Haq and Zulfi Bhutto? According to one anecdotal account, Zia was deeply fearful of Bhutto. According to Mubashir Hasan, a worker once informed him of how, when a few drops of tea fell on Bhutto’s shoes, Zia took out his handkerchief and cleaned them. Such anecdotes are interesting in understanding the power struggle. Zia gradually came to enjoy the upper hand. The chapter entitled Judicial Murder reveals how vulnerable institutions are in post-colonial societies. Clearly, Zia was in pursuit of a predetermined verdict, which presumed that his own reign could be firmly established only by ending Bhutto’s life. That is precisely what happened, though Benazir put up a spectacular fight during the trial and later, as did hundreds of members of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Read more: Today, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party is as good as dead

It is intriguing that, at the time, world leaders had little influence over President Zia. Global opinion was disregarded, the bigger evil triumphed, and Bhutto was executed. What followed, despite Benazir’s return, is a political world whose dark implications will have to be faced for years to come - not just for people of the region but for the whole of humanity.

Born To Be Hanged has quite a few rare photos of different stages of Bhutto’s life, that are part of private collections, and a gripping portrait by Ismail Gujlee. Based on materials she alone had access to, author Syeda Hameed has woven together an interesting story about a life. Readers interested in the recent history of Pakistan and South Asia will find this book irresistible.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman is the editor of Rise of Saffron Power (Routledge 2018). He teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

First Published: Mar 30, 2018 18:19 IST