The circumstances leading to the overthrow, trial and execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, it seems, were too hot even in mid-1980s for even the BBC, as a three-part TV serial based on the story was abandoned at the rehearsal stage by the broadcaster ostensibly on the advice of their lawyers.
Tariq Ali, who was commissioned by the BBC to write the TV serial in 1985, has now published the play in the book form titled ‘The Leopard and the Fox’.
The promo of the book published by Seagull, an Indian publisher says: “As rehearsals were about to begin, the BBC hierarchy - under pressure from the Foreign Office - decided to cancel the project (in 1986). Why? General Ziaul Haq, the dictator at the time, was leading the ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He was backed by the USA. According to expert legal opinion, there was a possibility of a whole range of defamation suits from the head of state to judges involved in the case. In consequence, it was decided not to broadcast this hard-hitting and provocative play. The ‘Leopard and the Fox’ presents both the script and the story of censorship.”
When asked about the possibility of defamation suits against him and the publishers of the book Tariq Ali told Dawn that the BBC had used the legal pretext as an excuse as it failed to resist the pressure from the Foreign Office which in turn did not wish to unsettle General Zia, who was a key ally in the West’s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Tariq Ali was also interviewed by the BBC On- line on Wednesday.
While answering a question during the interview Tariq Ali said the then BBC Correspondent in New Delhi Mark Tully who was visiting London at that time met him and suggested that perhaps if he took out from the play the passages that refer to the US collusion in the hanging of Mr. Bhutto the BBC could run the play to which he (Tariq) did not agree.
He said he had written the play after having discussed the theme and its thrust with the drama section of the BBC and that those in charge had accepted the final script and had started selecting the cast (India’s Naseeruddin Shah was to play Bhutto and Zia Mohyuddin was to cast in the role of General Ziaul Haq) and even rehearsals had begun when in an unusual development the then Director General of the BBC requested to see the script.
“It never came back from the DG’s office,” said Tariq. And later he was told that in the opinion of the BBC lawyers the play if broadcast would provoke a number of defamation suits.
When asked he said Bhutto is the leopard in his book and Gen Zia the fox.
“Bhutto was a brave man, Zia was cunning,” Tariq Ali added.
Relating an anecdote Tariq Ali said at one point the Junta had decided to exile Bhutto but when one of the generals was sent to inform him about the decision, Z.A. Bhutto had refused to leave the country saying: “Why should I leave? It is my country. I want to live and die here. Do whatever you want to do.”
In the opinion of Tariq Ali, Gen Zia perhaps would have spared Bhutto if the late prime minister had not become so popular after his ouster from power.
“There was one grave and two candidates. It was either Bhutto or (Gen) Zia and since (Gen) Zia had the whip hand he got rid of Bhutto before ZAB could get him,” he said.
Tariq Ali had a lot of praise for Bhutto for the way he gave hope to the poor, “but he did not do much beyond that and that was his failing.”
He could have done many great and lasting things like land reforms, curtailing the power of the Army and even brought about a revolution but he missed doing all that.
Tariq said he had almost forgotten about the play, but one day the publisher of Seagull, who was in his library, spotted the script and after reading it felt that the story was still relevant and was needed to be told for the record at least, if not anything else.
The TV play-turned-book has endorsed the general belief that Bhutto had been killed in his cell and not by the hangman’s rope.