This April 4 marks the 29th anniversary of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s hanging in Rawalpindi at the behest of a divided Supreme Court. The hangman’s noose that snuffed out the life of the most charismatic leader of Pakistan since Mohammad Ali Jinnah was completely avoidable, except for the fact that thethen Bonaparte of Pakistan, Amir-ul-Momeneen General Ziaul Haq, had staked his life on it. For an insecure gatecrasher like Zia, Bhutto’s engineered ‘judicial murder’ was a zero sum game: it was either Bhutto on the gallows or his own neck on the chopping block.
This 29th anniversary of one of the blackest episodes in Pakistan’s chequered history brings back a flood of memories and personal reminiscences for me. I must record them for posterity to let them know what mental agony and torture my generation of diplomats, then in harness to serve a draconian regime, had to put up with in the jaws of that critical hour in our national annals.
I was then serving as the deputy head of our Mission in Kuwait. The oil-rich emirate wasn’t exactly the place to bother much about judicial angularities or political sensitivities of the nature then ensnarling Pakistan. Judiciary’s independence in Kuwait, or in any other Gulf state of its ilk for that matter, was always taken with a pinch of salt. A highly popular saying in that laid-back and hedonistic society was that wasta (connection, now euphemistically called ‘networking’) was superior to the law of the land. Political parties were the stuff of an alien planet in Kuwait and its window-dressing ‘National Assembly’ made up of a pompous tiny minority allowed the privilege of vote had been in suspended animation for years.
But despite its largely apolitical culture there was an immense amount of interest in Kuwait’s chattering class that congregated every evening at various Diwaniyas ( a unique institution where free debate and argumentation flourished at the grassroots) about the impending fate of Ali Bhutto ( the Kuwaitis invariably referred to Zulfi Bhutto as Ali Bhutto). The proceedings of the infamous Bhutto trial had been followed with meticulous interest in the Kuwaiti press and Diwaniya circuit, which was reminiscent of our own Seena-gazette. I was fond of visiting the Diwaniyas of a number of Kuwaiti friends and was regularly, and minutely, debriefed by avid listeners and interlocutors keen to know what was being planned for the most famous prisoner of the Muslim world.
The intensity of interest in the fate of a self-styled socialist that Bhutto was known to be was amazing for a devoutly traditional and religious society like Kuwait’s. But Bhutto had become a sort of icon for the Kuwaitis, as well as for others in the Muslim world, for his courageous espousal of pan-Islamic causes and interests. This message came to me in more crystal clarity a decade later when I was sent as ambassador to Algeria where the political moorings were socialistic and where Bhutto was still remembered as a brave son of the Muslim Ummah.
It wasn’t the Kuwaiti civil society only that felt so keenly concerned about what could be in store for Bhutto. The Kuwaiti government, too, despite its well-known distaste for socialism or anything left-leaning, was using all its influence with Ziaul Haq to seek assurances that Bhutto wouldn’t be hanged. We’re reminded at every opportunity at the official level that Kuwait expected Bhutto’s life to be spared and was ready to join others in the Islamic world to arrange a sanctuary in exile for Zia’s nemesis if his presence in Pakistan was regarded as a threat to the military regime.
Bhutto had, doubtless, endeared himself to Muslims all over the world with his strong and fearless advocacy of Islamic causes. On top of it he was, by virtue of having convened an Islamic Summit in Lahore, in the summer of 1974, the reigning chairman of the Islamic Conference Organisation(OIC) and there was nary a Muslim state ready to stomach the idea of such a luminary ending on the gallows.
We, at the Embassy, were keeping our fingers crossed since the day it became known that Zia had ratified the SC’s split verdict in favour of Bhutto’s death sentence and Bhutto, unflinching as ever had refused to appeal to his tormentor for clemency. But we’re still hoping, against hope, that Zia would be magnanimous and not vindictive.
The news of Bhutto falling prey to Zia’s vendetta came to us early on the morning of April 4. The two-hour time difference between Pakistan and Kuwait worked against us. Before we could put our heads together at the embassy and focus on how to tackle the after-effects of that terrible event in Pakistan we got word from the Kuwaiti authorities that a procession of Pakistanis mourning the death of a national icon was on its way to the chancery (in diplomatic parlance the office premises of the embassy is known as the chancery).
It was unheard of in Kuwait, and elsewhere throughout the Gulf, for anybody of people to take out a procession on the streets. That kind of political freedom or civic right simply didn’t have a place in the collective lexicon of the Gulf’s rich, but hide-bound, states. Any kind of expression of dissent or organized agitation was a totally alien phenomenon to these closed societies. But, then, on that fateful day when Pakistanis all over the world were seized by spasmodic reaction to a real national tragedy even the Kuwaiti government decided to put their reservations about political dissent on the back burner and lend official blessings to organized expression of unhappiness, and that too to a body of non-Arabs who, otherwise, were kept on a very tight leash by the authorities.
Within an hour of the notice, the procession arrived within hailing distance of the chancery. There were around 200 people assembled under the banner of the Kuwaiti chapter of the PPP, which had always been fairly uppity and agitated as long as Bhutto’s trial in Pakistan occupied everybody’s mind. They had placards and banners denouncing the government and Zia for the crime against their hero, and they were raising slogans not only against Zia and his regime but also against us—in particular the ambassador and yours truly. Which wasn’t surprising at all: as standard bearers of Pakistan in that country we’d to share the blame for the crime committed in Pakistan by an insensitive and power-drunk junta of swaggering generals.
My immediate boss, the ambassador, was a man of great erudition and had an impeccable sense of poetry. But there we’re up against an agitated mob, which had luckily been kept at a fair distance from the chancery building by the Kuwaiti police escort. The ambassador was, understandably, unnerved by the shrill slogans demanding retribution from everyone deemed part of the vile Zia regime. Our culpability was one, entirely, of association, and there was nothing that either the ambassador or I could do about it.
My advice to the ambassador was to let the ring-men of the agitators enter the chancery and talk to us on our wicket, rather than us going out to meet them on their ground where we could be vulnerable. After some deliberation the ambassador took my advice and we asked the police honcho who’d come to us for instructions to usher in the ring- leaders into the premises.
What we got from the impromptu ‘leaders’ were earful of bombastic against the cruel and clumsy Zia clique. We’re also warned of dire consequences for us if we continued to serve the venal pack in Islamabad. Our answer was that we’re servants of the State of Pakistan and not of the charlatans ruling the roost in Islamabad. We knew that the agitators were emotionally charged and all worked up, and the best we could do in the circumstances was to lump all their invectives against us and give them a free run to let all their steam out. That was precisely what they did. April is hot and stuffy in Kuwait. But that April day was exceptionally hot and enervating.
The next day’s Kuwaiti newspapers heaped nearly as much scorn on Pakistan as those agitators for hanging one of the greatest sons of the Muslim world. Obituaries for Bhutto eulogized him as a courageous leader and a fearless fighter for the collective interests of the ummah.
Within days of the cataclysm the ambassador was asked by Islamabad to reach there hurriedly for an envoys’ conference. Having inflicted maximum damage on the name and prestige of Pakistan, Ziaul Haq was desperate for damage- control and had summoned his envoys abroad to chart out a course of action for him.
The day-after the ambassador’s departure for Islamabad, I was summoned to the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry for an audience with Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed (now Amir of Kuwait). The Sheikh knew me well and I got the sense that he’d been waiting for the ambassador to go before asking me over to his office to get a dressing down from him as the man in charge (charge d’affaires, in diplomatic lingo).
The Sheikh gave it out to me without any diplomatic foil. He asked me to convey to Islamabad, in so many words, that Kuwait felt betrayed and saddened that Ziaul Haq had not lived up to the pledge, given not only to Kuwait but also to others in the OIC that Bhutto’s life will be spared. He said he was deeply hurt by Zia’s perfidy and the fact that the Muslim world had been deprived of a man as brilliant as Ali Bhutto. I promised him that his sentiments, and words, would be conveyed in toto. I did that, without fear.
Bhutto’s judicial murder was the second time in my career that I felt like resigning from the Foreign Service; the first was the tragedy of East Pakistan and the Fall of Dhaka, in 1971. Why I didn’t bite the bullet isn’t such a mystery. Bureaucrats have a thick skin, and they justify the art of survival by keeping their emotions and obligations in separate chambers. But there’re times when it becomes an excruciating experience to go through that kind of personal torture. It grates on you and takes a heavy toll of emotions.
For months afterward, I felt terribly queasy and emotionally rattled. By the same token, for weeks on end, we’re harangued by nasty, often disgustingly abusive, phone calls, sometime late in the night, from irate Pakistanis pouring their venom on us.
Little did I know, then, that it wasn’t the last tragedy that I would be witness to in the context of Pakistan and the star-crossed Bhutto clan. I was in Karachi last December to witness Bhutto’s little daughter bestially gunned down in the same city where her illustrious father was hauled up the gallows. How desperately do I hope that I shouldn’t be made to witness another Greek tragedy associated with the Bhuttos in the remainder of my lifetime.