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Victoria Schofield
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Bhutto: the final act

19 February 2000, Dawn, Karachi

Excerpt:

As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto mounted the gallows no one could know what last thoughts occupied an undoubtedly great mind which for so long had been crammed full of the affairs of state: the economy, industry, poverty and international politics. Nor could anyone be sure how he bore himself but, in keeping with the forbearance he had shown throughout his year and a half in solitary confinement, it was undoubtedly with courage, conviction and a clear conscience.

For the last few days of his life it poured with rain. It was not the drizzling rain to which Europeans are accustomed but the torrential rain of countries which have hot climates. People in Pakistan were sombre, silent and depressed. They felt helpless in the face of martial law which arrested anyone on the spot who tried to organise a procession of protest. The uncertainty  was agonising – any day they might wake up to find that the former prime minister was already dead. Only in the imagination was it possible to conjure up the vision of the solitary figure – once sturdy and robust – waiting in a cold concrete cell with an unwanted beard growing on his pale face, since the use of a razor was no longer permitted. There were only two things for him to await – first to say goodbye to his family – his wife Begum Nusrat Bhutto and his daughter Benazir, both of whom had pursued an unrelenting battle to save his life. He was permitted to spend a final three hours with them. As they emerged from the jail the expression on their faced indicated that they knew what was about to happen. And then his death. At 2 a.m. on 4 April 1979, 21 months after the military coup d’etat which ousted him on 5 July 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed by means of hanging in Rawalpindi district jail where he had spent the last ten and a half months.

For those who wish to give Bhutto a place in history, he deserves this for having restored the morale and prestige of a country of 70 million people which was discredited and demoralised after the war of 1971 when East Pakistan seceded to become independent Bangladesh. After the instability of civilian governments and military dictatorships, Bhutto’s people’s government was the first in the history of Pakistan to have a populist ring.

Bhutto started off on a good footing. He had all the advantages and opportunities of a rich family background and a good education combined with his own talents and ambitions to reach the top. He was only 43 years of age when he became President and then Prime Minister of Pakistan after the 1971 war. Undoubtedly throughout his tenure of power Bhutto made enemies – people who envied his success, abhorred the policies of socialism he felt it was necessary to implement, and those  who believed his western style of life was un-Islamic. Bhutto himself admitted the conflict of a man who was an aristocrat and yet who fervently believed in helping Pakistan’s poor. His supporters give him credit for awakening the political consciousness of the people and for giving them dignity and self-respect. He took trouble to campaign in the poor areas of the country and they  were heartened by his promises of a better life.

To most outside observers it appeared that at last under Bhutto, Pakistanis were getting over their inferiority complex vis-à-vis India. Some autocracy, it was felt, was necessary for a country emerging out of feudal bondage and knit together only by a common faith. Bhutto dealt with secessionist problems in what his opponents criticised as a high-handed manner. But Bhutto was looking to the unity of the federation and by 1977 the troubles were over. It looked as though Pakistan was in for a period of peace and prosperity after Bhutto and his People’s Party secured a new mandate from the people.

But the alleged rigging of the elections in March 1977 resulting in fierce agitation from opposition parties indicated that not everyone was happy with his tenure of power, nor with the men around him. It was the starting poing of a downfall which reached a vindictive end. The imposition of martial law in July 1977 was the next stage. From then onwards, instead of being in charge of a country, Bhutto was soon reduced to being called a ‘common criminal’, awaiting the dictates of other people’s justice, first through his trial for conspiracy to murder a political opponent in 1974, then through his prolonged appeal before the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

It was clear from the start what the authorities wanted the verdict to be and they supplemented the charge with volumes of literature alleging unproven misdeeds relating to almost every aspect of his conduct in what his supporters called the most ‘vicious vendetta’ of all times. It was almost as though the military regime was aware of the flimsy murder charge against Bhutto and was trying to make up for this by other unsubstantiated charges to try and make the people believe that he deserved to die anyway. On the night he was executed, his houses in Larkana and Karachi were raided, making it appear that the authorities had not finished their attack against the Bhutto family.

 

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