Born to be Hanged, Syeda Hameed’s biography of Bhutto, is a valuable contribution to the existing corpus of research on political figures of South Asia.
Does Zulfikar Ali Bhutto qualify as the tallest and most exceptional political figure of Pakistan, South Asia and the Islamic world?
The story of Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, has enough material to interest and intrigue the student of politics. And Born to be Hanged, Syeda Hameed’s political biography of Bhutto, is a valuable contribution to the existing corpus of research on political figures of South Asia.
To tell the story of Bhutto is also to tell the stories of the creation of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the mutiny of East Pakistan and the military generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq. Haq, who at one time is believed to have wiped spilt tea from Bhutto’s shoes, would, in a stunning reversal of tide, go on to hang Bhutto in 1979.
Hameed, a human rights activist and former Planning Commission of India member, undertakes the exercise of excavating different aspects of Bhutto’s political journey. She draws a portrait of a political leader with a mass following, who starts out admirably enough, but later becomes a victim of machinations of not just the military and intelligence, but also his own feudal instincts.
A running thread through the book is an examination of Bhutto the public speaker and techniques that he used to address his audiences, be it voters in Pakistan or international diplomats at the United Nations Security Council. Similarly, Bhutto’s hatred of Ayub Khan for signing the Tashkent Declaration and staunch stand on not surrendering Kashmir to India are also emphasised.
Hameed tries to give us a closer glimpse of Bhutto the politician, and largely succeeds. By also turning the spotlight on Bhutto’s contemporaries and colleagues, friends, advisors and opponents and their individual relationships with Bhutto, the reader receives a detailed picture which is not always flattering.
While the first few chapters of the book get into minutiae of governance and politics and chart the rise of Bhutto, the pace picks up in the last few chapters where the various conflicts in Bhutto’s career stand out. The chapter ‘President’s Men: Companions, Contenders and Saboteurs’ contains brief fascinating paragraphs on men who were important to Bhutto. The unhappy fate of those who challenged him or emerged as threats to his popularity show Bhutto as a man who wanted to be fully in control and leading at all times.
J.A. Rahim, a prominent leader of the PPP and the only man within the party who could level with Bhutto, wrote to him, “You do not want the Party. You want the personal following.” The consequences for Rahim were not positive.
With the passage of time, Hameed shows the isolation and estrangement of Bhutto from his close and trusted advisors, an outcome of manoeuvres by intelligence authorities. The ever present shadow of military generals on governance is brought out vividly.
The varying perceptions highlighted by Hameed regarding Bhutto’s role in the East Pakistan, make one wonder what Bhutto really felt about East Pakistan’s bid for independence. Hameed writes that while he tried his best to make common cause and present a united front with East Pakistan, he wasn’t entirely comfortable with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Six Point Formula.
As Bhutto was forced to acknowledge the limits of his power, he became suspicious of trusted advisors and adopted questionable tactics in the 1979 election, despite having voter support. Bhutto’s implication in the murder of a political opponent resulted in Zia-ul-Haq’s determination to hang him, contravening all judicial processes and principles of justice, causing the hanging to be labelled as ‘judicial murder’.
Hameed also makes use of correspondence between Bhutto and others, and archives in her narrative. Mubashir Hasan, who was a close associate of Bhutto and one of the last few surviving figures of his era, is also a major source of information.
Hameed’s biography, however, doesn’t leave one convinced of Bhutto’s stature as portrayed.
Urvashi Sarkar is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.