He lives on – Bhutto’s sense of history


Birthdays bring joy and happiness but this January, the PPP supporters that had planned huge cakes and grand celebrations to commemorate Zulfikar Ali Bhuttos birthday found nothing but blood and tears as a pall of gloom and doom enveloped the length and the breadth of the country due to the shocking assassination of a Bhutto-lover– Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab. Like most people, I know little about Taseer except that he was a great admirer of Bhutto, a bold PPP leader like its chairman, a successful businessman and a media mogul. What I think not many people know is that he was also a scholar and historian in his own right for he wrote the most frank and lively political biography of Bhutto, even more refreshing and intimate than several other works on PPPs chairman including the one by the American historian Stanley Wolpert. Taseer first saw Zulfikar in 1966; when as a student in London, he went to hear Bhuttos address to the Pakistani community. He was captivated by Bhuttos youthfulness, rhetorical powers, left-wing views and fervent Pakistani nationalism–some of these traits were also quite visible in the personality of Taseer, himself. In July 1976, he visited Bhutto at his Karachi residence and told him that he intended to write his biography which he eventually completed in 1979.

Being an admirer of Bhutto, Taseers work is obviously sympathetic in the treatment of its subject; however, it serves to highlight several strands of Bhuttos personality that his cynical critics either deliberately ignore or simply distort because such was the force of his personality. Like most humans, Bhutto, too, had his shortcomings. For some, the shortcomings may outweigh his strengths but wouldnt it be unjust if we refuse to appreciate what he tried to achieve in his life. Despite all the trappings of power and the complexities of the political system in Pakistan, he tried with great sincerity and honesty to liberate his countrymen from poverty and backwardness. The forces of oppression were very strong but Bhutto was a brave man and he didnt give in till the end of his life. It is immaterial whether he was successful or not, the important point being the courageous struggle that he relentlessly waged. The long days and the dark nights in the death cell provided an undisturbed opportunity to reflect on the political life that he had lived. After reflection in solitary confinement, he penned: Mans dearest possession is his life and since it is given to him to live but once he must so live as not to be scarred with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past, so live as not to be tortured for years without purpose, that dying he can say, All my life and my strength were given to the first cause in the world– the liberation of mankind .

This quotation shows that Bhutto had a great sense of history. To more than anything, he thought that he would be answerable to history. That is why instead of living an effete life, he took up the cause of ameliorating the plight of the masses. Again, one may disagree with his methods and approach, be it the land or industrial reforms but one cannot doubt his sincerity of purpose behind them.

His personal library in Karachi was a reflection of the historical figures that shaped his statesmanlike vision. In addition to the original eighteenth century manuscripts on Indian history, there were volumes on Metternich, Talleyrand, Nehru and Machiavell, however, Napoleon Bonaparte remained a special subject under his study because five to six shelves were packed with the books on different aspects of this all-time great French statesman. The other world statesmen that he admired and idealised most were Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia and Chou En-Lai of China for the simple reason that their policies irrespective of the criticism of the Western world, served the best interests of their respective countries.

Although Bhutto had spent the most formative years of his life in the West which thoroughly Westernized his appearance, it was just a veneer because deep down, he remained firmly rooted to his native soil — his favourite songs being Sohni dharti and Lal meri pat. He was confident that he would be able to serve his countrymen for a longer period of time. Exuding with confidence, he proudly told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1972, Ill last longer than anyone else whos governed Pakistan. First of all, because I am healthy and full of energy. I can work as I do eighteen hours a day. Then, because I am young. Im barely forty-four, ten years younger than Mrs Gandhi. However, fate had something else in store for him.

His revolutionary policies at home, orientation of Pakistan towards the Afro-Asian bloc and the launching of the nuclear program in particular, brought him in conflict with some of the world powers. More than anyone, he himself knew well nigh as to who was after his head. From his death cell, he wrote to Kurt Waldheim: Relevant world leaders are aware as to why my life hangs in the balance. This unimpeachable evidence of the last fourteen years will show them beyond doubt that my blood, if it spills, will surely stain their hands and that in history they will owe me a debt of blood. Nevertheless, he was hanged. His opponents thought that by physical elimination, they could kill the Bhutto phenomenon for good. History showed that they were wrong. The metaphysical Bhutto turned out to be more potent than the physical Bhutto. After the burial of his physical remains in his hometown, Salmaan Taseer envisioned the rebirth of the immortal Bhutto because he concluded his biography with these prophetic words: The mortal remains of Sindhs most famous son were interred, but a legend watered by the tears of millions, was born to live.

The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]