Bhutto message to Yasser Arafat’s message from death cell
I was ten years old when I learnt in school that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was coming to our area, Padidan. There was little else they could talk about at the barber’s shop, where I used to read the newspaper out loud for people every day over a free cup of milky tea.
All I knew is that I had to go see for myself. I asked my father to take me. It is a mile and a half from home, he said. Are you sure you can make it? But I was not to be dissuaded. Take me, I said, and made a counter offer: I won’t ask you for pocket money for a month. He gave in.
In my excitement, I didn’t mind how long the walk was. When we got there I saw a sea of people. I had never seen such a crowd before in my entire ten years of being on this planet. They had come for a campaign rally for the 1970 elections.
The last time I saw Bhutto again was at the train station of my hometown Padidan in 1978 aboard the Khyber Mail when he went to Karachi. The train arrived late because people would lie on the train tracks to stop the train to see him
I had warned you, my father said. I was too small to see the stage so I asked him to take me closer. But when we reached it, I could barely see over it. Then I spotted a big Banyan tree. I dragged my father there and got him to give me a leg up. The view was spectacular. I clung to the trunk and gazed down from the best seat in the house.
That was about 48 years ago. Bhutto’s party won in West Pakistan, the 1971 war that dismembered Pakistan’s Eastern wing. And I remember Bhutto’s speech on my battery-powered radio, the size of an old TV set, on December 20, 1971 after he had assumed power.
The second time I saw him was five years later. I was studying at Government College Nawabshah in 1976. One day, our classes were released early and we were told that Prime Minister Bhutto would address a gathering on campus. Late morning we heard the purring of a helicopter, followed by a mini tornado that hit the dry ground, billowing out a dust storm until the chopper blades came to a full stop.
Bhutto, dressed in a suit with a Mao Tse Tung cap, alighted and walked towards to the dais. Local PPP leader Qazi Mohammad BakhshDhamrah, a short stocky man with a big beard and thick glasses, stood next to him. Bhutto spoke in his typical northern Sindhi accent. He asked Dhamrah, ‘Do you know when the elections will be held?’ Dhamrah shook his head.
‘If DhamrahSaheb doesn’t know, I don’t know either,’ said Bhutto to us. Then he went straight to Lahore and announced early elections.
Even today there are many stories about why ZAB announced early elections. Constitutionally, he was not bound to do so until August 1978 but he held the elections in March 1977. KhawajaZaheer Ahmed, now Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, has a different tale to tell. He narrates a story of June 1976 when ZAB and SardarDawood had a summit meeting in Murree. Khawaja was DC Murree then and was looking after the management of the event.
After the meeting, Bhutto was buoyed by the results of the meeting. He looked overjoyed. Zia-ulHaq, the new Army Chief, had been in office for only three months by then. He came to see Bhutto, says KhawajaZaheer. How was the meeting Prime Minister, Zia asked. Bhutto, in his flamboyant mood, said it was the best thing that could happen to Pakistan. When pressed for details, Bhutto said all major issues between Pakistan and Afghanistan stood settled. The Afghans will recognize the international border; we will lift the ban on the defunct National Awami Party and will hold early elections to allow them to contest.
Khawaja says Zia blanched and asked Bhutto how they could restore NAP when its case was pending in the Supreme Court. Bhutto retorted to ask Zia how many witnesses had been cross-examined in the case. Five, said Zia. With that speed, quipped Bhutto, it will probably take fifty years to conclude the case.
As Zia parted, Bhutto gave him another jolt. By the way, some of our friendly countries have played a role in settling the issue of Kashmir with India peacefully once and for all. In a way that Kashmiris will feel proud of us. As Zia left, we talked to each other and thought, it was the worst blunder of his life to divulge the details to Zia. The preparation for a coup started from that point on, insists KhawajaZaheer.
Despite the coup, respect for Bhutto in the ranks of the army did not die. It was met with a surge in popularity, driving hundreds of thousands of people to greet him after his release from detention and later by LHC judge Samdani proved beyond any doubt that Zia would face tremendous reprisals if Bhutto found his way back to power.
The last time I saw Bhutto again was at the train station of my hometown Padidan in 1978 aboard the Khyber Mail when he went to Karachi. The train arrived late because people would lie on the train tracks to stop the train to see Bhutto. At Padidan station, Bhutto alighted from his parlour, waved and went back. That was the last time, I saw him. The last person
In a recent interview to me, Bhutto’s nephew Tariq Islam described the demeanor of his favourite uncle, who he happened to be the last person to see before the immediate family. In March 1979 he got a message from Bhutto’s elder son Murtaza, asking him to come to London. Murtaza said, says Tariq Islam, please deliver two important messages to my father. One message was from Yasser Arafat and one was from Murtaza himself and Shahnawaz. According to Tariq Islam, Murtaza told him that they couldn’t trust anybody else to deliver the message but him since he was family and very close to ZAB.
Tariq reached Rawalpindi jail on Saturday, March 31, attired in a brand new suit. After a body search, he was taken down a long narrow path to the death cell.
It was 6 by 9 feet cell. There was no furniture in the room, except for a mattress a few inches thick and a Indian WC toilet next to it. Bhutto lay on the dirty mattress. Tariq Islam couldn’t believe this stinky dark small death cell was where the first elected prime minister and Pakistan’s most popular leader was kept.
ZAB had reduced to a skeleton as he was on hunger strike. He pointed at the toilet. They have put it here by my bedside to humiliate me, ZAB told Tariq. ‘I am not eating, so I don’t have to use the damn thing.’
Bhutto then look at Tariq and, as a man of his own sartorial excellence, said he was happy to see him so smartly dressed. He told Tariq Islam exactly where his shirt was from in the UK.
Tariq then delivered both messages to ZAB. The message from Yasser Arafat was that ZAB was precious, not only for Pakistan but for the whole world. Tell Bhutto to cooperate with us so that we can take him out of prison, Arafat had told Murtaza. Bhutto listened to what Tariq Islam was passing on and then said: Please convey my regards to Yasser Arafat and tell him that I don’t want to go down in history for breaking out of jail and escaping to save my skin.
The second message from Murtaza and Shahnawaz was even more alarming. Murtaza Bhutto conveyed that Hafeezullah Amin, the then President of Afghanistan, had invited him and his brother to come to Kabul and set up a guerrilla base to fight the military junta. All Murtaza wanted was permission from his father. According to Tariq Islam, Bhutto was furious to hear this. Tell Murtaza to knock it off, he said. Does he really think that I sent him to Oxford and Harvard to become a guerrilla leader?
Tariq asked ZAB why party leaders such as Mumtaz Bhutto and HafeezPirzada were not launching any movement for his release. Bhutto told him that they had come to him exactly that. Do you think that I am so small and so desperate to beg them for my life, Bhutto went on to say. If they are not leaders worth their salt to put up a fight, why would I ask them to do so?
A lot has been said about the vindictiveness and unforgiving nature of ZAB. ShaukatJaved, a former IG of Punjab, was an SSP in the police when Bhutto was undergoing a trial in the Lahore High Court and later at the Supreme Court in 1978. He narrates a story Bhutto himself told him. When Bhutto came to power, he invited Ayub Khan to President House. Ayub had thrown Bhutto in jail after he broke off with him after the Tashkent pact. Shaukat said Bhutto told him that he came out of his office to receive Ayub on the porch. When Shaukat asked why did that, Bhutto told him that he had served Ayub and regardless of what Ayub did to him in the end, he believed in etiquette. “Insaankeaankhmeinsharamhonichahye,” Bhutto told Shaukat.
Alas, the same dignity and etiquette was not extended by Zia, who owed his position to Bhutto. The only difference is that today nobody remembers Zia. But Bhutto? Nobody can forget him.