By Tariq Mahmud
It was a laidback April morning with a distinct eeriness pervading the air. Huddled with a few colleagues, I was sitting in a compound close to the civil courts at Chunian in the district of Kasur. Someone, completely befuddled barged in, looked around breathlessly, and broke the shocking news, “Bhutto sahab ko phansi hogayee.” The news chilled us to our spines and we were rendered speechless, staring at one another with stony eyes. This had been expected and yet, there was a sense of disbelief.
The murder trial of Muhammad Ahmed Khan had come to an end. The case was exceptional in many ways: it was not tried at the court of original jurisdiction, with the appellate forum, the Lahore High Court, arrogating this jurisdiction. The bench trying the case was headed by the chief justice, who was accused by the defense of having possessed malice against the person standing trial, but he disregarded the objection. The split verdict drew a wedge between the judges belonging to Punjab and the rest of the country.
As we heard the sad news, we got hold of a transistor. There was a brief and terse account of Bhutto’s execution and his burial at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh. Begum Nusrat Bhutto and her children were denied their right to be present at the funeral. An eventful era of Pakistan’s history had reached its finale. A trail of events started eddying in my mind — ZAB’s meteoric rise, his controversial role in the East Pakistan debacle and assumption of power after the country’s break-up, all fell in place to complete the picture. From here onwards, he picked up the pieces, made strenuous efforts to retrieve the areas occupied by India during the 1971 war as well as brought back prisoners of war, rallied the Muslim world around and set a domestic agenda of reforms, which though, highly controversial, could not be ignored. While framing the 1973 Constitution, he emerged as a man of consensus, giving the country a document, which is still the rallying point for this highly-polarized nation.
ZAB was a people’s man and thrived amongst the milling crowds. He was everywhere when the chips were down: in the earthquake-hit areas of Bisham in the Northern Areas to the collapse of a high-rise building in Karachi, from the flood-ravaged areas of Shujabad to the famine-stricken expanses of Thar.
He possessed an empathetic chord and a hands-on approach to problems. As an under-training officer, I recall a petition of an old man that was marked for the deputy commissioner with a handwritten note in the margin by the prime minister: “Relieve his agony, he is running around from pillar to post.” The old man did get what he wanted, while many of us in our early years of service enjoyed the idiomatic directives of ZAB.
Ziaul Haq’s government wanted to get as much evidence as possible to indict ZAB. A white paper was brought out to catalogue malpractices of his rule. When it came to his financial probity, there was mention of an installation of an air conditioning plant at state expense at 70 Clifton, Karachi. The residence had been declared the prime minister’s camp office. The same document, however, added that at a subsequent stage, ZAB paid for the amount at depreciated cost as worked out by the cabinet division. Compare this act with the brazen conduct of many of his successors. It seemed that there was no other plausible case to tighten the noose around him than to try him in the murder case.
There was a downside to ZAB’s eventful era. Dissension and differences were an anathema to his working style. The treatment meted out to nationalists in erstwhile NWFP and in Balochistan left deep scars. His governance smacked of authoritarian rule . The Defense of Pakistan Rule (DPR) was often invoked on flimsy pretexts. The shoddy manner in which senior leaders like JA Rahim, Meraj Muhammad Khan, Mir Rasul Bakhsh Talpur, Mukhtar Rana and Malik Suleman were treated is the sad story of our politics.
Despite these grey areas, ZAB was indeed a larger than life figure: a towering personality, but like a hero from a Greek tragedy, one who possessed fatal flaws. (The writer is a public policy analyst and a former interior secretary. Courtesy The Express Tribune)