Remembering 1979 Execution Of Pakistani Politician

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Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid talks with Steve Inskeep about the 1979 hanging of a democratically-elected leader in Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by a general who Islamicized Pakistani society. To this day, Pakistan has been plagued by internal tension between the more radical and the more secular elements of its society.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week, we're exploring a series of events 30 years ago in the Muslim world. Those events in 1979 still shape many nations and problems the U.S. faces today. Some events resonate deeply in the West, like Iran's revolution. Others captured less attention here, but may be just as significant. And that includes the day in April 1979 when a hangman fitted a noose around the deposed prime minister of Pakistan.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: This is the Radio Pakistan. The news: A press note issued by the Ministry of Interior in Islamabad today says following conviction by the Lahore High Court, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged to death at two o'clock this morning in Rawalpindi District Jail.

INSKEEP: That hanging ended one of Pakistan's experiments with civilian rule. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ruled for several years. The father of future leader Benazir Bhutto lost power when the military took over once again. The people who remember Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's rule include Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist): Well, he was a very unique individual in many ways. He had a - he came from a very well-known feudal political family, owning thousands of acres of land. And at the same time, because he was educated at Oxford, he was extremely debonair, very well read and considered himself an intellectual of the times. This was a man of the world but a very, in a sense, a very confused man with a split personality, in a way. He was autocratic and dictatorial and feudal and old-fashioned. And yet he was also modern and intellectual and emotional and very much up with what was going on around him.

INSKEEP: You know, I was once in one of his family's homes in Karachi, Pakistan, which was his home base. And there's a painting of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on the wall, and he's holding a microphone. He's shouting. He's addressing a huge crowd. And you get a - the implication of the painting is here's a man of the people, an inspiring man of the people.

Mr. RASHID: Well, that's clearly what he wanted always to be. He nationalized a lot of the private industry in Pakistan, a lot of the corporations and the banks. And he said it was all being done on behalf of the people. And he was the man who actually brought politics into the ordinary person, the poor person's sitting room, literally.

The slogans that he mouthed - I will give you food, I will give you clothes and I will give you homes to live in. Now, these were very popular slogans, and they'd never been heard before in Pakistan until now, because we'd been ruled either by feudal civilians or by the military.

INSKEEP: And so he was reaching out to the people, or so he said. But did he really open up the politics of Pakistan in the 1970s?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think, you know, people are really upset. He had a golden opportunity. The army had virtually collapsed. Military rule was very, very far away. It was seen now as an impossibility. And instead, what Bhutto does, he comes in, becomes president and then prime minister, initiates a constitution, and then in a way re-empowers the army to fight for him and rebuilds the army, which, of course, then overthrows him.

Now, that was his first mistake. I think the second was that he started out as a man of the people, a man of the left, a man of nationalization. And then he -once he comes into power and he nationalizes industry and banks, he dumps the left. He jails them. He bans the trade unions. Everything that he had promised and that he'd supported earlier in office, he comes around and clamps down upon. So that suddenly made him into this great autocrat in the eyes of many, many people - people who supported him.

INSKEEP: So, he dumped the left. He re-empowered the military, and in the end, the military overpowered him.

Mr. RASHID: Not only that - he became too cocky, too confident. And that, of course, led to a movement against him which was led by the fundamentalist Islamic parties and backed clandestinely by the army, which considered that Bhutto was getting too big for his boots.

INSKEEP: When I hear you talking about the Pakistani army taking control and working in some strange way with Islamic fundamentalists inside Pakistan, we begin to understand how this era may still be influencing Pakistan today.

Mr. RASHID: Well, I mean, that's absolutely true because even today, the army has been very closely allied to Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, one could say that Islamic fundamentalists have been the army's frontline in its continuing conflict with India and in its continuing desire to see a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul, in Afghanistan, which is why the army has supported the Taliban all these years, even after 9/11.

INSKEEP: Where were you in April of 1979 when Bhutto was hanged?

Mr. RASHID: I was in exile, actually. I had been exiled by Bhutto, and I was abroad in exile.

INSKEEP: And you were not alone in being arrested or forced out of the country in the 1970s, were you?

Mr. RASHID: Many people had to flee the country towards the end of his rule. He became extremely autocratic.

INSKEEP: So did you have mixed feelings when the military took him from power and later put him on trial and executed him?

Mr. RASHID: No, not really, because I think the last thing people wanted was return to military rule. People were hoping that there would be a free and fair election, Bhutto would probably lose it, and that democracy would continue. And instead, we got another decade-long bout of military rule. And I don't think people wanted that at all.

INSKEEP: And not just any kind of military rule. Wasn't the man who overthrew Bhutto the man who made Pakistani society far more Islamic in character than it had been in the past?

Mr. RASHID: Well, exactly. General Zia ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto. He immediately imposed very strict Islamic measures, especially aimed at women, at the justice system, at the courts, regarding personal law. He clamped down on the media. He was absolutely ruthless.

And then, of course, he went ahead and hanged a political leader, which was totally unacceptable to anybody who believed in democracy.

INSKEEP: So, how much more Islamic in character or un-Western in character - if we want to describe it that way - is Pakistan now than it was in 1979?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think Zia ul-Haq actually laid the roots of what we have today, which is, in many parts of the country, a process of Talibanization, similar to what you saw in the '90s in Afghanistan. Zia ul-Haq laid the roots of that after hanging Bhutto. He had no opposition. He was in power for 10 years. He then had the support of the Americans after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and then the only thing that got rid of Zia ul-Haq was when he died in the plane crash.

INSKEEP: So, has Pakistan been on a path for 30 years that would probably take 30 years to reverse?

Mr. RASHID: I think we need a very, very long, sustained period of democracy in order to reverse these trends. In the beginning, certainly, the Democrats will be corrupt or inept or not very good at governing, or whatever. But I think we need to persist until we go through a series of elections and we can start creating a cadre of Democrats belonging to all political parties who want to take the country forward.

INSKEEP: Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and the author of "Descent into Chaos." Thanks very much.

Mr. RASHID: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And our series on 1979 continues tomorrow, when an Afghan-born man recalls the foreign soldier at his door.

Unidentified Man #2: He was very pale white. He was definitely not a central Asian. He was very Russian, and looked so out of place.

INSKEEP: The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, tomorrow on NPR News.

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