Some Reflections on Bhutto’s Anniversary

Washington, DC: Forty years have passed since the death – ostensibly by an unjust hanging, which some consider as a judicial murder – of Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. His supporters view him as a martyr while his detractors consider him to have been the ‘most divisive’ leader of the country.

Twenty-nine years have passed since the peaceful death of Air Marshal Rahim Khan, one of the two men who were primarily responsible for handing over the reins of power following the dishonorable debacle in Dhaka in December 1971. From what we learned, Air Marshal Rahim Khan and Lt General Gul Hassan Khan worked behind the scene to remove the despicable General Yahya Khan from power and ensuring that Mr Bhutto was not assassinated while returning to Islamabad from New York. In the “Man in the News,” December 29, 1971, the New York Times described Air Marshal Rahim Khan having “emerged as the strongest military influence in the country.”

Mr Bhutto was very confident of his skills and he showed his gratitude to these two men by shipping them overseas as ambassadors. In his calculation, Mr Bhutto wanted to remove any potential threat to his political supremacy. He would have been wiser to not to act so much in haste because when the protests reached their peak, it was the resignations of both Air Marshal Rahim Khan and Lt General Gul Hassan Khan from their diplomatic positions that led to the chain of events bringing about Mr Bhutto’s overthrow by a much mortal threat of General Zia ul Haq, the man who paid back Mr Bhutto’s favor of promotion by signing his death warrant. Life does present interesting experiences to witness history up close and personal sometimes. As students, I accompanied a close friend to see Mr Bhutto in New York forty-five years ago when he was participating in the annual UN meetings. The environment at the Embassy building was surreal in some respects because everyone appeared visibly scared in Mr Bhutto’s presence as it was rumored that he was prone to slapping.

Not thinking about the consequences, some words just came out of my mouth: “Why are you running a one-man show?” As I am usually reticent, I was a bit surprised as to what came out of my mouth. But the deed was done. Mr Bhutto seemed to be a bit stunned but surprisingly didn’t express any anger and patiently and respectfully tried to assure me – the curious student that day.  Little did we know then that four years later this powerful man would be helpless and going to the gallows. Thirty-seven years have passed since Fazal Elahi Chaudhry, a seasoned politician and an experienced lawyer served first as Speaker National Assembly and then as President of Pakistan during Mr Bhutto’s reign of power and General Zia’s initial years. Geography and familial connections made it possible for me to know President Fazal Elahi Chaudhry. His ancestral village was a few miles from Kharian to which my ancestors belonged. His younger brother was frequently at our house in Lahore visiting my father and his friends. Many might deride President Fazal Elahi Chaudhry as being inconsequential while others might consider him a wily political survivor. To me, he was a decent human being with whom I developed a personal friendship long before his electoral success in the 1970 elections and despite decades of age disparity between us. For me, having tea in his Presidential office had the same feeling like the one when I was in the living room near Shimla Hill in Lahore on my way home from the railway station after dropping off visiting relatives.

When Air Marshal Rahim Khan arrived in Washington years ago, he was a private citizen in need of assistance. I helped him move, along with a relative, to his temporary residence in Alexandria. What struck me was that most of his belongings were books. We became friends easily.
To support his family, he started working with a defense firm in Washington. Since his office was not far from mine, we would get together for lunch whenever our schedules would allow. I learned about his forthrightness when he told me that working for his new employer is not working out because he “couldn’t do anything for them.” I also learnt that he was a very loyal friend.

In those days, nobody seemed to be interested in selling much to Pakistan for a variety of reasons. So, his financial prospects were not very bright. All this changed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and he was soon traveling a great deal and doing well financially. He moved to a house in Potomac, MD which was comfortable but neither big nor extravagant. As a military leader, he led an air force in war, but his biggest battle was still to come with the failure of his kidneys requiring a transplant surgery. I found him to be someone who was steady under pressure in the most trying circumstances.
In retrospect, Mr Bhutto was too quick to fire people like Air Marshal Rahim Khan as a potential threat. Sadly, Mr Bhutto also never did try to learn from Fazal Elahi Chaudhry the art of survival and patience. Had he done so, the country would have been better off as Mr Bhutto possessed incredible skills and perhaps wouldn’t have seen the hangman’s noose.

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