by Praveen Swami

Five brigades of the Indian Army encircling his country’s garrison at Dhaka, foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto dramatically tore up his notes and stormed out of the United Nations Security Council. “Legalise aggression, legalise occupation—I will not be a party to it,” Zulfikar thundered. “I will not be a party to the ignominious surrender of part of my country. You can take your Security Council. I am going,” he went on. “I’d rather go back to a destroyed Pakistan. We will fight,” he concluded.

Then, Pakistan’s soon-to-be prime minister retreated to the commodious environs of the Pierre Hotel, on the fringes of New York’s Central Park. The country’s forces surrendered.

Later, Zulfikar told an interviewer he had received a call from his teenage daughter, then a student at Harvard. “I didn’t storm out,” he told Benazir Bhutto, who would also go on to lead Pakistan. “I walked out. It was too much of a farce.”

The Generals And The Grandson

Lesser politicians might have been reduced by military defeat to mere court clowns. The two wars against India Zulfikar helped precipitate—together with years of patient collaboration with military rulers—ended up paving the way for him to become prime minister. Fifty-one years after his performance at the Security Council, foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari—grandson to Zulfikar and Benazir’s son—is showing he is an able heir to the family patriarch.

Even though Bilawal’s speech accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being “the butcher of Gujarat” seemed aimed across the border, the real target was at home.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif—whose Pakistan Muslim League party rules the country in alliance with Bhutto-Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party—cultivated close ties with Modi, seeing the prospect of reviving the détente undermined by the Kargil war. Famously, Nawaz appeared at a family wedding in a pagri gifted by the Indian leader—signalling close personal ties.

As he’s toured frontline positions, new army chief General Syed Asim Munir has heard loud support for ousted prime minister Imran Khan among junior officers, Indian intelligence officials say.

Though General Munir has made clear he will not countenance the return of Imran—a message underlined by the release of sex tapes purportedly involving the former prime minister on social media—he also knows Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government is flailing amidst a deepening financial crisis.

Effecting the removal of Shehbaz would be no problem for the Generals—except the risk it would pose of returning Nawaz and his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif to centre stage. Nawaz was eased out of office because of his confrontation with the army over security policies, and the relationship with India. The army hasn’t forgiven Nawaz’s efforts to imprison former army chief General Pervez Musharraf, either.

That means a new contender may be needed to lead the country—and Bilawal, like his grandfather, is positioning himself as the man the military needs.

The Thousand-Year War

Even as Indian Army soldiers moved to within kilometres from Lahore, Zulfikar had delivered another heroic address to the Security Council. “We will wage a war of a thousand years,” the foreign minister declared in September 1965. “The hundred million people of Pakistan shall face extermination rather than forsake their principles.” The speech, biographer Stanley Wolpert recorded, electrified Pakistanis “who knew they had lost the war but whose dream of victory was being kept alive by the words carried by wireless radio”.

Zulfikar has been reinvented as a pro-democracy radical. The politician’s role in bringing about the wars of 1965 and 1971 is often ignored.

The coup d’état of 1958—which extinguished hopes of Pakistan evolving into a liberal democracy—received Zulfikar’s approval. Leaders like East Pakistan politician Huseyn Suhrawardy—prime minister in 1956-1957—played “havoc and run amok with the destinies of the people,” Zulfikar argued. The political chaos meant “the Revolution had to come to try and put the state of affairs in order”.

Elevating himself to Field Marshal—a five-star honorary rank, on Zulfikar’s advice—General Ayub instituted a system of so-called Basic Democracy, which restricted the franchise to just 80,000 citizens. Zulfikar served as the minister in charge of its implementation and defended the regime’s most authoritarian actions. The incarceration of top politicians, including Suhrawardy, sparked riots in East Pakistan and laid the foundations for the Bangladesh movement. Zulfikar defended the army’s actions.

Zulfikar also played a key role in persuading the Field Marshal to go to war in Kashmir in 1965, using covert troops—promising that India would not retaliate in the plains, with conventional forces. “The success of the current movement in Kashmir,” he urged, “will be a decisive factor in the history of Pakistan.” “We must go all out to incite the Nagas and the Lushais in Assam and the Sikhs in the Punjab,” Zulfikar added.

The argument pandered to Ayub’s prejudice. In instructions to his army chief, General Mohammad Musa, the Field Marshal claimed that “as a general rule Hindu morale would not stand more than a couple of hard blows delivered at the right time and place.” Fears raised by the army chief about the conceptual soundness of the 1965 war plan were brushed aside.

When the military campaign came unstuck, Zulfikar insisted India’s successful counter-offensive “cannot be explained except in the light of positive United States complicity.” “It is imperative in the present circumstances to issue a denunciation of the United States’ complicity with India,” a top-secret minute records the politician arguing.

“Your cousin is a maman,” Ayub Khan later warned Mumtaz Bhutto. “Don’t follow him!” This wisdom dawned too late: The Field Marshal’s protege was plotting a coup of his own.

Late in the summer of 1966, Zulfikar was pushed out of office, and later imprisoned. “I was confined in an old cell full of rats and mosquitoes,” he would recall, “and the charpoy [bed] was tied to a chain.” Zulfikar’s suffering, though, made him a hero to a people increasingly frustrated with military rule.

The East Pakistan Crisis

Empowered by nationalist rhetoric charging Ayub with treachery, Zulfikar fought the elections of 1970 dressed in a Mao cap and green jacket: Islam and socialism were weaponised into a new messianic ideology to save Pakistan. Facing criticism from conservative clerics, Zulfikar vowed: “We shall wage a ‘jihad’ for the cause of Islam, not only in Pakistan but anywhere in the world if required. If Muslim blood is being mercilessly shed in India, you cannot just wring your hands.”

The Field Marshal had been swept aside in a palace coup the previous year, to be replaced by General Yahya Khan. The new military ruler promised free elections. “I am anxious to get the country back upon the rails of democracy,” General Yahya said in one meeting, “I am myself frightened by my own blind power.”

Free elections, however, meant numerically larger East Pakistan held political power—and in 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 160 seats in to Zulfikar’s 81. Zulfikar, however, refused to concede power, and pushed for a federal arrangement which would make him prime minister of West Pakistan. The General resisted, arguing that the argument used by Zulfikar would enable each province in the West to push for federal devolution, too.

Zulfikar, however, stoked the General’s fear of secession, using it to deny Mujib power. Even as violent protests in East Pakistan mounted, and war with India loomed, Zulfikar was made deputy prime minister, serving under the anti-Mujib leader Nurul Amin. For thirteen days, Zulfikar returned to a job under a military government—but this time, his tenure would end in the collapse of Pakistan itself.

Following the fall of Dhaka, Zulfikar again positioned himself as a messiah: “I am taller than the Himalayas,” he said in a speech, “Give me time.” The defeat by India was widely attributed to Yahya’s womanising and drinking. Zulfikar’s own less-than-edifying behaviours—among them, a highly-public affair with the Dhaka lawyer Husna Sheikh—went ignored. Lewd comments Zulfikar made to women—among them, according to Stanley Wolpert, Rita Dar, daughter of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit—remained unknown to the public.

The prime minister’s hubris—among them parading General Zia in front of foreign visitors, describing him as ‘my monkey’—had the inevitable outcome. As the economy began to splutter, Zulfikar was led to the gallows by his ‘monkey’.

Like his grandfather, Bilawal is betting on nationalism and the Generals to secure his next step up the political ladder. The strategy will, however, ensure the army continues to hold a grip over Pakistan’s political life.