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April 13, 2019

When history becomes judge


April 13, 2019

My two-part series last week, ‘Remembering Bhutto the writer’, drew tremendous response from readers. As expected, Bhutto’s followers loved it and his detractors found it to be lacking in objectivity. Some who can neither be termed Bhutto-lovers nor detractors also found the articles to be informative and interesting.

For example, senior journalist Mazhar Abbas wrote to me saying it was “an excellent and different piece” as it looked at Bhutto “as an intellectual and visionary”. Another reader, Anwar Jamal, considered it “really good and enlightening”. But perhaps the most interesting email came from Major (r) Shamshad Ali.

He wrote as follows: “The two articles are one side of the picture. I am 80 and have seen Pakistan making and breaking. Your knowledge is based on research with obvious shortcomings. My opinion is based on observation of events through which I passed day by day. Sir Morris James, [the] British high commissioner at that time, sent an assessment of Bhutto’s personality to his government in [the] following words.

Bhutto certainly had the right qualities for reaching the heights – drive, charm, and imagination, a quick penetrating mind, zest for life, eloquence, energy, a strong constitution, a sense of humour. A thick skin. But there was – how shall [I] put it – a rank odour of hellfire about him.… He was a Lucifer, a flawed angle [sic]. I believe at heart he lacked sense of dignity and value of other people, his own self was what counted.

‘I sensed in him a ruthlessness and a capacity for ill doing which went for [sic] beyond what is natural ….lacking humility ; he thus came to believe himself as infallible , even when yawning gaps in his experiences with the military laid him – as in the 1965 war – wide open to disastrous error. Despite his gifts, I judged that on[e] day [he] would destroy himself. In 1965, so I reported in one of my last dispatches from Pakistan, by way of clinching the point, that Bhutto is born to be hanged.’

“This opinion is of a neutral high class diplomat and therefore credible.”

Let me respond to some of the points raised here. First, I respect Major (r) Shamshad Ali’s opinion as he is a senior citizen and has seen the thick and thin of life and has gone through the vicissitudes this country has endured. Second, he is entitled to his opinion and I love it when my readers make an argument. I agree that my columns on Bhutto presented one side of the argument. As the title suggested, Bhutto was analyzed in light of his own writings; and of course he presented his own version of events and personalities.

Since Shamshad Ali is 80 and has ‘seen Pakistan making and breaking’, his observations must be based on his direct experiences and observations. I was still at school when Bhutto was hanged, so my knowledge is surely ‘based on research with obvious shortcomings’. But I also enjoy another vast source of knowledge – my father who is 88 years old and has been a left-wing and progressive activist and observer. As we know, the left and progressive politics was almost crushed by Z A Bhutto in Pakistan, so many left-wingers have almost the same opinion of Bhutto as quoted above by Shamshad Ali.

But my father supported Bhutto when most left-wing parties and politicians sided with the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) which was following an obscurantist and rightist agenda. Led by religious and sectarian leaders such as Maulana Maudoodi, Maulana Noorani, Maulana Hazarvi, Maulana Durkhasti, Maulana Niazi, Maulana Mufti Mahmood, and many others, the PNA became a hotchpotch of many narrow-minded and prejudiced outfits. It became clear to keen observers that the real agenda of the PNA was not only the removal of Bhutto but also to lead Pakistan into a blind alley, as the PTI did four decades later.

Knowledge based on research does have obvious shortcomings, but opinions based on observations also have their own pitfalls. Sometimes we make an error of judgment by considering our personal experiences and observations as universal truths. Our personal experiences matter, but in historical and political analyses we must take a much broader picture than our personal experiences and observations. For example, many people who have met or worked with General Ziaul Haq, say that he always came out as a most humble and caring individual in his personal capacity.

General Zia was polite to visitors, spoke in a subdued manner, didn’t look women in their eyes and talked to them with his own gaze cast down. He used to see off his visitors at the gate and sometimes even opened the door for them. Hitler loved children and even tried his hand at painting. Modi himself didn’t kill anybody in Gujarat. Bush was a jolly good fellow and those who met him say he always had a smiling face. One of our politicians also has a perpetual grin on his face.

But while analyzing Bhutto, Bush, Hitler, Modi, Zardari, Zia, or any other leader we must be able to see beyond our personal experiences with, and observations of, them. Ultimately in historical and political analysis, a much broader view is a must to place events, ideas, and personalities in perspective. Foreign diplomats are seldom neutral; they have their own axe to grind. We especially need to take any observations from American and British diplomats not with a pinch of salt but perhaps with a spoonful. These diplomats in most cased have sided with the worst dictators in the world.

Till the mid-1930s, Hitler was a favourite of American and British diplomats in Berlin as he was being nurtured as a counterweight to Stalin. Pinochet was a darling to American and British diplomats during most of his 17-year tyranny in Chile. From generals Ayub and Yahya to generals Ziaul Haq and Musharraf, all were eulogized one time or another; invited to speak at the highest forums in Washington DC and London. America and Britain were the ones who abhorred Bhutto for his Muslim and nationalistic rhetoric. So if a British high commissioner calls Z A Bhutto ‘a Lucifer’ I have no respect left for the high commissioner himself.

All leaders had many faults as highlighted above, but in the end we need to see what they stood for in the twilight of their lives. Jinnah was a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity in his early career, but he is remembered for promoting the Two-Nation Theory and the creation of Pakistan. Khawaja Nazimuddin and H S Suhrawardy were great leaders but they are remembered for how humiliatingly they were removed and treated. Fatima Jinnah was not a great democratic leader most of her life, but she is respected for standing up to a dictator.

General Yahya Khan may have been a great commander and soldier, but he is remembered for how he lost East Pakistan. Bhutto may have erred on many counts, but his ultimate humiliation at the hands of General Ziaul Haq is etched in the memory of the public. Bhutto’s last stand as a civilian leader and his last two years in prison are enough to wash away all his sins. The same applies to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. They have stood for civilian supremacy and the democratic rights of the people, and history will judge them on the basis of their last stand and not on their earlier errors, or on the basis of somebody’s personal experiences or observations. I rest my case.

The writer holds a PhD from theUniversity of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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