Book review 'Born to be Hanged': Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by the book

Born to be Hanged
Political biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Syeda Hameed
264 pages, Rs 500

Writing a political biography of a high-profile and controversial politician who was hanged to death nearly four decades ago is a challenging task. The job becomes much tougher when the writer is Indian and the subject is Pakistan’s former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the complex and contradictory politician, master orator, hero to some and villain to others. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it took author Syeda Hameed 20 years to pen this profile.



Bhutto’s letter to Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah at the age of 15 provides an insight into the thought process of a leader in the making. “Musalmans should realise that Hindu can never and will never unite with us, they are the deadliest enemies of your Quran and prophet,” he wrote on April 26, 1943, offering to sacrifice his life for Pakistan at the opportune time.


Ms Hameed writes that Bhutto read Marx before moving to the University of California at Berkeley for his undergraduate studies and this changed his attitude towards feudalism and pushed him towards socialism. Later he became the youngest minister at the age of 30 in Ayub Khan’s cabinet.


Ms Hameed’s primary source of information about Bhutto’s political career appears to be 96-year-old Mubashir Hasan, who co-founded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and remained a close aide of Bhutto till the latter’s death. Mr Hasan barely reveals any secret or inside information about his former colleague. The book also lacks voices from opponents and critics, possibly because most are dead, making it unfit to be called a true political biography.


The first half of the book mostly focuses on Bhutto’s impassioned speeches at the United Nations, especially after the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars. “We will wage a war for a thousand years, a war of defence,” he said. It was speeches like this that made him popular in Pakistan.


Bhutto’s opposition to the Tashkent agreement signed between then Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and then Pakistan president Ayub Khan is well known and it finds a mention in the book. Ms Hameed, however, fails to capture the working relations between Ayub Khan and Bhutto, who broke away to form the PPP. The writer also does not go into the issue of Bhutto’s political stand on the atrocities in


East Pakistan and the circumstances that led to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.


Ms Hameed calls Bhutto an “astute negotiator” and pronounced the Simla agreement of 1972 between Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and Bhutto as “a great victory” for Pakistan. “India agreed to withdraw its troops and return Pakistani prisoners. No vital concession was made for the return of territory,” she writes. India had taken hostage around 93,000 Pakistani soldiers and captured 5,000 square miles of West Pakistan during the 1971 war.


In the second half of the book, Ms Hameed tries to highlight Bhutto’s governance record. She says Bhutto was unhappy and “frustrated” because of the prevailing “inefficiency and ineptness”. Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agencies were said to be feeding Bhutto with information against his ministers and party workers, revelations of which caused some senior members to leave the government.


She, however, gives Bhutto credit for organising the second successful Islamic Summit in Lahore. Thirty-eight kings, amirs, presidents, and prime ministers from 24 out of 30 Islamic countries had attended. Ms Hameed’s book would have become engaging had she tried to examine some of Bhutto’s public policies designed for the people of Pakistan. There is no mention of allegations that he faced as an administrator. He was accused of muzzling the freedom of press, bending the rules on paying import duties, and incest.


In the end, Ms Hameed writes in detail about the “judicial murder” of Bhutto at the behest of his army chief General Zia-ul-Haq, covering familiar ground. The book would have benefitted greatly had the writer added one more chapter describing how Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was taking forward the PPP legacy and his grandfather’s philosophy — or not.