It was the early part of the morning of April 4th 1979. Rawalpindi District Jail was wrapped in the deep darkness of the night. It was very quiet outside, but inside the jail quarters there was an unusual frenzy. The jail officials were assigned a duty to carry out that morning, a duty that never felt alien to them before. A black-warranted prisoner was needed to be taken to the gallows. Normally, it was a routine matter for them, as they had done that job thousands of times before. Generally only the local jail administration would get involved in that matter. But the prisoner of that fateful night was a person of interest for not only the jail administration but for all the power hierarchy leading to the highest executive office of the country. There was impatience in the air. On a normal day a death sentence prisoner used to be executed at 4am. But there was nervousness, not on the part of the prisoner, who was in his deep sleep at that moment, rather for those who were free and decided to kill him. And then those in power lost the battle of nerves and decided to carry out the sentence shortly before the scheduled time. Obviously that prisoner was no ordinary prisoner; he was the first publicly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. On that night the public will was going to be executed. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was going to be hanged.

Bhutto, was a true leader of the masses, an intelligent and popular leader who ushered Pakistani public to understand their status and rights. He was the one who drew big dreams in their small eyes. The dreams to make the otherwise small to mid-sized Third World country into a state to be reckoned with. He took over literally a war torn and decapitated country that was amputated owing part to the Bengali nationalism and part to the gigantic Eastern Neighbor’s animosity. The time he sat in the rickety power saddle, those were the darkest days of that 24 years old and already broken, young nation. Almost 90 thousand soldiers were in India as prisoners of war, a lot of territory was also under Indian occupation and to top it off, the entire nation was under despair and remorse. The economic activity and international trade deals were in confused state owing to the loss of East Pakistan. But as a Chinese saying goes, “the journey of thousand miles begins with the first step”, Bhutto started taking those baby steps. These were no ordinary circumstances, but he took over and started fixing things one by one. In a short period of two years except East Pakistan, Bhutto got everything back that belonged to this nation from its archrival India. And not only this, he taught the nation how to look into the eyes of otherwise formidable foe.

To prove further his commitment to the nation, despite the threats from the West, he decided not to give in to the psychological advantage that India achieved by the Pokhran detonation of its first nuclear device in 1974. Being a staunch nationalist, instead of getting into paranoia, he decided to use the same currency to fix that imbalance of power in the region. He kick started Pakistani nuclear program in the most clandestine way possible. But as with these developments, gossiping happens and news does get leaked. All hell broke loose on this, but when it was the national survival at stake, Bhutto was a hard nut to crack. Some say it was a fatal decision for his own self  that eventually culminated with his swing at gallows. You cannot afford such powerful enemies, but those were the choices a genuine leader needed to make. It is no easy path to follow and certainly not meant for a fainthearted to begin with.

Obviously, Bhutto wasn’t above criticism for some of his actions, especially the process of nationalization whereby the state of Pakistan took over the private enterprises. This hurt the interests of very the rich elite of the country who prior to that had monopoly over the business and had established huge business empires for themselves. These business concerns and their glow would obviously reflect good on the economic indicators of that day Pakistan. But it was a sample of a cut-throat capitalism and much perceived trickledown effect didn’t actually trickle down to the poverty ridden public. The economic disparity was huge and only two classes would exist in Pakistan of those days: mega-rich and extremely poor. Nobody had heard of any middle-class phenomenon till then. Bhutto was a socialist and he made no secret of this fact. It was part of his party’s manifesto and it was just natural to go that way. But it irked many in the process and thus Bhutto made very powerful enemies who kept on haunting him throughout the rest of his severely cut short life.

Public only came to know of their rights under the leadership of Mr Bhutto. But only being aware of rights wasn’t enough to cut their poverty drill. There was more needed to be done. So to address this, it was Bhutto who had the guts to woo the newly oil rich sheikdoms and bring them under his garb. Such was his persona and the spell he cast on Arab countries that soon he became a de facto leader of that part of the world. And it was under that spell that he could convince Arab kingdoms to provide employment to the poor of the poor of Pakistan. Overnight, hundreds of thousands Pakistani laborers and skilled professional were borrowing loans from their relatives to perform Umrah. That Umrah was not due on them, but hidden-in there was the promise that once they reach there, they would settle down there for good. Once these people started making money, it improved their livelihood in Pakistan and abroad. A middle class was in the making. It was another matter that the same people, when got bellyful, their gullible minds started finding faults with the lifestyle of their benefactor and leader. And much of them were vocal participants against him during the PNA rallies of 1977.

Prior to nationalization, getting higher education was the domain of only well-to-do and urban classes. For the 80 percent ordinary folks living in far flung rural areas, their best career shot was to get a matriculation certificate and become a clerk. The esteemed educational institutions that were once a far cry from ordinary people, then became reachable and we saw a huge number of graduates from the families who considered that acquiring primary or elementary education was their destiny. Even for those living in big urban centers, Mr Bhutto’s policies provided them free of cost transportation to go to the institution of their choice.

Bhutto is also widely criticized for introducing quota system in the public sector jobs and elsewhere. No doubt, open merit system should be the only choice. But no one considered it prior to Bhutto that 80 percent of federal bureaucracy was getting inducted from only one city – Karachi. And no one gave a serious thought to make it more inclusive by enabling the underdeveloped areas of the rest of the country to cross that threshold. It was a hard decision through which Bhutto lost the vote bank from Karachi forever. But whether it a right thing to do, could be debatable. It might have brought degradation to the standard of bureaucracy; but if that was such a bad decision, why has it never been rolled back in the previous almost 40 years, the post-Bhutto era? Before the quota system, didn’t we create a new ruling class in the form of ever-green bureaucracy that comprised only of one group of population? That quota system also allowed students from far flung areas, who could once only dream of getting into professional colleges and universities, to actually start graduating from there. No matter how much we criticize it, this quota system is here for good and it demonstrates the vision of a leader.

When, his now comparatively fading political legacy, PPP’s leaders chant ‘Bhutto zinda hai!’ (Bhutto is alive), they are actually not very far from reality.  To name a few of many, just look at the China-centric foreign policy of Pakistan, Bhutto was its architect – or billions of dollars of annual remittances that still flow from Persian Gulf states – or the matter of Pakistan’s first unanimous 1973 Constitution – or calling February 5th as Kashmir Day – or holding military parade on 23rd of March – or, maybe not that envious, but nonetheless present, the Afghan Policy – we find Bhutto’s signatures everywhere. He is very much alive in the street slogans and in his common day quotes, like ‘we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we’ll get one of our own nuclear weapons, we have no other choice’ – or ‘If things don’t change, there would be nothing left to change, either power must pass to the people or everything would perish’.

And we hanged this brilliant mind on that fateful morning of April 4th, 1979. The body of that leader of millions, was hurriedly flown to his ancestral town of Garhi Khuda Baksh where he was buried by less than a dozen his village mates. Yes, big dreams cost him his life and it was a fact he was very much aware of. In his book, If I Am Assassinated Bhutto said, ‘If I am assassinated Himalayas would weep on my murder’, and once again he wasn’t far from reality. Every suicide bomber that detonates today and leaves behind crying families cry from Hunza to Chitral to FATA, across Pakistan and in Afghanistan, it is the Himalayas who are crying till this day. What else? We lost a gem of a statesman!

Tailpiece: Many years later when Col Rafi, the then jail superintendent and a witness of his last moments, sought permission from Gen Zia to write a book about Bhutto. The General in a snarly mocking tone said, “Colonel, you want to write a book about him, while his family has forgotten him too?” Only a few months after this conversation Bhutto’s daughter Benazir got back from exile and the entire Lahore city was there to receive her. Zia was wrong on all accounts. The political ideologies that are conceived on dusty roads, and in open grounds, don’t die so easily!