Summoning up the ghosts of Pakistani politics

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There was one grave and two candidates. It was either Bhutto or Gen Zia and since Gen Zia had the whip hand he got rid of Bhutto before Bhutto could get him.’ (Tariq Ali).The recent events of Benazir’s assassination in December 2007 have interwoven the current political situation in Pakistan with the historical event of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s execution; a contemporary drama replete with its sense of betrayal, broken promises, and the spectre of the US hanging over the country’s political fortunes.
For most Pakistanis the political dilemma of Bhutto’s execution remains a tragic episode in Pakistan’s history. But why does this story still haunt and capture the imaginations of the Pakistani people? Bhutto possessed a wealth of power and, more importantly, streams of support from the masses. At his political heights in 1971-72 he had the establishment in the palm of his hand. He could have reduced the army, carried out land-reform, educational reform – whatever he wanted. But despite his many successes while in office, from founding Pakistan’s Nuclear Programme to initiating the Islamic Summit of Muslim Nations, Bhutto did not fulfil all his promises. Yet the human connection that Bhutto enjoyed with the electorate ensured his place as a touchstone of Pakistani politics.
In September 1985 the BBC commissioned the writer Tariq Ali to make a three-part TV series on the circumstances leading to the overthrow, trial and execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, President (1971-73) and Prime Minister (1973-77) of Pakistan, betrayed by his closest confidante the Army Chief General Zia ul Haq, who then imprisoned and executed Bhutto in 1979, installing himself as the President with the blessings of the USA. By January 1986 the script was completed, and discussions for casting the principals were underway. It was agreed that Zia Mohyedin would play the General and that the Indian actor Naseerudin Shah would be approached to play Bhutto.
Other approaches to stars were still being discussed when all proceedings were halted. Just as rehearsals were about to begin, the BBC hierarchy – under pressure from the Foreign Office – decided to cancel the project. Why? Firstly, because this play was written at a politically sensitive time when General Zia ul Haq, the President of Pakistan at the time, was being pressured by the USA to arm and train mujahideens leading the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
According to expert legal opinion, there was a possibility of a whole range of defamation suits from Pakistan’s Head of State to judges involved in the case, who were all alive at the time. Secondly, due to the controversial nature of the screenplay, which implicated the CIA in the plot to overthrow Bhutto, the BBC came under legal pressure to censor the play. When asked by a BBC official whether he would eliminate all mention of the USA from the scripts, Ali was adamant that he would not alter the scripts, and rejected any form of censorship.
Now, after more than two decades, Ali has published the play in book form, entitled The Leopard and the Fox: A Pakistani Tragedy. It presents both the script, and the story of censorship. The book reveals how Gen Zia, with the support of the USA, played a dangerous game with the destiny of Pakistan. In snap shots we learn not only of his plans to betray Bhutto but also of the realisation of his brand of Islamisation, which turned out to be a nightmare for the majority – hanging, lynching and stoning – designed to create fear, and deter them from expressing their support for Bhutto at the time of his execution.
When asked by a TV reporter, ‘who is the Leopard and who is the Fox?’ Ali replied tactfully, ‘Without any doubt, the leopard is Bhutto who was brave, bold and courageous. As for the fox, one of his characteristics is that he is smart and cunning, which Zia turned out to be.’
by Sundas Ali

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