Syeda Hameed, Born to Be Hanged:
Political Biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
(New Delhi: Rupa, 2017), 270 Pages, INR 500.
Born to be hanged—an old English grandmother’s complaint about the rascal of the family. In Syeda Hameed’s book, the title is of course a two-edged sword. The whole world knows about the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and at that point of time it struck a blow at the power structure of Pakistani politics, sending the People’s Party of Pakistan reeling and along the way sowing the seeds for the assassinations of his son and daughter. Not that Hameed was responsible for the title—her source was Sir Maurice James’ Pakistan Chronicles. James was the high commissioner of Britain in Islamabad during the war in 1965 and earned Bhutto’s wrath for various things that he went public with.
Bhutto held the reins of power in Pakistan between 1971 and 1979. He was then overthrown by General Zia-ul-Haq, the man whom he made the chief of army staff. Bhutto’s rise to power was hardly smooth, but, given the nature of politics in Pakistan, that was unsurprising. What is surprising of course is the fact that this book is written by an Indian and a woman at that—no Pakistani has yet written a biography of an Indian political figure.
Syeda Hameed spent twenty years researching her subject—she confessed that her life was filled by a man she had never met. In her ‘political biography’ she transforms him into a figure from Greek tragedy, a larger than life figure doomed by his hubris to that final lonely death, a common criminal’s hanging. Star-crossed, if you like, a man who combined intense charm with intense callousness, was a caring husband and father but who only cared for his own personal gain regardless of the consequences even to those close to him. At one level, being a student of English literature, she was fascinated by the Sophoclean element, at another she found the debonair man who enthralled mobs with his eloquence enthralling.
His mother, as not many know, was a legendary Hindu courtesan which earned him contempt from many fellow feudals. It was something that ZAB, as Hameed calls him, could not get over and to that could possibly be ascribed his hatred of Hindus.
Despite herself, Hameed cannot help but admire Bhutto. She praises his rant against the monster India at the United Nations, while being intensely aware that Bhutto triggered the 1965 War with his machinations—it was brave for someone coming from a country as insignificant as Pakistan, though the man who ranted had behind him the advantages of pedigree and an international education. While Hameed talks of the events behind the Bangladesh War, she glosses over his responsibility for unleashing the brutality of the army on East Pakistan and refused to accept the fact of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s and his party’s securing a majority in the elections. This could possibly be because Hameed is moved by the charisma of someone whom she ranks with Agamemnon and the other tragic Greeks, or it could be a reflection of that charm which Bhutto could turn on so easily. There is no gainsaying the fact that Bhutto worked to establish a socialist Pakistan that he hoped would be a modern country. But he was also the one who started paying off religious parties to support him when the mobs grew disillusioned and the twenty-two powerful families of Pakistan began creeping back along with the mullahs after a year-and-a-half of ZAB’s rule.
Hameed, however, does devote a chapter to the torture that Bhutto was capable of inflicting on those who went against him, no matter whether they were close to him or not. His police had instructions to use any form of Guantanamo Bay tactic that they pleased. The fallout of this was the fact that there were no real protests when Bhutto was hanged—by then those who made him a hero had seen through him. But his once faithful servant, General Zia, took extra care to destroy the execution site so that it could not be used as a gathering point for revolt, though that did not prevent nemesis striking the general in the shape of an exploding plane. Hameed describes the hanging simply and dramatically: the hangman’s calloused hands on the rope, the man in canvas shoes waiting unflinchingly, lit by a single yellow bulb.
The author’s research of the man she never met is impeccable: she delved into archives of letters in Lahore, spent time in Bhutto’s library and spoke to as many of Bhutto’s associates as she could reach during her trips to Pakistan. Her text includes several rare photographs. As testimony to her hard work, the book is dedicated to Bhutto’s oldest living associate who co-founded the Pakistan People’s Party with him.
In the end, this political biography proves that sometimes the gods are not mocked and that Greek tragedies, harsh as they were, had a point.
Anjana Basu is the author of six novels. She has had a book of short stories published by Orient Longman; the BBC has broadcast one of her short stories, and her poems have featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. She has appeared in The Antigonish Review. The Edinburgh Review and The Saltzburg Review have also featured her work. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses in Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007.