Mujib, Bhutto . . . and lost times
A visit to the Foreign Affairs Training Academy, once President's House in the Pakistani era and then Ganobhavan in the first two years of Bangabandhu's government, is occasion for a rekindling of memories. On the sprawling lawn, away from the public eye, is the spot where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto conversed briefly, before going back into the building, on March 22, 1971. As a political crisis gathered in intensity all across Pakistan, the Awami League leader told the People's Party chairman that they needed to come to a settlement. If they did not, he warned, 'the army will destroy me first and then it will destroy you.' Bhutto responded in his usual theatrical fashion, 'I would rather be destroyed by the military than by history.'
The irony, as you recall the careers of these two men, is that their lives were put to an end by the military. Soldiers of the Bangladesh army went on a rampage and killed Bangabandhu and most of his family. The Pakistan army, having been instrumental in raising Bhutto to the heights, eventually sent him to the gallows. As for history, it does not appear to have helped Bhutto any, considering the fact that in his final years he was quite happy to go against the natural flow of history.
Yet one more anniversary of Bhutto's execution on April 4, 1979 by the Ziaul Haq junta was observed last week. All these years after his death and Bangabandhu's assassination, the time seems right to inquire into the ways in which the two men related to each other in life. There is no record of Mujib and Bhutto interacting with each other before the proceedings of the Agartala conspiracy case got underway in Dhaka in June 1968. Bhutto, by then out of the Ayub Khan cabinet and chairman of the newly formed Pakistan People's Party (the PPP came into being in November 1967), travelled to Dhaka and offered his services as a defence lawyer for Mujib. Again, there is nothing in the files to suggest that he presented his arguments in court. Clearly, that episode in Bhutto's interaction with Bangabandhu was brief and without drama.
In 1968, Bhutto was a rising political figure in West Pakistan and considered by many to be the future leader of the country. He had already made known his objective of challenging Ayub Khan, once his benefactor, for the presidency at the 1970 election. That election would, had circumstances not changed so dramatically by early 1969, have been conducted under Ayub's Basic Democracy system. If in 1968 Bhutto was virulently anti-Ayub, in early 1966 he was fiercely opposed to the just-announced Six Point programme of regional autonomy by the Awami League. With alacrity he challenged Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to a public debate over the Six Points at Dhaka's Paltan Maidan. It was for Tajuddin Ahmed to accept the challenge on behalf of his party leader. In the event, Bhutto did not turn up. By July 1966, he had been forced out of the cabinet by President Ayub Khan.
Mujib was placed under a fresh spell of detention, this time under rigorous conditions, in Dhaka cantonment in May 1966. In West Pakistan, unable to contain the Bhutto wave sweeping among the young and elements opposed to the regime, Ayub had his former protégé arrested in November 1968. Bhutto was freed in mid-February 1969. A few days later, on February 22, the Agartala case was withdrawn and Mujib was released to a hero's welcome from Bengalis. The next day, Mujib and Bhutto found themselves on the same flight from Dhaka to Lahore (from where the Bengali leader would go on to Rawalpindi for the round table conference Ayub had called and which Bhutto, with Bhashani, was boycotting). Mujib alighted from the plane first and only after he had driven away from the airport did Bhutto emerge from the aircraft. Both men, despite their differences, were now allies of a kind in the movement to remove Ayub Khan from power.
The Awami League president and the People's Party chairman had no interaction in the year-long course of the election campaign in 1970. Mujib made no reference to Bhutto at his public rallies. For his part, Bhutto said nothing about the Six Points but only focused on his own programme of Islam, democracy and socialism. Not until late January 1971 would the two leaders meet again. The public perception, for all the right reasons, was that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be Pakistan's prime minister, with Bhutto serving as leader of the opposition. That was natural. The Awami League commanded 167 seats in the new national assembly. The People's Party had won 88 seats.
Bhutto, headed a strong PPP team to Dhaka from January 27 to 29, 1971. It was clear he was not willing to play the role of leader of the opposition in the national assembly. He wanted a modification of the Awami League's Six Points; and he proposed that he and Mujib forge a grand coalition, on the pattern of West Germany's coalition government formed by Kurt Georg Kiesinger of the Christian Democratic Union and Willy Brandt's Social Democrats, and govern Pakistan. Bangabandhu and the rest of the Awami League leadership disagreed.
In the evening on March 26, 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in military custody at Dhaka's Adamjee College. Bhutto, arriving back in Karachi from Dhaka, crowed: “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved.”
Not until December 27, 1971, when Mujib had been transferred from solitary confinement in Mianwali jail to a rest house outside Islamabad, would the two men meet again. By then Pakistan's president, Bhutto went to every possible length to persuade Mujib, now catapulted to the position of Bangladesh's founding father, to keep some links with Pakistan. Bangabandhu was non-committal. As dusk fell on January 8, 1972, Bhutto bade Mujib goodbye at Chaklala airport. As the aircraft took off, carrying Bangladesh's leader to freedom, Pakistan's new president mused before newsmen: “The nightingale has flown.”
The two rivals were to meet twice more. In February 1974, once Pakistan had officially recognised Bangladesh as an independent state, Bangabandhu travelled to Lahore for the Islamic summit Bhutto had organised. In June that year, Bhutto led an eighty-member delegation to Dhaka to discuss such outstanding issues as a sharing of assets and liabilities of pre-1971 Pakistan and the repatriation of Biharis to Pakistan. The talks yielded nothing. A grim Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said goodbye to an equally grim Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at Tejgaon airport.
They would never meet again. At age fifty five, Bangabandhu would be done to death. At age fifty one, Bhutto would mount the gallows. They died almost five years apart.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.