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Bhutto, Zulfikar Alilocked

  • Shahid Javed Burki

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928–1979)

by unknown photographer, 1965

Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali (1928–1979), president and later prime minister of Pakistan, was born on 5 January 1928 at Larkana, a medium-sized town on the Indus River in Sind, then part of British India. His father, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto (1888–1957), was one of Sind's largest landlords, holding extensive property in the Larkana district. Although not a close political associate of Mohamed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, Sir Shahnawaz was a politician of considerable standing and sympathized with the Muslim League's demand that a separate country should be established for the Muslims of British India if the subcontinent became independent. Kurshid Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali's mother, was a Hindu of low social status who had converted to Islam and changed her name from Lakhi Bai before becoming Sir Shahnawaz's second wife. Social acceptance came slowly and grudgingly to her, a fact that troubled her son during his childhood and adolescence, and may have helped to mould his personality as well as his political views. As the only surviving son, Zulfikar Ali inherited most of the Larkana estate on his father's death in 1957. He also married twice: first at the age of twelve, to his cousin Sheerin Bhutto, who took the name Amir Begam. She was considerably his senior, and the marriage was one of convenience for the transfer of property. His second wife, whom he married on 8 September 1951, was Begam Nusrat, née Nusrat Ispahani (1929–2011), a woman of Iranian origin whom he met in Karachi. He and Nusrat had four children; three of them, Benazir (1953–2007), Mir Murtaza (1954–1996), and Shahnawaz (1958–1985), were to play an active role in Pakistan's politics. Their other child was a daughter, Sanam (b. 1957).

Education and early political career

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Zulfi to friends and family) was sent to Bombay for schooling, and then to the University of Southern California, the University of California, Berkeley, and Christ Church, Oxford, to study law. He returned to Karachi in 1953 and started legal practice at the Sind high court. Still virtually unknown, he was included in President Mirza's twelve-man cabinet following the coup of 7 October 1958. General Ayub Khan retained Bhutto as commerce minister when Mirza was shunted into exile in London less than three weeks later. But Bhutto's sights were set considerably higher. Immediately on joining the Ayub cabinet he began to prepare himself for the ministry of foreign affairs. However, it was while managing the petroleum portfolio that he began to reach out to the socialist world. He was convinced that Pakistan had large but undiscovered sources of oil and gas which the Western oil companies, holders of large ‘exploration concessions’, were not interested in exploiting. Accordingly, in 1961 he negotiated an oil exploration agreement with the Soviet Union which included Soviet provision of technical and financial assistance to Pakistan's Oil and Gas Development Corporation (OGDC). This was the first of several occasions when Ayub Khan, against his better judgement, succumbed to his young protégé's powers of persuasion. The OGDC did not produce any spectacular results, but that did not matter to Bhutto: the agreement with the Soviet Union had demonstrated that, even at a very young age, he had influence over President Ayub Khan that far exceeded that of the general's older colleagues.

Foreign minister

Bhutto's big opportunity came in 1963, with the sudden death of the foreign minister, Muhammad Ali Bogra. He persuaded Ayub Khan to reassign him to the foreign ministry, which was done with reluctance by the president. Once put in charge of Pakistan's external affairs, he began to reshape the country's foreign policy, moving away from the explicitly pro-Western orientation of Ayub Khan and M. A. Bogra towards a more neutral posture. Despite the openly expressed unhappiness of Lyndon B. Johnson's administration in the United States, Bhutto developed close ties with China. Pakistan and China negotiated a border agreement, established commercial airline operations between the two countries, and increased the flow of trade between them. The initial talks on a boundary agreement took place in October 1962, precisely when Chinese troops, attacking across India's disputed north-eastern border with China, routed their Indian opponents before voluntarily withdrawing two months later. China agreed to establish large military-industrial complexes near the city of Wah, which already supported a large arms and ammunition industry.

Under Bhutto's restless direction of foreign policy, Pakistan entered what were, for the country, the uncharted waters of non-alignment. In The Myth of Independence, a book published in 1969 after he left the Ayub Khan government, Bhutto provided the reasons for the change in course he had engineered while still in office. The book was a rejoinder to Ayub Khan's political biography Friends not Masters (1967). According to Bhutto, a relationship between Pakistan and a country of the size and influence of the United States could not be on the basis of equality: any attempt to make such friends would consign the small countries of the ‘third-world’ to subordination. The only way out for these nations was to work in unison and pursue their collective self-interest. It is ironic that it was against this theoretical backdrop that Bhutto persuaded Ayub Khan to launch operation Gibraltar, an ill-advised and poorly conceived armed penetration by the personnel of Pakistan's armed forces into the Indian state of Kashmir.

Kashmir, a princely state nestling in the mountains of the Himalayas, was sandwiched between Pakistan's eastern and China's western borders. India bordered it to the south. In 1947 the Hindu maharaja of the state, which had a vast Muslim majority in the population, decided to opt for India under partition. Pakistan refused to accept the state's accession to India, and fought a war with India over the issue in 1948. United Nations intervention produced a ceasefire and a possible referendum (to be supervised by the UN) of the Kashmiris over their membership of India or Pakistan was promised. But the referendum was not held, and Bhutto took advantage of Pakistani restiveness to incite Ayub Khan to provoke a war of liberation against the Indian occupation of the state. Operation Gibraltar sought to infiltrate Pakistani-trained and armed guerrillas into the parts of Kashmir under Indian occupation. This operation began in August 1965, and quickly escalated into a full-scale war between India and Pakistan. On 6 September India launched a massive air, armour, and infantry attack on the city of Lahore, and Pakistan responded in kind at several points along the long border between the two countries.

Bhutto's motives for this action remain unclear; if his wish was to weaken Ayub Khan, the operation against India achieved some success. But it took Bhutto half a dozen years to realize the full political benefits of Ayub Khan's failed Kashmir adventure. Ayub Khan quickly recognized the folly of his actions. On 23 September, barely seventeen days after the war had begun, he announced a ceasefire agreement with India, which he negotiated with the help of the United Nations. Four months later, along with Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri of India, Ayub went to the Soviet city of Tashkent and negotiated what he believed would be a more durable peace agreement between the two countries. Bhutto accompanied him to Tashkent, but appears not to have endorsed the substance of the agreement. A few months after their return to Pakistan, Ayub and Bhutto finally parted company, Ayub making much in public debate of Bhutto's opposition to the Tashkent declaration. The people of Pakistan listened with interest. Here was an issue that exposed the Ayub regime at its most vulnerable point: its inability to use what was widely believed to be the country's military superiority over India to settle once and for all the dispute over Kashmir. Ayub Khan, therefore, not only guaranteed Bhutto's national political career by appointing him to his martial-law cabinet in 1958; he also provided Bhutto with an exceptionally potent political issue to pursue after expelling him from the cabinet in 1966.

The Pakistan People's Party

In 1967, a year after leaving the government, and after weighing the offers from several opposition parties, Bhutto decided to form his own political organization, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). In doing so, he was not being particularly innovative. He was following what had become an established tradition in the politics of opposition in Pakistan: to form a party of one's own rather than play second fiddle in someone else's political organization. The PPP's foundation papers reflected Bhutto's genius for timing. The party's programme represented an amalgam of intense nationalism (born out of Bhutto's campaign against the Tashkent declaration), socialism (reflecting the belief of several of his new political associates that the people were smarting under the unequal distribution of incomes caused by a sharp increase in national income during the Ayub period), and Islamic revival (representing Bhutto's view that the secularism of the Ayub period had not been popular with the majority of the population). The PPP initially drew its support from students, lawyers, and trade unionists, and its populist programme proved to be a heady electoral brew. The PPP won eighty-one of the 138 seats allocated to West Pakistan under Yahya Khan's legal framework order of 30 March 1970 (which had abandoned the principle of parity of seats between East and West Pakistan in the national assembly). The PPP was by far the largest political group representing West Pakistan in the national legislature. This set the stage for Bhutto's return to power, but before that happened Pakistan went through the wrenching experience of a civil war.

Only time and access to more sources will explain Bhutto's intransigence following the electoral victory of 1970. He refused to participate in the discussions that should have begun in the national assembly immediately after the elections to frame another constitution. He may have intended to provoke East Pakistan and force it out of the Pakistani union; he may have feared that any compromise on Pakistan's unity would endanger his position in the western wing. The fact remains that the position taken by Bhutto led to a confrontation between the military and the political leadership of East Pakistan. The civil war lasted for nine months. It ended with the surrender in Dacca of the Pakistani troops to the Indian forces and the Bengali guerrilla force the Mukhti Bahini, which had been forged after the brutal military crackdown in West Pakistan of March 1971. Defeat led in December 1971 to the resignation of President Yahya Khan and the appointment of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Bhutto as president

In so far as the conduct of domestic economic policies is concerned, the Bhutto era (December 1971 to July 1977) can be divided into two periods, before and after 1974. In the first, the Bhutto government pursued a socialist programme, capturing for the government all the commanding heights of the economy. Thirty-one large-scale industries, private banks, and insurance companies were nationalized in the early part of 1972, and a number of state enterprises were established to look after these sectors of the economy. External trade in rice and cotton, Pakistan's two principal export earners, was also brought under government control, as were all private colleges and schools. This programme was carried out by Dr Mubashir Hasan, Bhutto's finance minister, and J. A. Rahim, a close Bhutto associate from the time Bhutto had served as Ayub Khan's foreign minister. Both Mubashir Hasan and Rahim were avowed Marxists. However, they left the government in 1974, and Bhutto took command of the economy. The result was a total loss of orientation and a whimsical decision making that caused Pakistan to live quite beyond its internal and external means.

In foreign affairs Bhutto proved to be a much more imaginative and flexible manager. He negotiated the Simla agreement with Indira Gandhi in 1972, hosted the second meeting of the Organization of Islamic States at Lahore in 1974, recognized Bangladesh as an independent state also in 1974, and made some tangible advances in healing Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan. In keeping with the approach he had advocated during Ayub Khan's government, he realigned Pakistan's foreign relations away from a close dependence on the United States.

The record on domestic political management was mixed. Having been sworn in in December 1971 not only as president but also as chief martial-law administrator (despite being a civilian), Bhutto decided to keep operating under the protection of the military. In March 1972 he consolidated his control over the military by putting the army and air force under the charge of officers he trusted. At the same time he used his authority as the chief martial law administrator to introduce an interim constitution for Pakistan. The interim constitution gave him enormous authority. After allowing the formation of non-PPP governments in the smaller provinces of the North-Western Frontier and Baluchistan, he dismissed both a few months later on a charge of their alleged involvement with Afghanistan, which was accused of fomenting rebellion. The National Awami Party (NAP), the main party of the opposition and one of the two that had formed the government in Baluchistan and the North-Western Frontier Province, was banned. These were all surprising moves on the part of a politician who had campaigned so vigorously to restore democracy in the country.

In 1973 Bhutto, with his political skills once again on display, persuaded and cajoled the opposition into accepting a new constitutional arrangement for Pakistan. The constitution was passed by the national assembly and became effective on 14 August 1973, which was Pakistan's twenty-sixth anniversary. Bhutto stepped down from the presidency and became prime minister. Pakistan seemed finally to be set on a democratic course. However, Bhutto kept up an unrelenting pressure on the opposition—using all the state apparatus at his disposal, including the federal security force, to browbeat the opposition into submission even on its minor differences with the government. He seemed to be working towards the establishment of a one-party state in Pakistan. When in January 1977 he suddenly called national elections—the first to be held under the new constitution—he expected to catch the opposition unprepared. The opposition surprised him by preparing itself quickly: the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) was born and a disparate set of parties agreed to compete with the PPP under a single political umbrella. In the days leading up to the elections the PNA began to draw large crowds to its rallies and these may have pushed Bhutto to summon help from the bureaucracy to ensure a respectable victory for the PPP. The elections were held on 7 March, and when the results were announced the opposition was very surprised by the massive and unexpected victory recorded by the PPP. The PNA responded with the only tactic the opposition in Pakistan had ever been able to use with some success against established governments: it called out its supporters in mass protests against what it saw as the 'great electoral fraud'.

Deposition and execution

Skirmishes between the followers of the PNA and government security forces turned exceptionally bloody in May and June. Bhutto called in the army to restore law and order in the major cities, which it did, but it exacted a price by proclaiming Pakistan's third martial-law regime. Bhutto was deposed by the military. In the conflict that followed between him and his party on the one hand and General Zia ul Haq and the military on the other, Bhutto was the eventual loser. A series of court cases were brought against him, including one for the murder of a political opponent. He was sentenced to death by the Lahore high court in March 1978, and his appeal was rejected by the supreme court in February 1979 in a split decision. Two months later, on 4 April 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in Rawalpindi's central gaol, and his body was flown in an army aeroplane for burial in the family graveyard at Larkana. Thus ended a remarkable political career; but his death did not end for a while what came to be known as ‘Bhuttoism’ or the ‘Bhutto factor’ in Pakistani politics. General Zia ul Haq died in a plane crash in 1988, which once again opened up the country's political system, and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a long-serving bureaucrat-turned-politician, became acting president. He went on to hold general elections in November 1988. The electoral triumph on that occasion of the PPP—under the combined leadership of Bhutto's widow, Begam Nusrat, and his eldest child, Benazir Bhutto—showed that Bhuttoism survived its founder. Benazir Bhutto became prime minister for the first time on 2 December 1988.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto remained a highly contentious figure long after his death. Admirers pointed to his populist concern for the poor and his foreign policy successes. Detractors emphasized his authoritarianism, his economic failure, and his responsibility for the division of Pakistan. Within the PPP there was division between the left and those who accepted that the domestic and international constraints of the 1990s dictated the more pragmatic policies espoused during Benazir Bhutto's two governments. Even within the Bhutto family Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's mantle was contested between Benazir and her younger brother Mir Murtaza, who died in a police encounter in Karachi on 20 September 1996. Benazir was assassinated in Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007. She was succeeded as leader of the PPP by her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (b. 1988), then a student at Oxford.


  • S. J. Burki, Pakistan under Bhutto, 1971–1977 (1988)
  • B. Bhutto, Daughter of the east: an autobiography (1988)
  • S. Wolpert, Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: his life and times (1993)



  • BFINA, documentary footage


J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)