Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and became the country’s first elected Prime Minister. Despite his socialist credo of ‘food, clothing and shelter’ which he used in his 1970 political campaign, the left regarded him with mixed feelings. Some thought his revolutionary legacy was to make Pakistan independent of US imperialism but others despised him as a fascist. According to the Marxist intellectual Aijaz Ahmad, Bhutto was nothing more than a pragmatic and limited reformist. Among those who opposed Bhutto were Ghulam Mustafa Khar from his own party, an alliance of political parties called Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) upset by the outbreaks of violence, corruption and election fraud, and Islamists such as Maulana Maududi. In 1977, after talks with the PNA and just before he was about to dissolve the assemblies to hold elections for a government of national unity, Bhutto was deposed in a military coup led by General Zia-ul-Haq.
Bhutto and members of his cabinet were arrested. He was released later and then re-arrested on a charge pertaining to a political murder. The High Court deemed him guilty and sentenced him to death. His appeal failed at the Supreme Court. Despite many international calls for clemency, he was hanged by Zia’s theocratic military dictatorship in 1979. In 1985, Robin Midgley, the head of Drama at the BBC, commissioned a three-part drama series on Bhutto’s trial and execution. The production on Bhutto’s final days was to be a part of ‘The Assassination Quartet’ project which would have included Solomon Bandaranaike (Ceylon), Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rehman (Bangladesh). Tariq Ali seemed to have been an obvious choice for the project. An articulate and passionate filmmaker and political activist, he had also written novels and books on world politics. Four months after the commission, Ali duly submitted the three episodes of The Leopard and the Fox using fake names for some of the characters but, in an unprecedented move, Alasdair Milne, the Director-General of the BBC, demanded to see the screenplay before casting could be finalized. This was a sign to Ali that he was being ‘nobbled from above.’ Ali names the British Foreign Office and the State Department, who considered General Zia a vital ally for their plans in the region, as the powers behind the scene. The intrigue deepened. Mark Tully, the old India hand at the BBC, telephoned Ali and, following Midgley’s advice, they met at the Groucho Club in Soho. Tully said that if Ali would consent to remove the bit from episode three where the US had ‘greenlighted Bhutto’s hanging,’ the BBC production would go ahead. Ali said that he would tell ‘the BBC to fuck off’ rather than agree to those conditions. Tully said that he had been in Rawalpindi at the time and had found no evidence of US involvement in Bhutto’s death. Ali countered with ‘You couldn’t have looked very hard, Mark.’ Certainly, even in those days, the official US support for Zia’s regime was not a secret. The New York Times, oddly enough, claimed to have seen evidence of a ‘sturdy and independent judiciary’ after the verdict against Bhutto. Once Ali refused to alter the script, BBC’s inhouse legal counsel intervened. J.P. Coman cited the risk of libel suits and the screenplay was shelved. (Two legal opinions on the defamatory materials in the text are appended to the screenplay.) Ali’s argument that the BBC regularly libelled the Soviet Politburo and Eastern Bloc leaders with impunity was obviously not persuasive. In the screenplay, Bhutto is the Leopard, a hard-drinking womanizer and relentless baiter of American journalists, diplomats, and the CIA (in the person of ‘Paul Turner,’ the local station chief). The Leopard is given to sarcasm and bullying of his cabinet members. He has a warmer side, though, unlike Zia the Fox, a schemer who feigns his way to power. Bhutto is friendly with ‘Cherry,’ an American, and his love for his wife Nusrat (whom he nominated as the head of PPP after his arrest) and for his daughter Benazir are clearly shown. In his introduction, Ali says Zia was the ‘godfather of Osama Bin Laden’ and helped the US fight their proxy war against Afghanistan but he was also a Pakistan Army officer who had helped to crush the Palestinians in Jordan in 1970. A key villain of the piece is ‘Whiskey,’ Bhutto’s cabinet minister who informed the generals that Bhutto was planning to arrest and behead them which led the army to act. A military officer, General ‘Azad,’ was excluded from the plot after he began to show signs of a conscience. The overall telling is competent, even compelling, in its suspense. Some errors, though, should have been easily caught. In the introduction, for example, Anjelica Huston is meant, not ‘Angelique,’ as the actor who was slated to play Benazir. In Pakistan, recent state-military intervention in judicial affairs has resulted in lawyers taking to the streets against another US-supported military dictator who came to power through a coup. Meanwhile, Benazir Bhutto bides her time in the wings. Parallels between her father’s execution and Saddam’s are not far fetched either although they have not been drawn out by Ali. Ali claims his screenplay was ‘a fairly accurate if unhappy reminder of two tragedies: Bhutto’s failure to transform the country and Zia’s well-planned brutalization of Pakistan’s political culture.’ While the questions of truth and libel remain unresolved, it is worth quo-ting Coman of the BBC: ‘we might have to fight off the charge by the Plaintiffs in the words of W.S. Maugham in “The Summing Up” “that the drama is make believe. It does not deal with truth (in the evidential sense) but with effect”.’ Ali’s screenplay is cautionary. Evidentiary truths aside, lessons abound for the west and its allies who, in the name of democracy and freedom, have played politics in supporting religious fanaticism and oppressive military regimes far too long. However, the left too can be faulted for praising the Islamists for their opposition to western powers. The many monsters that both have nourished at their breasts may end up consuming them. After the original tragedies, history is poised to be repeated as farce but it is doubtful that many will be laughing in Iraq, Afghanistan or, for that matter, in Pakistan any time soon. Ahmad Saidullah is an independent writer based in Canada.