At 4am on September 3, 1977, as the Bhutto family slept in their 70-Clifton residence, commandos broke the main gate open and dashed upstairs to the deposed prime minister’s bedroom. Telephone lines had already been severed. The deposed premier did not react. He knew why the commandos had arrived: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was under arrest.
Charged under sections 302 (premeditated murder), 120 (criminal conspiracy) and 109 (Abetment) for the murder of Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Kasuri, Bhutto calmly walked downstairs with the commandos. This arrest was in the making ever since Murree, when Bhutto had warned General Ziaul Haq that he had committed the act of “high treason” for toppling an elected government.
Ever since that moment, Gen Zia had become haunted by the perpetual fear of being punished by Bhutto were he and his party ever able to rule the country again. This fear was consolidated after Bhutto repeated his threat in speeches made at various railway stations during his journey home from his detention in Murree. Multitudes had gathered to see and hear Bhutto.
Now Zia had two options: either to allow a free Bhutto to contest the elections; or to have him apprehended and embroiled in cases. As an American news magazine put two years later, there was one grave and two bodies —only one had to be buried. A worried Zia thought it best not to occupy the spot.
Civil and military officials then began hunting for any substantive evidence to implicate Bhutto in some crime. The first case prepared against the deposed prime minister was that he had used government-owned tractors on his personal land; the charges did not carry enough punitive weight and the case was not persuaded.
No one believed Zia would uphold his promise of elections.
By mid-August, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had prepared its findings for Gen Zia: the murder of a Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) lawmaker, Dr Nazir Ahmad, was an old charge and was difficult to prove. But the murder of Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Kasuri, as per the FIA, bore sufficient evidence to implicate Bhutto.
Zia appeared content with that finding.
In the meanwhile, General F.A. Chishti, General Rao Farman Ali and General K.M. Arif appeared busy with preparations for the imminent election. Gen Zia had promised allowing political parties to resume political activities from Aug 1, 1977, but nobody took his claim seriously.
In fact, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) held its first post-ban meeting on Aug 7. At the Lahore meeting, it became clear that divisions among the PNA’s constituent parties ran quite deep. The dispute over the allocation of seats continued as a core issue. As with Gen Zia, the main issue before PNA leaders was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. On the last day of filing nominations, Aug 18, about 18,000 candidates had filed their papers — this included Bhutto, who wanted to contest from Lahore as well as Larkana, his home constituency.
Meanwhile, the Election Cell continued to meet various leaders, including those of the PPP. On Aug 30, the Cell met with JI’s Mian Tuffail Mohammad. More important was the meeting with former defence minister and former chief minister of Sindh, Muhammad Ayub Khuhro. A seasoned politician who hailed from Larkana, he was of the view that Bhutto’s arrest would not cause mass rioting and disturbances.
Khar and Jatoi, in other meetings, thought that perhaps the duo could get a chance to run the show; the two men met the Cell’s officers and told them that in the absence of Bhutto, they could run the affairs. Asghar Khan also expressed similar views, but the Cell officers did not show any interest.
As Zia’s men looked for sound evidence, Gen Chishti told Gen Zia about Masood Mahmood, an FSF man who had sought mercy and also pledged to become an approver in Nawab Kasuri’s murder case. Mahmood had already written a long confessionary statement. Convinced, Gen Zia thought that there was solid enough evidence with which Bhutto could be charged.
The moment to arrest Bhutto had finally arrived.
On Sept 2, Gen Zia called Gen Chishti at his residence, and asked him to head to Karachi and convey a message to General Arbab: arrest Bhutto in Kasuri’s murder case. Gen Chishti first declined, but was persuaded by Gen Zia to do it. Chishti flew from Chaklala air base to Karachi, where he conveyed the message. After executing the task, he flew back to Rawalpindi the same evening.
In Karachi, the FIA seemed to act very efficiently. By 10pm, all the officials and other staff had arrived at the Sindh Martial Law Headquarters. The military action was kept closely guarded; no official or staff member would know what had been planned until the last moment.
On Sept 2, Gen Zia called Gen Chishti at his residence, and asked him to head to Karachi and convey a message to Gen Arbab: arrest Bhutto in Kasuri’s murder case.
Once arrested, Bhutto was first transported to an army centre, and then flown to Lahore. In a twist of fate, Bhutto was taken to Lahore on the same Falcon aircraft that he used as prime minister. By 7.30am, the plane landed at Lahore airport. He was taken to a bungalow in the Cantonment area for a seven-day remand. From there, Bhutto was shifted to Kot Lakhpat jail.
No protest took place, as was anticipated by the Zia regime. In Sindh, Bhutto’s home province and where the PPP commanded great majority, no such protest was registered which could have forced the military government to consider the potential threat of street power.
With Bhutto arrested in Karachi, Khar and Jatoi flew to Islamabad to urgently meet with the Elections Cell. The Cell also met with some other politicians after Bhutto’s arrest, and after some consultations, decided to brief Gen Zia on the country’s law and order situation.
The Cell’s purpose was to brief Gen Zia that there was ample reason for postponing elections. When the proposal was presented to him, the General did not want to assume the entirety of this responsibility; he suggested convening a conference of all political leaders in the near future.
As the Cell officers and other relevant staff engaged into preparations, one question perturbed all: whom to invite and whom to leave out?
Next week: All parties’ moot
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 25th, 2014