By Nadeem F Paracha
The sole culprit?
The legacy of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is a mixed bag of praise, platitudes and panning.
Where, on the one hand, he is hailed as being perhaps the sharpest and most dazzling politicians ever to grace the country’s political landscape, he is also panned for being a megalomaniac and a demagogue, readily willing to sideline his democratic principles in pursuit to retain political power.
Applauded for successfully regenerating a demoralised and fractured country’s pride (after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle), and igniting within the working classes a sudden sense of political consciousness, Bhutto is also remembered as the man who (to remain in power) continued to play footsie with reactionary political outfits and (thus) ultimately betraying his own party’s largely secular, democratic and socialist credentials.
Not only did he attract fierce opposition from the right-wing Islamic parties, over the decades, the left and liberal sections of the Pakistani intelligentsia have also come down hard on him for capitulating to the demands of right-wing parties on certain theological and legislative issues that eventually (and ironically) set the tenor and the tone of a reactionary General (Ziaul Haq) who toppled his regime.
With the ever-increasing problem of religious bigotry and violence that Pakistan has been facing ever since the 1980s, many intellectuals, authors and political historians in the country have blamed the Bhutto government’s 1974 act of constitutionally redefining the status of the Ahmadiyya, formerly recognised as a Muslim sect, as the starting point of what began to mutate into a sectarian and religious monstrosity in the next three decades.
The Ahmadiyya community was (almost overnight) turned into a non-Muslim minority in Pakistan.
Many observers correctly point out that by surrendering to the demands of the religious parties in this context (especially after they had resorted to violence), Bhutto unwittingly restored their confidence and status that was badly battered during the 1970 election.
But I believe panning Bhutto for introducing legislative and constitutional expressions of bigotry has become too much of a cliché. It’s become a somewhat knee-jerk reaction, and an exercise in which the details of the 1974 event have gotten lost and ignored in the excitement of repeatedly pointing out the starling irony of a left-liberal government passing a controversial theological edict.
I will not get into the theological aspects of what was then called ‘the Ahmadiyya question,’ because I’m not academically qualified to do so.
Nevertheless, it is important that one attempts to objectively piece together the events that led to the final act. Events that seem to have gotten buried underneath the thick layers of polemical theological diatribes exchanged between orthodox Muslim scholars and those associated with the Ahmadiyya community; and also due to the somewhat intellectual laziness of the secular intelligentsia that has exhibited a rather myopic understanding and judgment of and on Bhutto’s role in the episode.