In the winter of 2008, a team from the World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan travelled south from Lahore to Sindh to verify a report. Someone had spotted an Indian gharial, also known as gavial, in the Naral canal – a small water body that sprouts from the Sukkur Barrage on the Indus. No scientist had seen an Indian gharial in the Indus for nearly 25 years.

The gavial is a species of crocodile unique to the Indus. It was sleek with a long snout and could grow upto 4.5 metres. Male gharials used to have a bulbous mass, locally called the ghara, on the tip of their snout. The WWF team drove up and down this 100-km stretch for days, but in vain. To corroborate the story, they also interviewed people from villages around the canal. One of them, an old man, said: “The last gharial died when Bhutto was hanged.”

On the night of April 4, 1979, former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in Rawalpindi. In the dead of the night, his body was flown down to his ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Baksh in Sindh, where he was buried in his family graveyard.

Wary of the unrest that would follow the news of Bhutto’s assassination, the military government hanged him without any prior notice, leaving the world shell-shocked. Overnight, a cult was created. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became a legend.

Harmful legacy

The events that followed Bhutto’s assassination further helped his cult of personality. The years 1979-1988 were arguably the worst in the political history of Pakistan, with fanatic military dictator Zia-ul-Haq at the helm.

For almost a decade, he unleashed the Islamisation of government institutions, patronised the jihadis against the Soviet Union, and suppressed democratic forces in the country.

Many of the problems that Pakistan faces today, including an Islamic militancy, an inept civilian institution, and perpetual violence against religious minorities, are a direct product of the policies of Zia-ul-Haq.

Throughout his reign, Zia banned the local media from mentioning Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan Peoples Party, which was founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hounded and student politics was eliminated from the root. It was as if Zia wanted to erase the memory from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from Pakistan.

Sea change

Zia-ul-Haq died unexpectedly in 1988. He was buried in Islamabad in a modest structure in the lawn of Faisal Masjid in Islamabad. For a few years after his death, Zia’s supporters would gather at his grave on his death anniversary and offer flowers.

Leading the procession would be Nawaz Sharif, a protégé of the military dictator and the current prime minister of Pakistan. While Zia’s death anniversaries were marked with much pomp every year, Bhutto’s death anniversary used to be a quiet affair curbed by the military authorities.

Now, the tide has turned. Zia’s death anniversary goes unnoticed. The media channels that choose to cover it show horrendous documentaries about the dictator’s dark years.

On the other hand, Bhutto is almost universally celebrated in Pakistan. Even Nawaz Sharif now acknowledges the contribution of Bhutto, while he makes no comment about Zia-ul-Haq, a dirty word in contemporary Pakistan.

At Garhi Khuda Baksh, there is a massive shrine built around the graves of Zulfikar and his daughter Benazir, the former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007. Every day, hundreds of devotees present chadars and flowers to their graves. Many even bow down in front of their graves – much to the chagrin of religious orthodoxy – raising them to the status of saints.

Friction with the military

In Gujranwala, which lies in the heart of Punjab, lived one such Bhutto devotee. Abdul Bari Rajput, who passed away a few years ago, belonged to the historical city of Eimanabad near Gujranwala, where Guru Nanak was once incarcerated by the forces of Babur.

It is this initial interaction between Babur and Nanak that set the tone for future Sikh-Mughal relations, ultimately leading to the assassination of Guru Arjun and Guru Tegh Bahadur.

Similarly, for PPP devotees following Bhutto’s assassination, the relationship between the political party and the military establishment remained fraught. When Benazir came to power twice in the 1990s, she blamed the military establishment for not allowing the civilian government to function smoothly. Many accuse the military establishment of being responsible for her death and that of her brothers Murtaza and Shahnawaz.

Likewise, Asif Ali Zardari, the current PPP president, hides behind this framework of the military establishment’s interference when asked about the effectiveness of the party in the government. It was Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq’s relationship that provided the framework through which history and contemporary political developments were understood.

During the Bhutto era, Abdul Bari Rajput worked with Chaudary Ishaq, the PPP Health Minister from Gujranwala. Rajput was a diehard fan of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Like many, he was shocked at the sudden assassination of his idol.

Following Bhutto’s assassination, Abdul Bari Rajput took a vow of silence. He started keeping a notepad and a pen with him at all times to communicate. In a country where a man like Bhutto can be assassinated, there is nothing left to say, he would write. Abdul Bari Rajput spent this life of silent protest for almost three decades, right to his last breath.

Part of a mythology

There is no dearth of Bhutto devotees all over Pakistan. Hearing about his assassination, many immolated themselves protesting against this political injustice. One of the first to die from burn injuries was Pervaiz Yaqoob from Gujranwala. Five others from different parts of the country followed him to the grave. Begum Naseem, a woman from Lahore, also tried to set fire to herself outside the Mochi Gate in Lahore, but was saved by onlookers.

Intent on meeting someone who still regards Bhutto as a saint, I traveled to Lilyani, a small city in the shadows of Kasur. Now in his seventies, Rana Jamil lives with his children and grandchildren. He travels twice a year to Garhi Khuda Baksh to attend the death anniversary ceremonies of Benazir and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Rana Jamil belongs to a family of diehard PPP loyalists. He lost his mental balance hearing about the news of Bhutto’s assassination. Since then, he roams around the streets of Kasur draped in a PPP flag, raising slogans in favour of Bhutto and Benazir. On several occasions, he has disrupted gatherings of other political parties.

There are many such tales all across Pakistan of people who worship Bhutto. For these people, Bhutto is not a political leader but a saint. His legend has only increased over the years and his cult has only gotten stronger. Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq are no longer ordinary members of the political elite. They have now become caricatures, part of a mythology. Bhutto is the hero, a saint, the penultimate man, while Zia is the devil, a rakshasa, who fed on the blood of ordinary Pakistanis.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.