Over the decades I have tended to look upon 1972 as something of a halcyon year for a diminished Pakistan. There were elected governments in place at the Centre and in the provinces, and a sense that after the trauma of the previous year, the nation was on the cusp of a hopeful new beginning.

The sense of liberation was not restricted to what had until very recently been the eastern wing of the nation. The shadow of seemingly endless military rule had suddenly been lifted. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto may have assumed power as the nation’s first chief martial law administrator, but the masses seemed to be mostly behind him.

One of his stock phrases initially was: “give me more time”. Miracles cannot be achieved overnight. But the degree of anticipation he had built up in the preceding years came back to bite him at a moment when he seemed to be in charge of everything.

That was not entirely an illusion. Perhaps for the first time, the hitherto ruling force did not have a leg to stand on. Its strategy through 1971 had led to the loss of East Pakistan and culminated in more than 90,000 prisoners of war. On the western front in December 1971, Pakistan had captured little more than 600.

New regime

After toying with the idea of extending martial law until later in the year, Bhutto eventually decided to dispense with it in April 1972. He also replaced the army and air force chiefs he had appointed a few months earlier.

It was not because the army was interfering too much in political affairs, but because of its reticence – General Gul Hassan, Yahya Khan’s replacement as commander-in-chief, for instance, was reluctant to help repress the police strike that had erupted shortly into the Bhutto tenure. His successor as military chief (the commander-in-chief post was discontinued), Tikka Khan – already known in some circles as “the butcher of Bengal”, and not long afterwards as “the butcher of Balochistan” – had no such qualms.

It was not just the police, mind you – workers in various industries across the country went on strike when their expectations of the new regime were not matched by the unfolding reality, notwithstanding labour reforms and sweeping nationalisation of certain industries. In that sphere, too, brutal repression was not a rarity.

Bhutto frequently appealed for more time, arguing that his promises could not instantly be implemented. He appears to have been aware, though, that his window of opportunity might be brief. Biographer Stanley Wolpert quotes Yahya Bakhtiar as relating that when, during an early visit to China, Zhou Enlai asked Bhutto why he was in such a rush to push through his reforms, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto responded that he could not be sure how long the military would tolerate him.

He was well aware, it seems, that his populist charm had its limitations. Those limits were both extended and tested when he embarked in June on his journey to a Simla summit with Indira Gandhi. Given the circumstances – Pakistani forces had lost on the battlefield just six months earlier – it remains arguably the most significant encounter between the leaders of India and Pakistan.

Turning point

Last-minute compromises secured the agreement that was concluded 50 years ago last week, although the prisoner of war question was deferred until Pakistan formally recognised Bangladesh. Bhutto did not return home empty-handed but faced accusations of selling out both from the Opposition and sections of his Pakistan Peoples Party. He responded with a reportedly three-hour harangue in the National Assembly that defanged most of the doubters.

His considerable oratorical skills – un­­m­atched in Pakistani politics – were insufficient nonetheless to ward off a creeping loss of faith in his abilities, or inclinations, to implement the pro­mises made in the Pakistan Peoples Party’s 1970 election manifesto.

The sense of disillusionment was deepened by the fact that key party stalwarts who had reposed too much faith in the “socialist” aspect of “Islamic socialism” – the likes of Mairaj Mohammed Khan and Mukhtar Rana – were not just discarded but sentenced to rigorous imprisonment.

The following year brought even bigger reverses, not least the effective demise of provincial democracy in Balochistan and North-West Frontier Province. Bhutto did not – or could not – follow Zhou’s advice to replace the regular military with a “people’s army”, but he did set up the wretched Federal Security Force that eventually contributed to his downfall.

There can be no doubt that 1972 was a turning point in the history of what remained of the nation, chock-full of both hopeful dev­elopments and profound disappointments. The latter incontestably contributed to the disarray that paralyses the nation today.

It is hard, though, not to look upon it as a year of previously thwarted opportunities that could potentially have fed into very different consequences, not least personally for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

That must remain a source of enduring lament, particularly if it turns out that now it is too late for remedies.

This article first appeared in Dawn.