A legal battle was raging between the government and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mian Mohammad Abbas, Rana Iftikhar Ahmad, Arshad Iqbal and Ghulam Mustafa had already been awarded death sentences by the Lahore High Court for conspiring to murder Nawab Mohammed Ahmed Qasuri. Bhutto had appealed the verdict in the Supreme Court, but the post-verdict situation had already led to much confusion among the PPP rank and file.
The crisis within the PPP deepened during the appeal proceedings over the manner in which the case was being handled. It is said that Bhutto wanted to use international pressure on General Ziaul Haq to reach an agreement for his release. Begum Nusrat Bhutto was in favour of pursuing the legal process but also wanted PPP stalwarts to motivate people to come out on the streets.
However, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi and Maulana Kausar Niazi wanted to adopt a different route: they were inclined to hold parleys with the military and find a negotiable solution to save Bhutto. They had hoped that an agreement could be struck to release Bhutto in exchange for sending him into exile to a friendly country, perhaps Libya, thus ensuring that the former prime minister would not take part in politics during Gen Zia’s tenure.
Attempts at political engineering result in the formation of a splinter group, but Zia still pinned hopes on the PNA
This of course wasn’t the extent of Jatoi and Niazi’s interest.
At the beginning of his tenure, Gen Zia had formed an Election Cell to meet politicians, seek their opinion vis-à-vis the military government, the political set-up they wanted to be introduced, and possibly even their thoughts on people’s anticipated reaction to the election schedule.
It was known to all and sundry that Jatoi and Maulana Niazi had formed a separate group within the PPP; they had also managed to gain some following but not to the extent that could break the party. Now with some renewed hope, the duo began cultivating ties with the Election Cell. Perhaps they hoped that they could build bridges with the government and thus find space in the interim set-up that Gen Zia wanted to institute.
With this blueprint in mind, Jatoi and Niazi inched towards creating a favourable atmosphere with the Election Cell. The formula was simple: identify “saner” elements in the PPP (those with rightist leanings and an inclination to support the military junta) and join forces with the government.
On May 18, 1978, Kamal Azfar, an old Bhutto ally, convened a meeting with some PPP leaders in Rawalpindi. The moot concluded with the formation of the first breakaway faction of the PPP during the Zia regime. Azfar announced that Maulana Kausar Niazi had been appointed as the acting chairman of the PPP, since an house-arrested Begum Nusrat Bhutto could not properly tend to party affairs. By evening, the breakaway faction made their first move: a 25-member delegation led by Maulana Niazi met General Ziaul Haq and members of the Election Cell.
The next day, another meeting of some PPP leaders took place in Islamabad; this was also attended by former NWFP chief minister Nasrullah Khattak. Without disclosing the minutes of the meeting, Azfar announced that the reorganisation of the PPP had taken place; apart from Maulana Niazi, Khattak was now the senior vice-chairman, while Azfar himself would act as the secretary of the party. In the evening, Maulana Niazi called on Pir Pagara and Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, indicating to some extent what the shape of the next political set-up would be.
But Gen Zia did not believe in the PPP’s splinter group, as he knew that the group had no popular following. For him, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) was still more reliable.
On the PNA side, negotiations had been ongoing with the government. On May 23, a meeting of the alliance’s central executive committee was summoned. This turned into a marathon sitting, where an exhaustive discussion took place, mostly dealing with complaints raised by constituent parties. It was decided, however, that a letter from PNA chief Mufti Mahmood would be sent to the chief martial law administrator that outlined the PNA’s conditions for joining the military’s proposed political structure.
The PNA letter, quite a lengthy one, first expressed dismay over the military government’s performance and its failure in expediting accountability. It then said that if martial law authorities wanted to transfer power to elected representatives after holding fair and neutral elections, and it wanted to form a national government for this purpose, the PNA was prepared to assume responsibility in the wider “national interest”.
The Alliance outlined two conditions before joining a national government: first, the new cabinet should be comprised of political leaders with unblemished pasts, and who believed in holding immediate national elections; and second, that they should be armed with all powers. The letter said that if these conditions were not met, the PNA would be unable to join such a government. The letter was dispatched on May 25 without any immediate response.
Meanwhile, at the Supreme Court, the hearing in the appeal continued but it appeared that the whole panel of Bhutto lawyers was not interested in the quick disposal of the case. On June 2, Benazir Bhutto and Begum Nusrat Bhutto were allowed to meet Bhutto at the District Jail, Rawalpindi. Both ladies complained of misbehaviour at the hands of the jail staff. The lawyers informed the Supreme Court about this; the court subsequently formed a committee to ensure provision of facilities to the appellants as per jail rules. The pace with which the appeal was being heard created an unwanted situation; the court told Bhutto’s lawyers that unnecessary lengthening was casting aspersions on the result of the case.
Simultaneously, reports from jail claimed Bhutto’s health was falling. The former premier was only eating food sent through his lawyers and wasn’t even leaving his cell as a mark of protest against the regime.
While Azfar’s PPP continued its efforts to assert itself as the true PPP, Begum Bhutto filed a case against Maulana Niazi for posing as party chairman. The PPP argued that due to his anti-party activities, the party had cancelled his basic membership and he no longer had anything to do with the PPP. Although late, on July 1, 1978 the court accepted Begum Bhutto’s plea, and stopped Maulana Niazi from claiming he was the new PPP chief. Maulana Niazi’s new PPP was dead even before it started.
Originally published in Dawn