The Leopard and the Fox: A Pakistani Tragedy by Tariq Ali

(First published 2006)

This short drama set in Pakistan chronicles the last years (1977-1979) of the government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his overthrow in a military coup, and finally his execution at the hands of the military junta led by General Zia-ul-Haq through the connivance of a tainted judicial process.

BBC commissioned Tariq Ali to write the screenplay for the documentary they had planned on the said military coup leading up the execution of Z.A. Bhutto. They suddenly abandoned the project when everything was ready and the documentary was about to go on air. The BBC, as the screenwriter soon found out, was pressured by the British government to either censor the documentary, or failing that, abandon it altogether. The part where the author alleges that the United States gave the green light to General Zia-ul-haq to hang Bhutto became the bone of contention.

The US and UK were at good terms with the military junta in power because it was helping them fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The intimate relations between the US-UK and Pakistani military junta could be at risk if the documentary had been aired with the “objectionable” content as it might have angered the general. The final say rested with Tariq Ali when BBC, bowing to the government pressure, offered a censored, watered-down version to him. Tariq Ali refused to budge and therefore the documentary was shelved for good. The official reason given by the BBC, however, was that the content of the documentary were potentially libelous. It was, of course, a red herring.

The play starts with the depiction of a politically charged atmosphere in the country in the aftermath of the national elections in which Bhutto is reelected for the second term in office. There is ample evidence of widespread ballot rigging. The opposition demands nothing less than fresh elections. As Bhutto government and the opposition enter into intense talks to hammer out a solution amid continued street unrest, the military led by General Zia-ul-haq, fearful of loosing its power and finances, is plotting a coup in order to get rid of Bhutto for good.

The military top brass views Bhutto with extreme suspicion and contempt. The national and foreign policies of Bhutto government are increasingly angering the United States, The army, by virtue of Cold War alliances with the United States, depends heavily on US aid for its proper functioning. Wary of Bhutto’s policies, the US threatens to withdraw its aid and/or put embargos on Pakistan if Bhutto does not change his socialist policies. Even though Pakistan is US ally in the Cold War, Bhutto during his time in office attempts to cultivate cordial relations with China as well as warm up to the Soviet Russia. This also doesn’t sit well with the US officials. Furthermore, his public proclamations to develop a nuclear bomb at any cost further jeopardises the relationship between Pakistani establishment (led by military) and the United States. This, then, becomes the raison d’être of the coup. The military wants to take advantage of the country’s current unrest and oust the prime minister.

The scene is set. The drama unfolds. A couple of top generals, however a minority, do not support the idea of a coup. They are threatened with serious consequences or silenced with incentives, thereby eliminating all opposition to the coup within the military save one general who tries to warn the prime minister in subtle terms. Bhutto, being carefree and whimsical as he was, dismisses that general’s concerns with a wave of hand, naively believing that the chief has no guts to pull such a stunt. It is the same chief who Bhutto promoted to that position over five senior generals, thinking he’d be the right guy for him. However, that was not to be. The coup happens, Bhutto is put under house arrest and a sinister plot is hatched with the connivance of the Supreme Court. Bhutto is found, in a complete travesty of judicial norms, guilty of political murder during his prime ministership and therefore sentenced to death by hanging.

This play is written with much better care than the other one about the BCCI that I reviewed earlier. It depicts the historical events craftily, the characters are strong especially of Bhutto, the dialogue delivery is poignant, and the sequence of scenes with two parallel storylines keeps the reader interested throughout the play. I enjoyed it a lot.

My rating 4/5. Find it on AMAZON


3 thoughts on “The Leopard and the Fox: A Pakistani Tragedy by Tariq Ali

  1. The Bhutto family history, and perhaps its legacy, is a fascinating topic for me. I was not aware of this book’s existence prior to reading your review, so you compelled me to add the compendium to a book haul in the near future. In my review of “Princes of Darkness: The Saudi Assault On The West“, by Laurent Murawiec, I address the assassination of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as well; here is a link to it, if your are interested:

  2. I wish I could edit my previous comment. The post I mentioned covered a topic that I believe led to his assassination–attempting to acquire “The Bomb.”

  3. Hi Libby, apologies for the delayed response. I haven’t been checking my blog regularly these days. I got to though, there’s a lot of stuff on GR that I need to save here etc.

    I remember reading that review of yours on Goodreads. I liked it and wanted to write something about the bit about Bhutto but then thought it might be too off-topic!

    The play is well-written and lays out the events before and during the coup deftly. There is a little romanticisation of the ‘fearless Bhutto’ persona, which shows Tariq Ali’s bias, but on the whole I think the play is worth reading.

    Since you’re interested in reading about Bhutto, there’s an excellent biography of his and his political milieu by Stanley Wolpert. I recommend it 100%

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