The Making of Martyrs in India, Pakistan & Bangladesh: Indira, Bhutto & Mujib, by Faisal Khosa,
Bloomsbury Publishing India, New Delhi, 2021, 219 pages, Hardcover, $20.56. ISBN: 978 93 88630 84 9.
by Arnold Zeitlin 25 September 2021
Author Faisal Khosa falls far short of the promise of his title, “The Making of Martyrs”. Khosa, a Canadian radiologist, spends most of his book rehashing from familiar sources the careers of his three subjects, Indira Gandhi of India, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh. Precisely what led them to become martyrs, if in fact that is what they have become, is left to a few lines in a final chapter that gets nowhere near to what killed them. What the reader gets is muddy philosophizing:
“….each of these leaders’ deaths,” Khosa writes,” captures moments of mythic courage, selfless acts which, when observed through the lens of the intellect, were indisputably irrational but when observed through the heart, were the only choices worth considering.”
It was hardly “mythic courage, selfless acts” that lead to their deaths. Indira was murdered by one of her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for her ordering troops into Amritsar’s Golden Temple, a Sikh holy place. Mujib was murdered by young army officers after he seized dictatorial powers in the name of a one-party, Baksal, state. Bhutto was executed by hanging in what essentially was a judicial assassination after he allowed fraud in a national election he otherwise could have easily won and, in the longer run, possibly because his nationalization policy deeply alienated business interests powerful enough to destroy him.
To his credit, Khosa does quote General Zia-ul-Haq, who overthrew Bhutto in a coup and oversaw his hanging, as saying “it is his (Bhutto’s) neck or mine.” That remark jibes with rumors at the time that Zia was told to get rid of Bhutto or face his end. Who might have told him remains a mystery. Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, claimed Aga Hossain Abedi, who put much of Pakistan’s civil servants and military on the payroll of his notoriously corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International, persuaded Zia to go ahead with the hanging. This possibility otherwise is unexplored in this book.
Speaking of Benazir, she, too, was assassinated as were the three successors to Indira, Mujib, and Bhutto — Indira’s son, Rajiv, killed when embraced by a suicide bomber; Bangladesh General Ziaur Rahman, murdered in a coup; and General ul-Haq, killed in an airplane explosion. The successors get no mention in this book. Apparently, they do not make the grade as martyrs.
Also left unexplored is Pakistan’s culture of political murder, starting in 1951 with the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan. For a time, Bangladesh emulated Pakistan’s inclination to political murder. India appears to have escaped such killings, although the 1948 murder of Mahatma Gandhi presaged what was to come in independent South Asia.
There is no mystery about what led to Indira’s killings. The events leading to Bhutto’s death remain murky. The same with Mujib’s death, which has become part of a Bangladesh myth perpetuated by his surviving daughter, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina.
Khosa does his best to make his subjects exceptional. About Indira, he writes that by 1972 she “had established her hold over the Congress party, mesmerized the people of India and proved her prowess and leadership acumen to the rest of the world.” He hedges his opinion by writing that “Indira Gandhi in death seems as puzzling and paradoxical as she was when she was alive.” As for Bhutto, his “political ingenuity was unparalleled in Pakistan politics, where he sat staunch and unwavering”, adding although “depending on who is asked, he is either a legendary and heroic figure or a reviled antagonist.” As for Mujib, as a politician, he “was headstrong and had an indomitable will. His belief in the Bengali cause was unshakeable and his love for Bengalis and the nation of Bangladesh was evident in all his struggles,”
This trio remains fallible humans, although I suspect Bhutto and Mujib at least, believed themselves infallible, a conviction that contributed to their tragic end. Their deaths were a blow to their countries politics but fall short of the martyrdom that this book wishes to confer on them.