When a Prime Minister of Pakistan was litigating to be declared an Indian: The curious legal case of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

This is the story of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s litigation to be declared an “Indian”.
When a Prime Minister of Pakistan was litigating to be declared an Indian: The curious legal case of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

Certain documents from India came into my hands, stating that Mr Bhutto had been, till 1958, claiming that he was an Indian citizen and that he was staying in Karachi only temporarily. I have asked for further confirmation. It shows how unscrupulous and soulless this man is.

- Diary entry dated March 3, 1967 of Field Marshall Ayub Khan, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

An awkward question was asked in the National Assembly. Up to the time he became a Minister in 1958, Bhutto had been declaring before Indian courts that he was an Indian citizen residing in Karachi. The object was to get some compensation for the property left by his parents in India. In fact, he was selling his soul for about one lakh fifty thousand rupees. All this was not known to us till recently when the matter was discussed in the Indian Parliament and came out in the press.”

-Diary entry dated June 30, 1967.

Ayub was a demoralized soul. The person about whom he was writing had gone from being his right-hand man, his special protégé, to his greatest troublemaker in the Western Wing, who, along with Mujib in the East, had made the President’s life hell.

It was only years ago that Ayub was able to thwart the consolidation of the Bengalees behind the candidature of Madar-e-Millat (Mother of the Nation) Fatima Jinnah’s candidature, and secure for himself the President’s post elected by “Basic Democrats”. Ayub’s “Basic Democracy” ensured that only selected people could vote and predictably, the Military Dictator, who had inadvertently made a proclaimed Indian his Minister, had won. Now, as the diary entries revealed, the bitter ruler was bitter about it. Little wonder that he proceeded to call Bhutto a spy and worse, Banga Bandhu Mujib’s co-conspirator to bring down a united Pakistan.

This is the story of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s litigation to be declared an “Indian”.

Zulfikar was born into wealth and privilege. His father was Shah Nawaz Bhutto, the infamous Prime Minister (Dewan) of Junagadh who tried to convince his Muslim ruler to accede his landlocked Hindu majority state to Pakistan. When India undertook military action, the Ruler, Nawab Sir Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III Rasul Khanji, GCIE, KCSI, along with his beloved dogs, a veterinarian, and Bhutto Senior, fled on a plane to Pakistan, never to return. Zulfi’s mother was his father’s second wife, a Rajasthani Hindu, Lakhi Bai, who changed her name to Khursheed Begum to marry her Muslim husband.

Junagadh was no place to educate a boy and so, the Prime Minister had sent his boy to Bombay to study at Cathedral. Just as for the founder of Pakistan, Bombay was closer to Zulfikar’s heart than Karachi, the new capital of the moth-eaten Pakistan which Quaid had won for India’s Muslims.

By 1945, the writing was on the wall. In 1946, Jinnah announced his Direct Action Plan. His followers, such as Bengal Premier Suhrawardy, understood the hint and organized the Great Calcutta Killings on Direct Action Day. Bombay was also tense. Bhutto was advised to apply to colleges abroad. India was no longer safe for Muslims, he was told by his father.

Perhaps, Sir Shanawaz was aware that as a 15-year-old Cathedral and John Connon School student, young Zulfi had prophetically written an emotional letter to another Bombay resident – Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah - assuring him that “the time will come when I will even sacrifice my life for Pakistan”. This did not stop Zulfi from being besties with school friend Piloo Mody, who would go on to pen his book 'Zulfi, my friend' wherein he would claim that the two continued to nurture their friendship beyond the midnight hour. Zulfi consoled Piloo when Gandhi died and Piloo, Zulfi when Jinnah passed away. Zulfi had an emotional connection with the city. After all it was here that he played for the Sunder Cricket Club and had made his mark as a right-handed batsman.

Then, on August 14, 1947, Pakistan was born. India erupted in violence. Bhutto Junior was advised to leave Bombay. He did so on September 8, 1947, for the United States, leaving behind his many properties. Closest to his heart perhaps was the family’s Astoria Hotel at Churchgate and their Bombay house at 4A Worli Estate, which Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto had secured from the Bombay Municipal Corporation on a perpetual lease for Rs 25,344 and an annual rent of one rupee. At the time of fleeing, Sir Shah Nawaz had transferred the properties to his son. On December 31, 1955, the Astoria would finally be auctioned as an evacuee property at a bid of Rs 13,04,000 but that again is another story!


On July 6, 1949, the Deputy Custodian of evacuee property declared Zulfikar Ali Bhutto an “evacuee” and took over his properties. Only July 27, 1949, Bhutto, who would go on to one day call India a “great monster”, filed an objection, stating on oath:

After passing the Senior Cambridge examination, the applicant on or about 8th September 1947, left for the United States of America from Bombay where he had been permanently residing. The applicant further says that when he left for abroad on 8th September, 1947, he did so on an Indian passport.”

Bhutto further deposed on oath:

“I do not know when my mother or sisters left Bombay. I made applications to several universities from 1945 onwards. My father received replies from them. I returned to Karachi after 10 years. My education was in Bombay. I am not residing in Karachi.”

The Deputy Custodian was not impressed and rejected his claim to Indian-ness. Bhutto was undaunted in defeat. He decided to challenge the order by filing a statutory appeal before the Custodian. This time, he admitted that he was only “temporarily” residing in Karachi. Bhutto now swore that:

The applicant was sui generis and had attained majority and merely because the applicant’s parents resided in Karachi and his marriage took place there, it did not follow therefrom that the applicant’s home was also in Karachi”.

Sadly for Bhutto, even the Custodian did not buy into his claim that his heart beats for the tricolor. Bhutto was a determined man and he challenged the Custodian’s order as well. His grounds of appeal being:

That the learned Custodian failed to appreciate that the applicant went to the United States of America as an Indian national on an Indian passport and continued to be an Indian national at the relevant time.

That the learned Custodian had erred in holding without any evidence on record that the applicant after obtaining majority has at any relevant time accepted Karachi as his domicile.

When the courts did not accept Bhutto as Indian, on September 11, 1957, he filed appeal No 489 of 1957 before the Supreme Court of India.

By this time, Bhutto’s political fortunes, spurred in no little measure by his characteristic India-baiting, were on the ascendant. He had caught the eye of the military junta and the Pakistani establishment. In particular, the diarist Ayub had taken a fancy to him. That same year, Bhutto was included as a member of Pakistan’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly.

Bhutto still had not dropped his India cases. He returned to Pakistan after completing his studies at Berkeley and Oxford, and training as a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn, and joined President Iskander Mirza’s cabinet as the Minister of Commerce. At the time, he was the youngest to do so. Bhutto had no option but to withdraw his case pending in the Indian Supreme Court. On August 13, 1958, eleven years after Pakistan had been carved out of India, our man filed an application in the Supreme Court stating that “the petitioner is, however, now settled in Karachi and does not propose to prosecute appeal No 489 of 1957”.

The Court allowed the withdrawal on November 3, 1958, when Bhutto had already been sworn in as a Pakistani Minister by Mirza.

While litigating in India, Bhutto was also trying his luck by preferring a claim under the Registration of Claims Act, 1955. Bhutto claimed Rs 12 lakh for the Astoria Hotel and Rs 1,40,000 towards proceeds of the sale of their Bombay house – “My Nest” at Worli. Against the Hotel, the claims officer had assessed Rs 3,93,952. For the house, it was Rs 1,40,000.

In Pakistan also, Bhutto went up the chain of appeals like a seasoned litigant. By his order dated October 6, 1956, the Deputy Claims Commissioner had enhanced the compensation to Rs 9,97,991. Bhutto was still not satisfied and finally secured a 40 times revision in valuation from the Claims Commissioner who passed his order on September 18, 1957, granting him Rs 44,30,400.

This intriguing ditty would have remained buried but for some news reports which led to Mahavir Tyagi, Minister for Rehabilitation, having to make a statement before the Rajya Sabha on November 19, 1965 on a Call Attention Motion. This was mirrored by similar queries in the Pakistan National Assembly on June 30, 1967. Information and Broadcasting Minister Khwaja Shahabuddin informed the House that “till 1958, Mr Bhutto was claiming in Pakistan citizenship of Pakistan and in India he was claiming citizenship of India.”

One Syed Ali Raza, who retired as Deputy Secretary of the Pakistan Foreign Ministry, had claimed that one of Bhutto’s properties had been sold with the permission of the Bombay High Court and the proceeds deposited there. The entire dispute was as to whether the amount should be treated as movable or immovable property. He claims that Bhutto had to take the stand as a part of legal strategy to secure the monies.

South Asians are easily forgiving of their leaders and this litigation scandal did not damage Bhutto. However, as Bhutto did go on to claim to be the brains behind ‘Operation Gibraltar’ that led to the 1965 Indo-Pak War and is widely accepted as one of the reasons for the 1971 Bangladesh War, both of which have witnessed thousands of lives lost by both of the Midnight’s Children, perhaps one of Indian legal history’s greatest “what ifs” is:

What if one of the Indian Courts had indeed declared Zulfi an “Indian”?

The author is a Delhi-based lawyer.

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