Last Updated:

Through Line, From Past To Present: History Of Assassinations That Have Plagued Pakistan

Imran Khan Niazi has been shot in his leg, in an assassination attempt. This piece looks at the history of assassination in Pakistan, from the past to present.

Written By
sagar kar

Image: AP/ Unsplash

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan Niazi was shot in his leg on Thursday, November 3. The attack is being widely considered an assassination attempt. Zarqa Suharwardy Taimur, a senator from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has confirmed that the former PM has been shot in his leg and that he is not in a critical condition. He was shot during a rally. The assailant opened fire on Khan's convoy whilst it was travelling through the city of Wazirabad. Khan was leading what has been labelled a 'long march', conducting rallies across the country, after he was disqualified from electoral politics after the Toshakhana case. 

Political assassinations are not new in Pakistan. Neither is the influence of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Voltaire once said about Prussia that 'all states have an army but the Prussian army has a state'. The same applies rather aptly to Pakistan. Imran Khan made the mistake of violating one of the strictest taboos of Pakistani polity, which is - never to question or attempt to undermine the Pakistani army, or to be more precise, the ISI. Since being ousted from power, Imran Khan has accused the army of corruption and collaborating with foreign powers. The attack on Khan has just occured, reliable news will flow into India gradually. Let's focus on the past instead and draw a throughline from Pakistan's past to the present. 

The roots

To date, two prime ministers of Pakistan have been assassinated. One was hanged through judicial murder and now a former PM has managed to escape an assassination attempt. There are many political theories which detail what matters most, is it the economy? The SDGIs? The trade surplus? These topics hide the ball, the real question as Eric Hobswam put it, is this - who rules? And this is a question that has never been solved completely in Pakistan.

On the day Pakistan was formed, on August 14, 1947, the nation's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah told an army officer, “It is we, the people’s representatives who decide how the country is to run. Your job is only to obey the decision of your civilian masters.” By January of 1951, Ayub Khan was informing an officer, “This army has a much greater and wider role to play than people realise. The C-in-C, in fact, is a more important man than the prime minister in our country as the situation stands.” 

Liaquat Ali Khan's assassination 

The first Pakistani Prime Minister to be assassinated was Liaquat Ali Khan, ironically, also the first Prime Minister of Pakistan. An incident which perhaps shined forth a light on Pakistan's future, ridden with chaos, infighting, and instability. Liaquat Ali Khan was a close aide of Jinnah. He was assassinated on October 16, 1951 at the East India Company Bagh, also known as Rawalpindi Company Bagh. The assassin was Said Akbar. 

The Pakistani establishment quickly denounced Akbar as an Afghan national, however, later details emerged suggesting that the Afghans had stripped him of his citizenship and he had to take refuge in Pakistan's NWFP. According to reports by the AP, he was receiving a "welfare allowance" of $155 from the Pakistani government. Akbar was sitting at the front row, a row dedicated for the Crime Investigation Department (CID) police officers. No one knows how he got there. He was shot and killed soon after he assassinated the prime minister. According to reports from NYTimes, the policeman who shot him, testified that he was ordered by a senior police officer to shoot Akbar. 

Dawn reported that the decision to shoot him instead of apprehending him, to investigate who sent him, only strengthened the belief that the assasination was an inside job. Nawabzada Aitzazuddin was the officer who had the responsiblity of investigating Liaquat Ali Khan's murder. When he was travelling to Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin, with all the important documents, his flight developed a "mechanical fault" and crashed near the Jhelum river. Nawabzada Aitzazuddin burned to death, along with the charred documents that never made it to the Prime Minister's desk. 

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's judicial murder 

After the 1971 war, which resulted in the abject humiliation of Pakistan's Army, the credibility, and popularity of the Army went down. General Yahya Khan, who was ruling Pakistan at the time, had to unwillingly hand over power to the Pakistan People's Party, led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto's party was confined to only Punjab and Sindh, moreover, it did not have a strong organisation structure, which prevented Bhutto from expanding the legitimacy and popularity of the civilian government. Even in Punjab and Sindh, there was no strong political organisation. 

This meant that he had to rely on the army to receive information from the ground, so to say. The absence of any political presence in NWFP and Balochistan meant that he had no option but to reach out to the army for help, to manage these provinces. In 1977, when elections were held, he won, but the Pakistan National Alliance-a nine-party coalition accused him of rigging the elections. Urban centres of Pakistan witnessed wide-scale riots and a near collapse of the state, paving the way for the Pakistani Army, led by Zia-Ul Haq, to take back control of the country out of a supposed "sense of duty". 

On July 5, 1977, Pakistan's Constitution was suspended and it was officially back under military rule. After the defeat in East Bengal, Pakistani society had become more radicalised and the politicians were not considered "not Islamic enough". Zia-Ul Haq banned all political parties and promised the return of the Mughal era. Leaders of the Pakistan People's Party were jailed and Bhutto was accused of murder. He was sentenced to death, and although his family attempted to appeal the decision, they could not do much. The situation was so bad that no lawyer even wanted to defend Bhutto in court, and he had to defend himself. The court rejected his appeal and he was hanged on April 4, 1979, at the central jail of Rawalpindi. Reports suggest that his last words were "Oh Lord, help me for... I am innocent."

Benazir Bhutto's assassination 

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's daughter, Benazir Bhutto, eventually became the leader of her father's party the PPP, and served as Pakistan's 11th and 13th Prime Minister. Remember the Rawalpindi Company Bagh in which the country's first Prime Minister was assassinated? It was later renamed Liaquat Garden. And 55 years after Liaquat Ali Khan's assasination, in the very same garden, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. On December 27, 2007, whilst giving her last speech to the crowd in the Liaquat garden, Benazir referred to herself as ‘the daughter of Zulfikar’ multiple times, the person whose party she headed, the same person who was her father and the same person who was hanged to death. 

According to estimates, she evoked her father's name that day at least 17 times. Her father found his greatness by struggling against the nation's military dictators, she said to a roaring crowd. As her speech ended, she went into her bulletproof car. Her car was swarmed by her supporters and to greet them, she decided to stand from the back seat to greet her supporters from the car's sunroof. Three bullets were fired in quick succession, targetting her head, and soon after, there was a bomb blast. The assassin had come with a suicide vest and after doing his job, he blew himself up.

"I turned my face and she was on my lap and her blood was oozing like I can’t explain to you. I have no words to say. Her blood was oozing. My hands, my – she was soaked in blood. My whole clothes were soaked in blood," said her close friend Naheed Khan. 

Dr Safdar Abbasi, Naheed's husband was also in the car. They quickly drove towards a hospital and they noticed something eerie. "The Jeep was all alone. There was no police car. There was no backup car," said Dr Abbasi. Bhutto was reportedly aware of the threat she faced and sought to hire the US-based BlackWater company, which is a private security firm. They were denied visas and not allowed to enter Pakistan.

According to Owen Bennet Jones, a BBC correspondent, the director general of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj had called Bhutto at 1 AM on December 27 and told her that there was going to be an attempt to assassinate her. Bhutto replied that if he knew that then he should arrest the people responsible. Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj reportedly said that his hands were tied. 

First Published: