One of the crowd of petitioners who approached Pakistan's military ruler, President Zia ul-Haq, in the southeastern town of Sukkur recently was a schoolboy who wanted to be an interpreter. He asked Zia to award him a scholarship to travel abroad and learn Romanian.
"But," protested Zia, "you're still only at the intermediate state at school. Finish your studies and then come and see me."
"Ah," said the boy, "how do I know you'll still be president when I finish my studies?"
The boy had a point, even if Zia had momentarily forgotten his promise to hold elections next year. One of Pakistan's newspaper printed the exchange at the top of its front page under the headline "Interesting Conversation."
Zia himself quickly saw the force of the argument. Having first replied, a little disconcerned, that he would "will" the matter of the scholarship to his scholarship to his successor, Zia had second thoughts. He ordered that the boy be given the scholarship immedately anyway.
After all, who can be sure of "willing" such a thing in Pakistan today?
Zia's open court st Sukkur owed more to the 15th century than it did to modern government. It brushed aside entirely the grinding bureaucracy of the Subcontinent, and, along with one or two opportunists who might have squeezed in, it probably alleviated some genuine hardship in record time.
First came a succession of widows with hard-luck tales, and tears in their eyes. One said she had received no compensation after her husband had been crushed to death by a truck. She got a substantial state grant, and the company owning the truck got an order to pay up compensation. Another complained that she had no way of earning a respectable living. Zia directed that she be provided with a sewing machine and some state funds.
To a woman teacher, who alleged that a school she had established was confiscated by the former government of Zulifqar Ali Bhutto, Zia granted $22,000.
A blind man had no land was given 16 acres. An old man said influential poeple had abducted his young daughter and the police were doing nothing about it. Zia gave the police officer responsible one month to crack the case.
The open court was a roaring success, as far as it went. Those who were not able to approach Zia for on-the-spot justice- and Zia admitted that even if he stayed in Sukkur for a month he would not be able to see them all-were advised to have patience and trust in God.
Most of the handouts were fairly small-a few hundred dollars of state money here, a few hundred there. The biggest award was $55,000 to help build a road in the area, which a petitioner told Zia would benefit about 500 villages.
But the principle of decisive military intervention demonstrated at Sukkur is writ large in other areas of Pakistani life. This is probably just as well, because if Pakistan were an airplane, the warning light of an imminent stall would be flashing.
Almost everything is waiting on Bhutto who is sitting in his death cell here, expecting to be hanged.
Most of the hierarchy of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party is out of action: Impronised, detained of disqualified. Other political parties are bickering among themselves, shifting their allegiances, uncertain what to do next: Whether to cooperate with the military, and if so, to what extent. Again, the specter of Bhutto clouds their actions and saps their confidence, however much they try to ignore him.
Convicted of plotting the attempted assassination of a political foe. Bhutto was sentenced to dealth in the case, which resulted in the dealth of someone else riding in the car with intended victim. The former prime minister's case is now before the eight judges of the Supreme Court on appeal and their decision-slow and deliberate in their making-is expected within the next few weeks.
Whether he is executed or given clemency, there will almost certainly be trouble. If the decision of the court is to carry out the hanging. Bhutto's supporters most certainly will rise up. Senior military sources say it might not happen right away, but could break out a month or two after the hanging. If the court rules for clemency, the former prime minister's many foes are just as likely to take to the streets with vehemence as they did to bring him down a year and a half ago.
What's more, if he not executed, there always remains the possibility that one day Bhutto will be free and exacting revenge.
Bhutto's wife, the Begum Nursat Bhutto, denies that he would be vindictive. She points out that 13 years ago he was imprisoned for three months by Gen. Ayub Khan after a military coup, but on release Bhutto retained his balance. "What did we do to Ayub Khan?" Mrs. Bhutto asks rhetorically.
There are many in Pakistan, some of them victims of Bhutto's last administration, who believe he would in fact emerge from jail thirsting for vengenance.
Bhutto himself wrote a letter from the death cell on Nov. 8 to the Pakistani chief justice, Anwar ul-Haq, which ends with what might be a bit of gallows humor but which sounds like an implied threat. The chief justice is one of the eight judges hearing Bhutto's appeal but at the time of the letter he had assumed the function of president of Pakistan during a visit to Mecca by Gen. Zia.
Bhutto's letter regretted the chief justice's decision to stand in as president and "further identify" himself with "coterie inexorably leading this nation to a catastrophic doom"
The letter concluded: "A person who forgets all his yesterdays cannot have any comprehension of the movement of the morrow . . . I do hope that you are not superstitious to get a message of greeting from a former elected president of Pakistan of Pakistan from the death cell of a prison in the same city only across the road."
Bhutto signed it: "Yours in custody."
The military, meanwhile, is doing its best to keep the country function See PAKISTAN, From A29, Col 3 PAKISTAN, From A25 ing while the drama runs its course. Pakistan's wheat crop has been hit first by rust and then by a supply of inferior rust-free seed imported from India.
The unloading of imported wheat at Karachi is being supervised by the army and there is no question of dock workers refusing to obey orders. The result is that ships are being swiftly unloaded and grain is shifted onto requisitioned railway trucks for distribution inland. Early indications are that the operation is going well. Suggestions that there may be food riots in some areas later in the year, because of shortages, are not being taken seriously.
If only the military says the politicians were as easy to manipulate.
One senior officer said: "The politicians complain about the way we do things. We say to them, "OK, youn don't like what we're doing, so you take over. If you've got answers to Pakistan's problems, of programs you want to see brought in, you just tell us what they are. We'll sign the orders to carry them out. You don't have to worry about Parliament or anything like that. We'll give you permission.' But they won't do it."
The problem of how to lay Bhutto's political ghost seems insoluable. The military is bringing out yet another white paper, probably in the next three weeks, accusing the former prime minister of being responsible for murders other than the one for which he was sentenced to death. The hope is that it will have an impact on Pakistani and international public opinion.
If Bhutto's appeal is successful, however it is doubtful whether these other murder allegations will be translated into actual charges and further trials.
There is a growing feeling among the military taht the moment for action has passed and that everything is now staked on the impending decision of the eight judges of Pakistan's Supreme Court. CAPTION: Picture, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto ... sends letter to judge