Farewell, the doyenne of the House of Bhutto

By Ghazala Akbar:

Love them, loathe them, praise them, abuse them — our opinions are impassioned and divided when it comes to the Bhuttos. But wherever we are located on the political spectrum – however polarised our views — and – whatever our feelings regarding the present government – in this we generally agree: that in the annals of our cataclysmic political history, in the epic battle for Democracy against Dictatorship – the House of Bhutto has paid a huge and hefty price in blood, sweat and tears.  Some cynics might scoff: theirs was no heroic struggle, just a quest for power, a vain attempt to forge a dynasty. As you sow, so you reap. Whatever. The jury is still out on that score, let history judge. But right now, we are silent. One would have to have a heart of stone not to feel a tinge of sadness and remorse at the passing away on October 23 of its doyenne, Mrs. Nusrat Bhutto — former First lady of Pakistan, wife of a Prime Minister, Mother of a Prime- Minister and Mother-in-law of a President.

Politics aside – the scale of the personal loss — as a wife, mother and a human being— is of Greek tragedy proportions. One cannot readily recall an instance in recent political memory, where a woman has had to endure the death of her husband — by hanging– the murder of two sons—one mysteriously poisoned, one mysteriously shot and then a daughter – by assassination —   within the space of 28 years.  Not Rose Kennedy, not Sonia Gandhi, Mrs. Bandranaike, Madame Nhu, Mrs. Saddam Hussain or even poor Mrs. Gadaffi comes close – except Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh whose entire family was decimated in one frenzied night of killing.

We can only imagine the emotional depths of Mrs. Bhutto’s grief but we know it took a heavy physical and mental toll on her life.  When Benazir died in 2007— the news was not shared with Mrs. Bhutto. She was too ill and frail. In any event, it wouldn’t have registered.  Alzheimer’s disease plus the effects of a debilitating stroke had transported her into another zone. We hope this was nature’s way of sparing her the horror. How did it come to all this? Where did this journey begin — of a woman who held no political office at the time of her death — but for whom there is palpable public grief, a uniting in prayer of political foes, lowering of the national flag, ten days of official mourning, a posthumous award and a title –‘Mother of Democracy?

Nusrat Bhutto nee Ispahani was born on 23 March 1929 of Iranian and Kurdish descent. Her father, a well-to-do businessman had commercial interests in Bombay and Karachi. The family moved to Pakistan during the partition of the Sub – continent. Her Grandfather became an Ayatollah in Najf, but her family was not particularly conservative. She completed high school, was a member of the National Guard and learned how to drive. In 1951 she met and married the young Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a newly – qualified lawyer and the only son of a Land-owning Sindhi Family. They had four children, Benazir, Murtaza, Sanam and Shahnawaz. The Bhuttos made a striking couple as they did the rounds of the Karachi social circuit. Zulfiqar Ali Bhuttos’s talents and familial connections caught the attention first of President Iskander Mirza, and then of General Ayub Khan. He was the youngest Minister in the first Martial Law cabinet of 1958, a rising star.

With the sudden death of Mohammed Ali Bogra, in 1963 Bhutto was elevated to the position of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, a coveted post. That is when Nusrat caught the -public eye — both at home and abroad — for her elegance and glamour. Fashionably draped in a sari she cut a striking figure as she accompanied her husband or was part of the official entourage on State visits. Initially, hers was an enviable life of comfort, ease and smooth sailing. Then it entered choppy, uncharted waters with deep undercurrents. Thereafter her journey through life became a whirlpool, alternating clockwise and anti – clockwise between moments of supreme triumph and unspeakable tragedy. Towards the end of her days, the good times were fleeting and forgotten. The tragedies became permanent scars.

The first ripples came in 1966 when her husband parted ways with his patron Ayub Khan.  ‘More than a Lincoln…more than a Lenin, our Ataturk, and our Salahuddin’…is how he had once described the boss. However, the relationship soured. Regarded as a ‘Hawk’ on the Kashmir Question, Bhutto could not conceal his disappointment at the Russian – induced peace initiative after the 1965 war. As Ayub signed the Tashkent Declaration, Bhutto felt that the gains on the battlefield were lost at the negotiating table. Kashmir was on the back- burner yet again. He sulked in public, resigned and entered a political wilderness.

It was a difficult period in the life of the Bhuttos. A fall from grace and favour of an all-powerful Dictator is an unenviable position anywhere. In Pakistan, it was akin to political suicide. Ayub Khan — at the height of his power, was celebrating his ‘Great Decade of Development.’ A ‘bolshie’ recalcitrant Minister and his wife were not on anybody’s invitation lists or priorities. Fortunately, the Bhuttos were not financially constrained and were able to spend time abroad in a sort of self- imposed exile. They cultivated contacts, met with Leftist intellectuals like Constantinos Karamanlis, a critic of the Greek Junta. Within a couple of years, the tide turned for the Bhuttos. 1968 was the year of Student power. There were worldwide street protests for social change. By the time, Bhutto returned home to Pakistan, restless students were looking for a leader to articulate and lead their protests. They found a willing Bhutto.  He challenged Ayub Khan. The Dictator responded with repression. It did not work. Ayub was forced to quit in 1969 after countrywide protests in both wings of the country. The Army stepped in and announced a new political dispensation.

The 1970 elections saw Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party as the major winner in West Pakistan. A thousand miles away, in East Pakistan, the Awami league of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman performed even better. It had an outright majority in Parliament. Conventional wisdom required either a coalition of both parties or ceding outright control to the winner, Mujib. Neither side compromised. Suspicious of General Yahya’s motives in delaying the National Assembly session, Mujib launched a ‘non – violent’, non – cooperation movement. The Eastern wing was in open revolt, primed for secession. The situation got violent. Yahya in his innate wisdom opted for a military solution.

Then civil war lasted nine months and culminated in a military defeat. East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Bhutto bided his time, and ultimately the prize was his for the taking.  He returned from the UN Security Council where he had dramatically torn up a Security Council resolution with the words: ‘my country hearkens for me…I am going.’ He returned to a truncated Pakistan but it suited him fine — first as President– and then as the first elected Prime Minister. Nusrat became the ‘Khatoon e Awwal’. After the obligatory honeymoon period, Bhutto’s administration soon fell into difficulties. There were too many challenges and conflicting interests. Although a Populist, Bhutto had a proprietary style of governance that alienated many. In the 1977 Election, the opposition united to mount a serious challenge. The PPP won — as expected — but they did too well— inviting charges of foul play and cheating. Riots and protests broke out paralysing the country.

The Army stepped in with the promise of holding elections in 90 days. Once in control of the administration, General Zia had other ideas. Not only was Bhutto imprisoned, he was slapped with a serious charge of ‘conspiracy to murder’. A trial ensued. During this difficult period, Nusrat organised his legal defence, participated in protests. She was the glue that kept the family and the Party together. One such protest during a cricket match at Gaddafi Stadium resulted in a severe head – beating by the police. 12 stitches were required. Mrs. Bhutto was now in the political fray. This was baptism by fire.

Bhutto was found guilty and sentenced to death by the Lahore High Court. He appealed to the Supreme Court. The Government released five white Papers cataloguing his misdeeds, even implicating his defence lawyer, Yahya Bakhtiar. The legal ground was being prepared to influence the judges and prepare the public for his execution. He lost the appeal. It was up to Zia to decide, whether he would live or die. Nusrat and Benazir were in detention, cut off from the family and supporters– unable to communicate with the outside world. As a last resort (against her husband’s wishes), she wrote to General Zia appealing for clemency. Zia was unmoved. Nor would he agree to a request for exile. The Ayatollah had returned to Iran in January 1979 and overthrown the Shah. Zia could not risk Bhutto making a comeback. It was Bhutto’s neck or his. Bhutto was hanged on 4th April 1977. His wife and daughter were deprived of seeing his body or given the courtesy of burying Mr. Bhutto.

Mrs Bhutto returned to Sindh. A period of detention followed. Their house, Al Murtaza, was declared a sub – jail. Zia’s spies watched every move. Her Husband had appointed her as Chairman of the Party. In reality, she was the ‘defunct’ head of the ‘defunct PPP ’as it was now known. The leadership was in tatters.  Some had fled abroad. Workers were harassed, flogged, sent to jail. Some sought asylum overseas. Gradually they disappeared from the news. Murtaza and Shahnawaz tried other means to get at Zia. In 1981, a PIA plane was seized in Peshawar. Passengers were exchanged for the release for PPP activists in jail. Although Benazir eschewed these methods, she was punished and moved to Karachi Central Jail. The Afghan war had intensified and Zia became the darling of the West. Internally he forced his ideas of ‘Islamisation’ on the Pakistani public. In April 82, Nusrat Bhutto was diagnosed with cancer. Even that was contentious. ‘There is nothing wrong with Begum Bhutto’ Zia smiled. ‘However If she wishes to go abroad for a holiday to do some sight-seeing, then she can apply… and I’ll think about that.’ She was eventually given leave. Two years later Benazir followed. The family were united again.

In 1986 tragedy struck. As the siblings joined their mother for a family holiday in Cannes, Shahnawaz the younger son died in mysterious circumstances. The autopsy took several weeks. There were traces of poison in his body. The French authorities charged his Afghan wife with ‘failure to assist a dying person’. She was later released. Thereafter she migrated to the United States taking her daughter, Sassi with her. To complicate matters, Murtaza was married to another sister. He was then compelled to divorce his wife and take custody of his daughter Fatima. He could not return to Pakistan. He had been implicated in the hijacking case—and was connected to al- Zulfiqar, a shadowy group that had committed acts of violence. Benazir and her sister Sanam returned to Pakistan for the burial of her brother. Thousands turned up at Karachi airport to see her. Zia detained her again. Eventually they allowed her to return to London.

Emboldened by this public response she came back to Pakistan in 1986. It was a triumphal return. In the city of Lahore, her procession took nearly 22 hours to reach its destination. She joined the MRD, Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. Martial law had been lifted. Political parties were active again. Zia’s experiment of ‘Party less’ elections had flopped and people were restless. Mrs. Nusrat Bhutto also returned. Her daughter married Asif Ali Zardari. Happy times were here again.

And then the Bhutto nemesis, Zia ul Haq died. His plane crashed mysteriously. Ghulam Isaq Khan, the new President, announced a date for the elections. Zia’s protégés were still around and expected to win. To counter the PPP, the Establishment cobbled a Right- wing alliance, the Islami Jamoori Ittehad.The PPP still emerged as the leading party in Sindh and the Centre — but the Punjab remained out its ambit. With the help of its allies, the PPP formed a coalition Government, and Benazir became Prime Minister at the age of 35. It was a spectacular achievement— followed by an equally spectacular disappointment. Her Government was dismissed after 18 months. But she made another remarkable comeback in 1994 — this time with a bigger majority.

Legal hurdles were removed and her brother Murtaza, after a twenty- year absence was allowed to return. He came with his new wife Ghinwa, daughter Fatima and a baby boy Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Jr.  Murtaza soon fell out with his brother-in-law and sister. He formed his own Party, claiming that the original ideals on which the Party had been founded were being eroded. His veiled criticism began to get louder and more public. In the battle of the siblings, Mrs. Bhutto sided with her son and agreed with his views. Then tragedy struck again. Murtaza Bhutto was shot dead by a police patrol near his home in Karachi. The cause of the gory incident was not specified. No arrests were made. Six weeks later the Benazir Government was dismissed. The shock of her son’s death was the last straw for Nusrat Bhutto. First her husband, then her two sons…both dead in their prime. Slowly she began losing her memory…it was better to forget than bear the pain.

Thus began another chapter in the Bhutto saga. The PPP were routed in the next election. Along with her daughter and son-in-law, Mrs. Bhutto was named in several cases of corruption. Her son-in-law was imprisoned. Benazir chose exile taking her mother with her to Dubai.  Meanwhile another coup took place in Pakistan. Now it was Nawaz Sharif, her rival who ran for cover. Yet another war in Afghanistan started – and General Musharraf seemed firmly entrenched. Just as it looked as if the Bhuttos were political history, there was another reversal of fortune.

President Musharraf was persuaded to allow Benazir to return and contest elections. The infamous National Re-conciliation Ordinance paved the way. All was forgiven and forgotten in the greater national interest. A jubilant Benazir returned — only to be stopped — dead in her tracks. This was the final denouement. Another nail in the coffin. By now, Mrs. Nusrat Bhutto had completely lost it – mercifully unaware of political developments. Her son-in-law became President. Mrs. Bhutto disappeared from public view — until her body was brought back for burial to Gari Khuda Bakhsh in the family mausoleum.

As Pakistanis watched a familiar ritual — of another Bhutto being laid to rest– added to the long line of graves — Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Murtaza, Shahnawaz and Benazir, one wondered at the thoughts of the lone survivor Sanam, the eight grandchildren and the new Chairperson of the PPP. Certain questions also came to mind: has it really been worth it— this enormous personal sacrifice of blood sweat and tears? How long can one rule from the grave?  Isn’t dynasty and democracy a contradiction in terms? Is this emasculated Democracy that we have today what the Bhuttos really set out to achieve? RIP Nusrat Bhutto. You have done your part. For Pakistan, there is still a long way to go.

Comments are closed.