By Chandrahas Choudhury
A detailed, but partisan--and often vengeful--portrait of murder and manipulation in the Bhutto family
Of all the stories available to human beings, none is as instantly fascinating as that of a powerful family riven down the middle, feuding in public view and throwing the entire world out of shape with its might. This storyline is central to our epics, and is often reprised by contemporary events, especially in feudal societies. In such cases, the testimony of any one participant inevitably turns the story into one of good versus evil—the stakes are too high for it to be anything else, but the thrill of receiving the inside story more than compensates for the lack of detachment in perspective.
Just such a story—long-awaited since the first metaphorical gunshots were fired in recent years—is served up by Songs of Blood and Sword, 28-year-old Fatima Bhutto’s angry and sometimes incoherent retelling of the macabre lives and internecine warrings of the first family of Pakistani politics, the Bhuttos of Sindh.---
Bhutto is best-known as the estranged niece of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2008 shortly after her return to Pakistan after several years in exile. What she would like to be known as, however, is the daughter of the older of Benazir’s two brothers, Murtaza, who was himself estranged from his sister and was shot dead in an encounter with the police in 1996, while Benazir’s government was in power. Her book is, among other things, an attempt to claim for her late father the legacy of her grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) now run by Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir’s controversial husband, who appears to be keeping the seat warm for Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Fatima’s cousin. In Fatima’s icy view, it is herself and her brother and her cousin, and not the children of Benazir, who are “the only Bhuttos remaining”. Clearly, the fighting is not over yet.
Meanwhile, the story of the past goes something like this in Fatima’s often laboured telling. In the arid political landscape and frequent periods of military rule in the newly formed state of Pakistan, one figure stood out for his inherent nobility of mind, nationalistic fervour, commitment to democracy, and intelligence: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, scion of one of feudal Pakistan’s most prominent families and head of its government from 1971 to 1977.
This portrait itself requires many dodges around some of the more unsavoury actions of Zulfiqar, but in this Fatima has a precedent: Reconciliation, the book published posthumously in 2008 by her own aunt Benazir, who was just as keen to claim Zulfiqar’s legacy. Indeed, as Fatima herself says, many in her own circle of family and friends have noted the resemblance between herself and her headstrong aunt, which makes her flaming hatred of Benazir all the more ironical and compelling.
When Zulfiqar was unseated by a coup by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 and later executed, his sons Murtaza and Shahnawaz fled Pakistan and set up an insurgent movement, Al-Zulfiqar, in Kabul, while Benazir, his eldest child, and Nusrat, his wife, were kept under house arrest by Zia but slowly managed to revive the party in the 1980s. Shahnawaz was mysteriously found dead in 1985—an event in which Fatima sees the hand of her aunt (throughout the book, no conspiracy theory is ever thought too outrageous to be discounted, and much of the testimony dredged up by Fatima’s research is clearly partisan).
Songs of Blood and Sword: Penguin, 470 pages, Rs699.
Murtaza, meanwhile, remained in exile—allegedly because Benazir felt threatened by him—even as his sister came to power as Pakistan’s youngest prime minister in 1988, following Zia’s death in a plane crash. Against his sister’s wishes, Murtaza returned to Pakistan in 1993, launching a splinter faction of the party and running for parliament himself and winning. His assassination in 1996—this is where Fatima’s evidence is strongest—was clearly a set-up, with Benazir and Zardari the most likely ringleaders of the operation.
For Fatima, Murtaza Bhutto was the real legatee of Zulfiqar’s ideas on Islam, democracy, socialism, foreign policy and governance, while his feted sister Benazir was actually a shrewish and corrupt manipulator who would do anything for power and wealth, and who turned the party into a personality cult. A long section of the book is devoted to Murtaza’s life and legacy, but the effect is often that of being forced through every photograph of a family album. Ingenious explanations are devised for every one of Murtaza’s controversial actions, such as this three-pronged analysis of the hijacking of a PIA plane by Al-Zulfiqar in 1981. Murtaza knew nothing about it until it was done, claims Fatima; it was Zia’s government which staged the hijack as a propaganda move against Al-Zulfiqar; further, it was Benazir who got Murtaza into trouble by exulting and speaking intemperately about the hijack.
One understands Fatima’s love and devotion for her father, and her courage in launching a no holds barred attack on Zardari and others in power in Pakistan today is certainly to be admired. But her narration is often so partisan, and her language so loaded, that it asks to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.
Further, Fatima’s book never seriously challenges the basic assumption that has been the ruination of democratic politics in Pakistan: the idea that political parties are the fiefdoms of families. There is a lot of vengefulness in the book, but very little by way of a larger vision. The sense of her story is that a Bhutto deserved to be in charge of the PPP, only that it was the wrong Bhutto, and that her father was cheated of his due. Much of her contempt for Zardari appears to derive from the fact that he was a low-born, unlike the Bhuttos. She recounts, entirely unselfconsciously, the story that her grandfather Zulfiqar had disliked Zardari’s father Hakim even though Hakim was a PPP man, and that “he humiliated him and even had him thrashed on occasion”, as if this reveals something about Hakim’s inferiority and not about Zulfiqar’s feudal arrogance.
A more realistic picture of the Bhutto family and all the other actors implicated in the story is formed by reading against the grain of this black-and-white reconstruction of the past, not with it.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
Source: Live Mint, New Delhi