A Story of Bhuttos, and South Asia
By Khaled Ahmed
March 28, 2015
After reading Tavleen Singh’s book Durbar, I became firm in my belief that ruling dynasties in South Asia routinely experience tremors within the family tree that the charisma-drunk masses don’t always grasp. Now, Anna Suvorova, professor of Indo-Islamic culture and head of the department of Asian Literature at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, has written Benazir Bhutto: A Multidimensional Portrait about the Bhuttos of Pakistan. In South Asia, the masses repose blind trust in dynasties, contrasted strangely with the intense loathing some sections of the population feel for the lineal hero. Needless to say, there is a lot of juice in it for Bhutto-haters, despite a sincere and almost successful effort to appreciate what was good in her.
The paterfamilias, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, will always be remembered as the man who gave us the 1973 constitution. He mobilised the common man and took leadership out of feudal hands and made possible the rise of the middle-class politician. His land reform didn’t work; neither did his belated, nationalisation-based, confiscatory socialism. Combative rather than conciliatory, he was tribal in his nursing of revenge and could be violent in the treatment of the disobedient.
His eldest, Benazir, can be called great because she transcended the “exemplary” charisma of her father, cured herself of the economic totalitarianism that was the party shibboleth, worked to fend off the international isolationism practised by her father as “heroic defiance”, married Asif Ali Zardari as a rejection of her father’s “inflexibility”, and wrote the famous Charter of Democracy of 2006 with her archrival Nawaz Sharif to wean the bipartisan politics of Pakistan away from vendetta. Her book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West (2008), was an answer to Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the “clash of civilisations”. Writing to her from his cell in 1978, Bhutto had her wrong, saying, “You have proved beyond doubt that the blood of warriors runs in your veins.” What she had was wisdom, not a trait of the warriors. But her brothers were growing up in parallel as followers of “Che” Guevara.
Suvorova tackles the turbulence within the Bhutto family with the help of psychologist and philosopher Alfred Adler (1870-1937): “The oldest child, regardless of gender, has an advantage over younger children for the simple reason that he or she participates together with the parents in the organisation of family life over a period of time. When another child appears in the family, the older children get additional advantages by acting as teachers to the younger brothers and sisters. This influence is greater when the age difference exceeds three years. Indeed, the authority of Benazir was a lot higher in the eyes of her younger sister Sanam and Shahnawaz than in her relations with Mir Murtaza, who was only a year younger.” Under primogeniture, Murtaza knew he would inherit the Bhutto legacy and therefore challenged her. Benazir idealised her younger brother Shahnawaz in her memoirs, writing about his “inherent generosity and democratic outlook”. But the boy was possibly bipolar, prone to attacks of depression when he became violent and brandished guns that he collected.
After Bhutto was hanged by General Zia-ul-Haq, Mir Murtaza and Shahnawaz ran off to Afghanistan and set up al-Zulfiqar, a terrorist organisation that soon hijacked a Pakistani aircraft; Benazir went to jail and was to remain there for almost five years, especially in the dreadful Sukkur jail, where she “suffered from a chronic purulent inflammation of the middle ear, which led to intense headaches and temporary hearing loss… her hair fell out, her gums got swollen, the prison doctors telling her they suspected that she had uterine cancer”. Meanwhile, her brothers were having a nice time in Kabul, partying among the power elite and finally marrying two well-placed sisters, Fauzia and Rehana. This became embedded in Benazir’s mind and cropped up when Murtaza openly pitted himself against her as the lineal redeemer.
A kind of apogee intervened in the family tragedy. In the summer of 1985, the entire family got together for the first time in years on the French Riviera at Cannes, where Shahnawaz was living with Rehana and daughter Sassi. He was an unstable and nervous 27-year-old with drug and alcohol problems, going around in a bulletproof vest with a vial of poison to prevent his “enemies from catching him alive”. Then he was found dead in his flat, his wife saying he had taken poison, forgetting to raise alarm. This led to another rift in the family, Rehana opting out and Murtaza divorcing her sister Fauzia. Shahnawaz’s daughter Sassi never looked back, but Fatima returned to Murtaza and his second wife Ghinwa to become Benazir’s nemesis in Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir(2010).
What really happened at Cannes? Pakistan’s ambassador to France in 1985, Jamsheed Marker, in his book Quiet Diplomacy: Memoirs of an Ambassador of Pakistan (2010), tells the story of a remarkably successful envoy representing a remarkably unsuccessful country. He writes: “The party then broke up, and Shahnawaz and his wife, after returning to their hotel room, were followed by Murtaza, and another altercation took place between the brothers. The French police, when they arrived at the scene a little later, found that Shahnawaz was dead and accordingly arrested his wife and Murtaza. The latter was released on production of a Syrian diplomatic passport and immediately fled the country. Shahnawaz’s wife was charged under a French law that imposes culpability on any person that fails to assist or call for assistance, in aid of a victim in distress”.
Marker thought the death was a family affair “rather than a plot hatched in Islamabad by the ISI”. However, he spoke more openly years later to a Pakistani journalist, Anjum Niaz: “Begum Nusrat Bhutto lived in Cannes, in the French Riviera. The lodgings were loaned to her by the then French minister of justice. The minister was a good friend of the Bhuttos, as was President Gaddafi of Libya. Gaddafi had given large sums of money to the Bhuttos. One evening during dinner in a restaurant, the two boys — Murtaza and Shahnawaz — entered into an argument over the division of the money.”
Nobody’s death was more foretold in our times than Benazir’s. Her family was not Shia, but the names Zulfikar and Murtaza have resonated with the Shia community. Her death was as predictable as the martyrdom of Imam Husain, who was warned again and again about who would kill him in Karbala. She even wrote a letter to General Pervez Musharraf saying who would kill her. The trial for her assassination is still pending. The prosecutor-general, Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who got close to the scent of the killers, was murdered by al-Qaeda in Islamabad in 2013 through the son of an army officer dismissed from service for holding radical views.
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’.