May 26, 2020
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The Burnt Inside Of Pakistan’s House Of Atreus

Fatima Bhutto’s impeccable prose looks her family’s tragedies steadily in the eye, but turns a blind one towards the excesses of her beloved grandfather

The Burnt Inside Of Pakistan’s House Of Atreus
The Burnt Inside Of Pakistan’s House Of Atreus
Songs Of Blood And Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir
By Fatima Bhutto
Penguin/Viking | 480 pages | Rs 699

This family history of the Bhuttos is written in impeccably beautiful prose which would have been a joy to read if it had not been a gruesome tale of intrigue, treachery, treason, violence and cold-blooded murders. It is one long nightmare which will disturb the reader’s sleep for a long time and, like the characters of the story, make him an insomniac. It is the political lives of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his progeny of two daughters and two sons. The author, Fatima Bhutto, is his granddaughter from his elder son, Mir Murtaza Bhutto.

The Bhuttos, Sindh’s biggest and most prosperous landowners, were based in their ancestral home in Garhi Khuda Baksh in district Larkana. They were Vaderos—big people. They lived in palatial houses with hordes of servants and armed guards. They had second homes in Karachi’s posh residential area Clifton overlooking the Arabian Sea. They sent their children to the most renowned schools and colleges in America and England: Radcliffe, Harvard and Oxford. They thought nothing of flying across continents to join the family to celebrate a birthday. And all of them were deeply involved in the politics of Pakistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the son of Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, Dewan of Junagadh. Zulfikar went to school and college in Bombay. In 1947, when the Nawab of Junagadh, as advised by his Dewan, tried to opt for Pakistan but failed, the family went back to Sindh. Zulfikar developed a distrust of all Indians, especially Hindus. He proceeded to Harvard for further studies, read Das Kapital and turned Marxist. His Marxism grew deeper while he was in Oxford. He was determined to turn Pakistan from a feudal to a socialist state.

Back home, he fought an election and won. He was inducted into the state cabinet and became the youngest minister in General Ayub Khan’s government. The dictator-general had made Pakistan subservient to the American policy of drawing a cordon sanitaire round Communist China and the Soviet Union. As foreign minister, Bhutto turned that around under the very nose of his boss. He opened negotiations with China. The Chinese responded by giving more generous aid than the Americans and became Pakistan’s principal ally in its confrontations with India. Bhutto then proceeded to fix ceilings on landholdings, nationalised banks and many vital industries. The only thing he did not touch was the Muslim clergy as he wanted them to support him. He pandered to their archaic laws, even banning consumption of liquor and declaring Ahmedias to be non-Muslims.

When a Pakistani journalist was mentioned vis-a-vis a PPP youth wing, Bhutto said, “He doesn’t like me; he knows I f...d his mother”.

When out of power Bhutto founded the Pakistan People’s Party. The first meeting took place in the home of Mubasher Husain (a Shia and uncle of Syeda Hameed, member of our Planning Commission). Other items on his credit side are initiating the process of making Pakistan a nuclear power and indirectly helping East Pakistan become an independent Bangladesh. He realised that in any democratic form of government Bengalis would outnumber West Pakistanis, which he found unacceptable. He saved Sheikh Mujibur Rehman from the gallows and let him return to Dhaka to form his own government. His greatest shortcoming was his arrogance. He got Gen Zia-ul-Haq to supercede several generals senior to him and made him chief of army staff. Then he proceeded to humiliate him in public. General Zia never forgave him for making fun of him in public. When Zulfikar Bhutto was convicted and sentenced to death (there was one dissenting judge, a Parsi), he ignored worldwide appeals for clemency. “Two bodies, one coffin,” he said, meaning it was either Bhutto or him. So Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979.

Fatima Bhutto has a worshipful attitude towards her grandfather and father Mir Murtaza Bhutto. Neither of them could possibly do anything wrong. There was another side to her grandfather she totally ignores. I had the opportunity of meeting him a few times and read what his critics said about him. I first met him in Manzur Qadir’s house in Lahore, which had been my home till Partition. Manzur was Ayub Khan’s foreign minister. He was receiving visitors; I happened to be alone in his study when a handsome, dapperly-dressed young man walked in. I assumed he was a college student. Manzur came in and said: “I see you have introduced yourselves.” When I said we had not, Manzur told me that Zulfikar was the youngest minister in the cabinet. I left the room for them to talk in private. It was Bhutto who betrayed Manzur’s friendship by denouncing him as a free thinker and not a good Muslim. Manzur was dropped from the cabinet. He resumed legal practice and retired as chief justice of the Punjab High Court. A more honest and upright man I have yet to meet.

Bhutto invited me to Pakistan. Our first meeting was in Karachi. We had drinks on his lawn. Two days later, I spent another evening with him in Islamabad and had a second round of drinks. He gave me a message to convey to Indira Gandhi to the effect that he was anxious to be on friendly terms with India. The next morning I was invited to watch the proceedings of the Parliament. Questions were raised about the slow pace of development. Bhutto walked across to the opposition carrying a bottle of fluid and presented it with a flourish to the leader of the opposition. It was petrol—Pakistan had struck oil. It was a flamboyant display of confidence.

I returned to Delhi and sought an appointment with Mrs Gandhi. I conveyed Bhutto’s message of goodwill to her. She gave her answer in one sentence: “He is a damned liar.”

At one time Bhutto wanted to create an active youth wing of his Pakistan People’s Party. The name of a young Pakistani journalist based in London was mentioned. Bhutto countered it by saying: “I don’t think he likes me very much. He knows I f...d his mother.”

At another time he asked his cabinet ministers to dine with him. They arrived punctually and were served fruit juice while Bhutto sahib was in another room enjoying his Scotch with his cronies. The cabinet waited for him for two hours. The oldest among them could take it no more and went home. When Bhutto finally joined them and heard that the oldest fellow had gone home, he was furious. He sent his men to the fellow’s home and had him roughed up. The next day the poor fellow fled Pakistan.

All this has been written about and is common knowledge. It finds no mention in Fatima Bhutto’s hagiography.

Fatima Bhutto writes of the nation-wide protest against the execution of her grandfather. I happened to be in Islamabad for an interview with Gen Zia-ul-Haq. I was staying in a posh hotel largely occupied by foreign journalists. They had bribed the prison staff and got news of the steps being taken to execute Bhutto the very next day. My appointment with the president was a ruse to mislead the foreign media: he would not grant an interview to an Indian after hanging Bhutto, would he? They were not fooled. Next morning I looked out of my window and saw the hotel surrounded by tanks and armoured cars. I rang up our ambassador Shankar Bajpai and told him. “I’ll get back to you in a few minutes,” he said. He rang back and said, “They have done the deed.” I went down to the restaurant to have breakfast. The waiters clustered round me and asked in Punjabi, “Sardar saheb, eh khabar sach hai? (Is this news correct?)” I replied: “Ji, sach hai.” The response was: “Bahut zulm hoya (It is grave injustice).”

A little later I went to Rawalpindi, which is adjacent to Islamabad, to see how the common people were reacting. All shops were closed and groups of people huddled here and there, talking in whispers. In the afternoon a procession led by burqa-clad women went through the Meena Bazar. The police let them march on. There were prayers performed for the missing dead.

Fatima has a low opinion of her aunt Benazir, who wasted two terms of office, acquiring instead vast real estate around the world.

My appointment with Gen Zia was postponed by a week. I flew to Karachi to see if there were any demonstrations. I stayed with our consul, Mani Shankar Aiyar. In the afternoon we drove through the city. There were long queues outside cinema houses, boys were playing cricket on maidans. It appeared as if nothing untoward had happened.

A week later, I was back in Islamabad to interview Gen Zia. His house had only a few sentries at the gate. He received me with great courtesy and introduced me to his portly begum and mentally retarded daughter. My first question was, “General sahib, was it necessary to hang Bhutto? Could you not have pardoned him?” He replied: “He was convicted of murder, for which the punishment is death. Forgiveness is not in man’s hands, it can only be given by Allah.”

I share Fatima Bhutto’s low opinion of her aunt Benazir and her husband, now President, Asif Zardari. Benazir had two terms of office as head of state without introducing any legislation to improve the living conditions of common people. Instead, she acquired vast amounts of real estate in England, France, the US and Switzerland. This was brought out in detail by the New York Times. Her husband went further and got a suspended jail term in Switzerland for indulging in shady deals. He is still known as ‘Mister Ten Per Cent’ for taking brokerage for deals with the government. He is also uncouth and foul-mouthed.

I did not have the privilege of knowing Fatima Bhutto’s father Mir Murtaza, for whom she has unbounded admiration. Apparently he was as good a man as he was handsome. He was shot dead along with his five bodyguards near the entrance gate of their home in Clifton.

Fatima Bhutto’s life has been a long series of tragedies. She refuses to keep quiet about them. In the last pages of her book, she bluntly accuses Zardari of having committed four murders and “getting” a subservient judiciary of absolving him of all crimes. She is beautiful, highly gifted and gutsy. And she continues to live in Karachi. I pray for her long life.

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