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A remarkable life story

Nusrat Bhutto bore witness at chillingly close quarters

Written by Murtaza Razvi |
October 26, 2011 3:03:41 am

Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s posthumous crowning as “Mother of Democracy” by a party which had stripped her of its chairpersonship,and her decoration with Nishan-e-Imtiaz,Pakistan’s highest civilian honour,by her son-in-law president come as exercises to cover up a guilty conscience. The nationwide public holiday declared on her funeral day on October 24 and the 10-day mourning are similarly hollow moves on the part of the government. The lady was over and above all such cosmetic gestures. She was truly Pakistan’s iron lady with the nerves of steel and a will to match. She always stood up and told the truth challenging dictatorial conduct,whether it be that of a general or of her own daughter.

As Pakistanis mourn Begum Sahiba’s passing,one’s mind races back to September 20,1996 when her elder son,Mir Murtaza Bhutto,was gunned down by security personnel outside the Bhutto home in Karachi. Her daughter,Benazir,was prime minister at the time and embroiled in a brutal rivalry with her brother. The case was callously brushed aside and no one was brought to justice for killing Murtaza and his friends in cold blood. Composed and elegant even in grief,Begum Sahiba held forth before the media and squarely blamed her daughter’s government of dictatorial conduct,calling her worse than Zia-ul Haq,who had dared not attack her house let alone stage a fake police encounter to take his political opponents out. The daughter retaliated by stripping the mother of her party title,taking on the chairpersonship herself and for life.

It would not be until after Begum Sahiba was struck by Alzheimer’s that Benazir would coax her into leaving the country with her to live and,alas,die in isolation in Dubai. The idea was to keep her away from Murtaza Bhutto’s children,Fatima and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Junior),whom she was very fond of and who in turn would be Bilawal Bhutto’s rivals in future politics. The grandmother and the grandchildren were indeed very close. The lasting curse of forced separation followed Begum Sahiba in her death just as well as in life.

At the funeral in Garhi Khuda Bux,President Zardari and his children officially conducted the ceremonies at Naudero House,the house that Benazir Bhutto in another bizarre episode had secured for herself by evicting the aged Begum Amir Bhutto,the first wife of her father. A short distance from that house stands Al Murtaza,the ancestral Bhutto home where Murtaza’s widow and her two children mourned separately for the lady who was taken away from them. Murtaza’s Syrian-born widow,Ghinwa Bhutto,who heads her faction of the People’s Party,lambasted the Zardari squad for keeping her and her children away from bidding farewell to Begum Bhutto.

Pakistan’s former first lady and a woman who single-handedly challenged General Zia-ul Haq by launching the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy after the coup against her husband’s government in 1977,indeed,witnessed many tragedies at chillingly close quarters. She was jailed and tortured by the dictator Zia,who hanged her husband after a mock trial; she saw the killing of Mir Murtaza and the death under mysterious circumstances of her youngest son,Shahnawaz,in exile in France. Whether she got to learn of Benazir’s assassination is beyond public knowledge because Begum Sahiba was not allowed any contact with outsiders in Dubai. Only Sanam Bhutto,her only surviving child and an avowedly apolitical person living in London,was allowed access to her mother from time to time.

Nusrat Bhutto will be remembered for her remarkable ability to distinguish between right and wrong — an ability which she exercised to the full at all times during her tumultuous years in public and private life. She never sought the limelight for herself even though she was elected MP to all but two assemblies between 1977 and 1997. She was the one who,after the judicial murder of her husband in 1979,took Benazir Bhutto through the ropes of Pakistan’s male-dominated politics. Unlike the daughter who had started donning the dupatta over her head as she entered politics,Nusrat Bhutto held her head high,dressing and walking the way she had always done. Hypocrisy never touched her; she remained straightforward and blunt throughout her life,never mincing words when censure was called for even if it involved her own children.

She will be remembered for these very qualities. Unlike her husband and her daughter,her politics too remained secular. She stuck to a democratic political lexicon even as others in her party used and abused religion for gaining political mileage. The emancipated granddaughter of an Iranian Ayatollah and a fashion icon in her day,Begum Sahiba knew that religion and politics are not the mix to set Pakistan’s many wrongs right. Her commitment to working towards democratic ideals and a firm belief in emancipation of women will remain her lasting legacy.

The writer is an editor with Dawn,Karachi,

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