A life of struggle and tragedy
In the death of Begum Nusrat Bhutto, the country has witnessed nothing less than the passing of an era. Begum Bhutto was perhaps the last representative within the past or present leadership of the PPP of the original élan of the party – left wing and anti-imperialist. All that has by now given way to the PPP being swayed by the currents of our times. The change in the party’s ideology could perhaps be traced to the moment when, partly because of ill health, Begum Bhutto was removed as the chairperson for life of the PPP and replaced by her daughter, Benazir Bhutto.
In a life that saw both highs and lows, and was never far from struggle and tragedy, Begum Bhutto was the bulwark of support for her husband Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and after him, to her daughter Benazir. When ZAB was executed in 1979, many erstwhile leaders of the PPP abandoned him in the face of actual or threatened repression by the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq. Cometh the time, cometh the man, or in this case, woman. Begum Bhutto rose to the challenge, filling the void left by ZAB’s departure from this world, assumed charge of and the chairpersonship of the PPP in 1979, a post she held with great distinction until 1983. It is in this fraught period in the country’s history, when the horizon had darkened with the draconian repression by the Zia dictatorship, that she launched a determined and heroic struggle against the military regime. During this struggle, she suffered incarceration repeatedly and even physical abuse at the hands of the dictator’s minions. Undeterred, she pulled off the remarkable feat of uniting a broad spectrum of political parties to launch the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). The movement was put down ruthlessly with an iron hand by General Zia. Around this time, Begun Bhutto was diagnosed with suspected cancer and allowed to leave the country for treatment abroad. She was a rock of support for her daughter Benazir in her captainship of the PPP from then on.
As though the fate of ZAB was not enough, she faced a continuing series of tragedies of Shakespearean dimensions. First her younger son, Shahnawaz Bhutto was murdered by poisoning by Zia agents. In 1996, her elder son and the apple of her eye, Murtaza Bhutto, was gunned down in Karachi by the police. That was not the end of the Bhutto family’s unprecedented record of tragedies. Benazir herself was gunned down in Rawalpindi after her return from exile abroad. It is not clear whether Begum Bhutto was either told or was aware of the death of her daughter, since by 2007 her Alzheimer’s is said to have rendered her unable to comprehend. A further tragedy was that Begum Bhutto, torn between loyalty to her daughter and the political ambition of Murtaza, cast her lot in with the latter. His killing is said to have so affected her that she not only retired from public life, but reconciled with Benazir and lived out the rest of her days in exile in Dubai.
While the respect Begum Bhutto was held in is reflected in the non-partisan tributes flowing in from all political parties and leaders, naturally it is the PPP, and especially its workers, with whom Begum Bhutto always retained a special rapport, who feel bereft. The prime minister announced a national holiday on Monday, the day of her funeral, and 10 days of mourning. The president, her son-in-law, awarded her the title of Madir-e-Jamhuriat (Mother of Democracy) and a Nishan-e-Imtiaz for her services to democracy and the country. The Sindh PPP announced 40 days of mourning. The party has suspended all political activities throughout the country.
While the outpouring of grief for a great lady and great leader fill the air, her death could not, unfortunately, heal the divide in the Bhutto family. Murtaza’s widow Ghinwa and his daughter Fatima objected to her body not being allowed to come to her home in 70 Clifton, Karachi, or Al-Murtaza, Larkana, although they did travel to Garhi Khuda Bux for Begum Bhutto’s last rites. We do not know what Begum Bhutto would have made of the continuing feud in the family or the very different direction the PPP has taken from the party her husband founded and she steered through very difficult times. Perhaps it would not be far off the mark to surmise that she would have been somewhat disappointed by both. Be that as it may, while death comes to us all, the passing of some is a greater moment than others. Without fear of contradiction, one such was Begum Nusrat Bhutto, the epitome of grace under pressure and immense courage.