The Bhuttos and me: a lifetime of politics and funerals

Published December 4, 2017
A rare photograph of the Bhutto Family in its prime. Seen from left to right are Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto (looking leftwards), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shahnawaz Bhutto. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives
A rare photograph of the Bhutto Family in its prime. Seen from left to right are Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto (looking leftwards), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shahnawaz Bhutto. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives

I was buying paan leaves for my grandmother that morning in Larkana, when the shop owner Taufeeq bhai, turned up the volume of his radio.

The newscaster Khalid Hameed introduced the 11 o’clock bulletin, and announced that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had had his funeral performed and was already buried.

Everyone stilled. Within moments, life was leached out of the crowded Pakistan Chowk, as one by one, the mithai shop closed, the cycle wallah shut his garage, and Taufeeq bhai walked out of his shop in a stupor.

The villagers, who had brought butter and lotus roots to sell, squatted by the roadside with their heads in their hands.

For a few moments, Larkana, Bhutto’s hometown, was as silent as a graveyard.

Then, two military vehicles drove through the area. I am not sure who started it but the bazaar suddenly reverberated with ‘Bhutto zindabaad.’

My friends and I decided to cycle to the graveyard, Garhi Khuda Bakhsh. Armoured vehicles and soldiers blocked the entrance.

Groups of people had started gathering outside and soldiers pointed their guns straight at them and threatened to shoot whoever came forward.

The crowd didn’t require investigative reports. It broke into hysterical shouts of ‘Qaatil, qaatil, Zia qaatil.’

By the time of the soyem two days later, Mumtaz Bhutto and Khar were greeted with the slogans, ‘Ghaddar, ghaddar.’

Later, we found out that hundreds were picked up from Larkana and its surroundings.

Much of my childhood memories are wound up with the persona of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Being chosen to present flowers to Shah of Iran and Queen Farah Diba at the Mohenjodaro airport, stepping onto the wrong side and Bhutto carrying me to the correct spot.

In the 1977 elections, him visiting my home with his comrade and my mother's closest friend, Dr Ashraf Abbasi.

Him telling me to help canvass votes for him and laughing when I said ‘it is better to work for a revolution,’ parroting what veteran communist, comrade Sobho Gyanchandani had told us.

Him telling off my brother for reading Jasarat, because the newspaper was what he called a ‘right-wing propaganda machine.’

I remember going to his open kucheri. I wrote an application requesting a scholarship and handed it to him. He asked me to give it to the education minister Waheed Buksh Bughio, who was sitting in the same enclosure.

I told him that the minister, who was also my neighbour, could barely read English and could not write it at all. He enjoyed that, and it was only much later that I realised that it was part of his strategy – to keep the feudal lords in his political ranks but also belittle them in front of peasants and commoners.

BENAZIR Bhutto ran an election campaign in 1988 that was as electric as her return to the country from exile a couple of years earlier. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives
BENAZIR Bhutto ran an election campaign in 1988 that was as electric as her return to the country from exile a couple of years earlier. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives

I was almost 20 when I went on my first road trip to Punjab. My friends and I pooled our savings and rented a small car to drive to Lahore.

It was 1986 and we were heading to the Lahore airport because Benazir Bhutto was coming back. It was a joyride like no other. A festival of the wretched:

Tens of thousands poured out on the streets, among them those who had been in prisons, who had been tortured, who had been underground, the warriors of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, their embattled, fatigued families, the desolate peasants who were remembering how to dance again.

The crowds were suffocating, all desperate for a glimpse of BB, all gasping for a breath of democracy. It reflected in the historic 1988 election where every major feudal lord and tribal chief lost to the political unknowns fielded by the Pakistan Peoples Party.

I met and interviewed Benazir on numerous occasions while working for the Agence France Presse, and saw her aggression before elections, the adrenaline at escaping the crackdowns, teargas and barricades, and the bitterness at Farooq Leghari’s betrayal.

“I considered him a brother and he stabbed me in the back. He didn’t even wait for Murtaza’s chehlum,” she said, convinced that it was a conspiracy against the Bhuttos, to kill one and through that, delegitimise and finish the other.

Murtaza Bhutto had come back a staunch critic of his sister’s government, and a passionate, romantic revolutionary who wanted to change the fundamentals of the country’s power structures in one go.

We spent hours with him talking about his days of exile in Afghanistan and Syria, his meetings with world leaders like Arafat, Najib, Assad, and Gaddafi.

I told him that I thought he was too idealistic for Pakistan’s politics. He said without ideals, nothing remains except compromises and selling out.

Editorial: PPP at 50

I met him for the last time on a Friday evening for a press conference at 70 Clifton, where he invited me, Javed Soomro, and Mazhar Abbas, to go to an upcoming public meeting with him. We declined because of our story deadlines.

A few hours after leaving the press conference, I received the message ‘firing at 70 Clifton’ on my DC Pager. The roads were blocked. I ran from what was then Schon Circle to what was then Mideast Hospital.

I saw injured men being carried in. Nasir Hussain was slamming his head against a wall. Murtaza was gone.

I saw Benazir run inside the hospital in her bare feet, hitting her chest, screaming, ‘my brother, my brother.’ Ghinwa Bhutto, grief-stricken, held her daughter Fatima Bhutto, and turned away.

Once again the Garhi Khuda Bakhsh graveyard was filled with anguished and angry people, and once more the streets vibrated with emotionally-charged energies.

The image I carry over from that day is of Begum Nusrat Bhutto, the most tragic figure imaginable. She lost her husband, her youngest son Shahnawaz Bhutto, and now Murtaza whom she sided with in the political feud.

I met Fatima, then a very young girl, but composed and articulate in an interview, narrating her unforgettable memories of her father.

At that time I thought she might take up the mantle of Bhutto forward, but she turned out to become a world-renowned writer, and is now a good friend.

Nusrat Bhutto reacts at the execution of her husband.
Nusrat Bhutto reacts at the execution of her husband.

In 2007, General Musharraf imposed a state of emergency and closed down news channels. When journalists resisted, they were thrashed and beaten by the police.

In protest, I, along with a few other senior journalists, courted arrest. I received a solidarity call from Benazir when we were detained in the police station.

She visited Geo to express support, where Imran Aslam, Mir Ibrahim and myself had a long discussion with her.

She had just survived the Karsaz suicide attack. “You’re a ticking time bomb,” I told her. “You have to be careful.”

“Yes but I cannot hide inside when there is an ocean of people who have come out on the roads to greet me, who believe I can bring some change to their lives,” she responded.

Only a few weeks later, she was assassinated, and I was back at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh. Sindh was in flames. The hostility was at a pitch the graveyard had never experienced before.

The slightest antagonism could have spiraled things into uncontrollable conflict, but the party leadership reined it back.

I could see Bilawal Bhutto and his sisters offering fateha. I hoped I never have to visit this graveyard for burials again.

So many of my memories are tied to this party, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the terrible. I have turned 50 years old, and the party is also 50.

In the past year, I have fought and survived cancer. The party has its own cancers to fight.

From what I have learned about the disease, it does not have external triggers or causes.

It starts as an internal mutation. It is this that the PPP must fight against, and half of the fight is a matter of will.

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