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Nusrat Bhutto’s death — end of an era

October 24, 2011

A picture of the Bhuttos taken during a family excursion shows (from right to left) former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his wife Nusrat, daughter Sanam, son Mir Murtaza, daughter Benazir and son Shahnawaz.

The  death of Begum Nusrat Bhutto brings to an end an extremely turbulent chapter in Pakistan’s history. She was the country’s first lady from 1973 to 1977.

In 1989, when she was a senior minister without portfolio and acted as the prime minister when Benazir Bhutto gave birth to her second child.

In the roller-coaster world of Pakistani politics, Begum Bhutto saw many ups and downs.

Belonging to a well-to-do Iranian business family she had the good fortune of becoming the country’s first lady when Z.A. Bhutto assumed power soon after the dismemberment of the country. She also enjoyed pomp and power when Benazir became the prime minister.

But in the intervening period and even afterwards, she faced several tragedies with exemplary courage and fortitude.

Her husband was hanged after a controversial judgment, one son was gunned down in Karachi and the other died in Paris in mysterious circumstances.

But she continued to fight against all odds, leading her husband’s party, the People’s Party, from the front.

Nusrat Bhutto did not come from a political dynasty. She belonged to an Iranian business family which had trading houses in Iran, Iraq and undivided India.

Settled in Ispahan (Iran), her great grandfather had studied at Najaf Ashraf in Iraq and set up his business there. Once back in Iran, he rose to the position of Ayatollah.

One of his children, Mirza Mohammad, was born in Najaf but finally settled in Iran. He was a liberal man and wanted to change with the changing times.

In his youth, Mohammad visited Bombay and decided to start a business there under the name of the Baghdad Soap Factory.

It was in Bombay that Nusrat Ispahani, as Begum Bhutto was known before marriage, was born on March 23, 1929. She was the third child of her father.

Education in Bombay imbued Nusrat with a liberal outlook, although her mother was a conservative woman who wanted her to wear a veil after she passed her Cambridge examinations and began going to college. It was the veil which prevented Nusrat from pursuing higher studies.

During one of her family’s several visits to the scenic Khandala town Nusrat met Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto’s family. When Nusrat’s family shifted to Karachi, the friendship between the two families deepened.

At that time Z.A. Bhutto had returned from the United States after completing his studies. By then Nusrat had joined Pakistan National Guards. She married ZAB in 1951 in Karachi.

It was after her marriage that Mr Bhutto went to England for law studies and Nusrat accompanied him. Mr Bhutto was already married to Amir Begum and Nusrat was his second wife.

Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto had close ties with the family of former president Iskandar Mirza who brought Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into politics a little before Gen Ayub Khan overthrew Mirza on Oct 7, 1958.

Zulfikar and Nusrat were in Larkana when they got the message that Ayub Khan wanted to retain Bhutto as a minister. It was on Nusrat’s advice that Bhutto accepted the offer.

Mr Bhutto was sworn in as minister for natural resources, later as foreign minister. When Mr Bhutto developed differences with Ayub Khan after the Tashkent Declaration, Nusrat became closely involved in politics. She was active in organising the women’s wing of the Pakistan People’s Party.

After the overthrow of the Bhutto government by Gen Ziaul Haq on July 5, 1977, many difficulties awaited her. She had to lead the party and fight for her husband’s life. It cost her dearly.

As the only living head of the family, she took up the leadership of the party and also dealt with the cases in courts. However, she had to endure the shock of Bhutto’s execution on April 4, 1979.

At that juncture, her only consolation was her children. She left the country along with Shahnawaz, Murtaza, Benazir and Sanam, and remained in exile for many years. During the exile she got another shock, in the shape of Shahnawaz’s mysterious and untimely death.

Things began to look up for her when Benazir returned to Pakistan in 1986 after Gen Zia’s death. Nusrat always remained beside her daughter and helped her during her election campaign. In a way she was the main source of strength for Benazir who finally came to power in 1988.

Nusrat herself was elected from Larkana and her prime minister-daughter appointed her a minister.

Things went well for some time but then tragedy struck once again. During the second tenure of Benazir’s prime ministership, her son Murtaza was killed near the Bhutto’s 70 Clifton residence.

This shock began showing its effects and Nusrat’s health started declining. She was eventually attacked by Alzheimer’s, from which she never recovered.

Since 1996 she had been suffering from various ailments and was living in Dubai.