The life and times of the Bhuttos is seen afresh in a passionately partisan but well-constructed memoir. William Dalrymple reviews it in context.
The Bhuttos’ acrimonious family squabbles have long resembled one of the bloody succession disputes that habitually plagued South Asia during the time of the Great Mughals. In the case of the Bhuttos, they date back to the moment when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was arrested on July 5, 1977.
Unsure how to defend their father and his legacy, his children had reacted in different ways. Benazir believed the struggle should be peaceful and political. Her brothers initially tried the same approach, forming al-Nusrat, the Save Bhutto committee; but after two futile years they decided in 1979 to turn to the armed struggle.
Murtaza was 23 and had just left Harvard where he got a top first, and where he was taught by, among others, Samuel Huntington. Forbidden by his father from returning to Zia’s Pakistan, he flew from the US first to London, then on to Beirut, where he and his younger brother Shahnawaz were adopted by Yasser Arafat. Under his guidance they received the arms and training necessary to form the Pakistan Liberation Army, later renamed Al-Zulfiquar or The Sword.
Just before his daughter Fatima was born, Murtaza and his brother had found shelter in Kabul as guests of the pro-Soviet government. There the boys had married a pair of Afghan sisters, Fauzia and Rehana Fasihudin, the beautiful daughters of a senior Afghan official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fatima’s mother was Fauzia.
For all its PLO training in camps in Syria, Afghanistan and Libya, Al-Zulfiquar achieved little except for two failed assassination attempts on Zia and the hijacking of a Pakistan International Airways flight in 1981. This was diverted from Karachi to Kabul and secured the release of some 55 political prisoners; but it also resulted in the death of an innocent passenger, a young army officer. Zia used the hijacking as a means of cracking down on the Pakistan Peoples Party, and got the two boys placed on the Federal Investigation Agency’s most-wanted list. Benazir was forced to distance herself from her two brothers even though they subsequently denied sanctioning the hijack, and claimed only to have acted as negotiators once the plane landed in Kabul. While much about the details of the hijacking remains mysterious, Murtaza was posthumously acquitted of hijacking in 2003.
I first encountered the family in 1994 when, as a young foreign correspondent on assignment for the Sunday Times, I was sent to Pakistan to write a long magazine piece on the Bhutto dynasty. I met Benazir in the giddy pseudo-Mexican Prime Minister’s House that she had built in the middle of Islamabad.
It was the beginning of Benazir’s second term as Prime Minister, and she was at her most imperial. She both walked and talked in a deliberately measured and regal manner, and frequently used the royal “we”. During my interview, she took a full three minutes to float down the hundred yards of lawns separating the Prime Minister’s House from the chairs where I had been told to wait for her. There followed an interlude when Benazir found the sun was not shining in quite the way she wanted it to: “The sun is in the wrong direction,” she announced. Her hair was arranged in a sort of baroque beehive topped by white gauze dupatta like one of those Roman princesses in Caligula or Rome.
A couple of days later in Karachi, I met Benazir’s brother Murtaza in very different circumstances. Murtaza was on trial in Karachi for his alleged terrorist offences. A one hundred rupee bribe got me through the police cordon, and I soon found Murtaza with his mother — Begum Bhutto — in an annexe beside the courtroom. Murtaza looked strikingly like his father, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. He was handsome, very tall — well over six feet — with a deep voice and, like his father, exuded an air of self-confidence, bonhomie and charisma. He invited me to sit down: “Benazir doesn’t care what the local press says about her,” he said, “but she’s very sensitive to what her friends in London and New York get to read about her.”
“Has your sister got in touch with you since you returned to Pakistan?” I asked.
“No. Nothing. Not one note.”
“Did you expect her to intervene and get you off the hook?” I asked. “What kind of reception did you hope she would lay on for you when you returned from Damascus?”
“I didn’t want any favours,” replied Murtaza. “I just wanted her to let justice take its course, and for her not to interfere in the legal process. As it is, she has instructed the prosecution to use delaying tactics to keep me in confinement as long as possible. This trial has been going on for three months now and they still haven’t finished examining the first witness. She’s become paranoid and is convinced I’m trying to topple her.”
Murtaza went on to describe an incident the previous week when the police had opened fire on Begum Bhutto as she left her house to visit her husband’s grave. When the Begum ordered the gates of the compound to be opened and made ready to set off, the police opened fire. One person was killed immediately and two others succumbed to their injuries after the police refused to let the ambulances through. That night as three family retainers lay bleeding to death, 15 kilometres away in her new farmhouse, Benazir celebrated her father’s birthday with singing and dancing:
“After three deaths, she and her husband danced!” said the Begum now near to tears. “They must have known the police were firing at Al-Murtaza. Would all this have happened if she didn’t order it? But the worst crime was that they refused to let the ambulances through. If only they had let the ambulances through those two boys would be alive now: those two boys who used to love Benazir, who used to run in front of her car.”
The Begum was weeping now. “I kept ringing Benazir saying ‘for God sake stop the siege’, but her people just repeated: ‘Madam is not available’. She wouldn’t even take my call. One call from her walkie-talkie would have got the wounded through. Even General Zia...” The sentence trailed away. “What’s that saying in England?” asked the Begum: “Power corrupts, more power corrupts even more. Is that it?”
Two years later, to no one’s great surprise, Murtaza was himself shot dead in similar and equally suspicious circumstances.
Murtaza had been campaigning with his bodyguards in a remote suburb of Karachi. As his convoy neared his home at 70 Clifton, the street lights were abruptly turned off.
It was September 20, 1996, and Murtaza’s decision to take on Benazir had put him into direct conflict not only with his sister, but also with her husband Asif Ali Zardari. Murtaza had an animus against Zardari, who he believed was not just a nakedly and riotously corrupt polo-playing playboy, but had pushed Benazir to abandon the PPP’s once-radical agenda — fighting for social justice. Few believed the rivalry was likely to end peacefully. Both men had reputations for being trigger-happy. Murtaza’s bodyguards were notoriously rough, and Murtaza was alleged to have sentenced to death several former associates, including his future biographer, Raja Anwar, author of an unflattering portrait, The Terrorist Prince. Zardari’s reputation was worse still.
So insistent had the rumours become that Zardari had ordered the killing of Murtaza at 3 pm that afternoon, that Murtaza had given a press conference saying he had learnt that an assassination attempt on him was being planned, and he named some of the police officers he claimed were involved in the plot. Several of the officers were among those now waiting, guns cocked, outside his house. According to witnesses, when the leading car drew up at the roadblock, there was a single shot from the police, followed by two more shots, one of which hit the foremost of Murtaza’s armed bodyguards. Murtaza immediately got out of his car and urged his men to hold their fire. As he stood there with his hands raised above his head, urging calm, the police opened fire on the whole party with automatic weapons. The firing went on for nearly 10 minutes.
Two hundred yards down the road, inside the compound of 70 Clifton, the house where Benazir Bhutto had spent her childhood, was Murtaza’s wife Ghinwa, his daughter, the 12-year-old Fatima, and the couple’s young son Zulfikar, then aged six. When the first shot rang out, Fatima was in Zulfikar’s bedroom, helping put him to bed. She immediately ran with him into his windowless dressing room, and threw him onto the floor, protecting him by covering his body with her own.
After 45 minutes, Fatima called the Prime Minister’s House and asked to speak to her aunt. Zardari took her call:
Fatima: “I wish to speak to my aunt, please.”
Zardari: “It’s not possible.”
Zardari: “She’s hysterical, can’t you hear?”
Zardari: “Don’t you know? Your father’s been shot.”
Fatima and Ghinwa immediately left the house and demanded to be taken to see Murtaza. By now there were no bodies in the street. It had all been swept and cleaned up: there was no blood, no glass, or indeed any sign of any violence at all. Each of the seven wounded had been taken to a different location, though none was taken to emergency units of any the different Karachi hospitals. The street was completely empty.
“They had taken my father to the Mideast, a dispensary,” says Fatima. “It wasn’t an emergency facility and had no facilities for treating a wounded man. We climbed the stairs, and there was my father lying hooked up to a drip. He was covered in blood and unconscious. You could see he had been shot several times. One of those shots had blown away part of his face. I kissed him and moved aside. He never recovered consciousness. We lost him just after midnight.”
The two bereaved women went straight to a police station to register a report, but the police refused to take it down. Benazir Bhutto was then the Prime Minister, and one might have expected the assassins would have faced the most extreme measures of the state for killing the Prime Minister’s brother. Instead, it was the witnesses and survivors who were arrested. They were kept incommunicado and intimidated. Two died soon afterwards in police custody.
“There were never any criminal proceedings,” says Fatima. “Benazir claimed in the West to be the queen of democracy, but at that time there were so many like us who had lost family to premeditated police killings. We were just one among thousands.”
Benazir always protested her innocence in the death of Murtaza, and claimed that the killing was an attempt to frame her by the army’s intelligence services: “Kill a Bhutto to get a Bhutto,” as she used to put it. But Murtaza was, after all, clearly a direct threat to Benazir’s future, and she gained the most from the murder. For this reason her complicity was widely suspected well beyond the immediate family: when Benazir and Zardari attempted to attend Murtaza’s funeral, their car was stoned by villagers who believed them responsible.
The judiciary took the same view, and the tribunal set up to investigate the killing concluded that Benazir’s administration was “probably complicit” in the assassination. Six weeks later, when Benazir fell from power, partly as a result of public outrage at the killings, Zardari was charged with Murtaza’s murder.
Fourteen years on, however, the situation is rather different. Benazir is dead, assassinated, maybe by the military, but equally possibly by some splinter group of the Taliban. Fatima is now a strikingly beautiful 28-year-old, fresh from a university education in New York and London. She has a razor-sharp mind and a forceful, determined personality. Meanwhile, the man Fatima Bhutto holds responsible for her father’s death is not only out of prison, but President of the country. The bravery of writing a memoir taking on such a man is self-evident, but Fatima seems remarkably calm about the dangers she has taken on.
As for the book itself, Songs of Blood and Sword is moving, witty and well-written. It is also passionately partisan: this is not, and does not pretend to be, an objective account of Murtaza Bhutto so much as a love letter from a grieving daughter and an act of literary vengeance and account-settling by a niece who believed her aunt had her father murdered.
Future historians will decide whether Murtaza really does deserve to be vindicated for the hijacking in Kabul and will weigh up whether or not Murtaza, who even Fatima describes as “impulsive” and “honourable and foolish”, would have made a better leader than his deeply flawed sister; or indeed whether the equally inconsistent Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto deserves the adulation heaped on him by his granddaughter. But where the book is unquestionably important is the reminder it gives the world as to Benazir’s flaws. Since her death, Benazir has come to be regarded, especially in the US, as something of a martyr for democracy. Yet the brutality of Benazir’s untimely end should not blind anyone to her as astonishingly weak record as a politician. Benazir was no Aung San Suu Kyi, and it is misleading as well as simplistic to depict her as having died for freedom; in reality, Benazir’s instincts were not so much democratic as highly autocratic.
Within her own party, she declared herself the lifetime president of the PPP, and refused to let her brother Murtaza challenge her for its leadership; his death was an extreme version of the fate of many who opposed her. Benazir also colluded in wider human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings, and during her tenure government death squads murdered hundreds of her opponents. Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world's worst records of custodial deaths, abductions, killings and torture.
Far from reforming herself in exile, Benazir kept a studied distance from the pioneering lawyers’ movement which led the civil protests against President Musharraf’s unconstitutional attempts to manipulate the Supreme Court. She also sidelined those in her party who did support the lawyers. Later she said nothing to stop President Musharraf ordering the US-brokered “rendition” of her rival Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, so removing from the election her most formidable democratic opponent. Many of her supporters regarded her deal with Musharraf as a betrayal of all that her party stood for. Her final act in her will was to hand the inappropriately named Pakistan People’s Party over to her teenage son as if it were her personal family fiefdom.
Worse still, Benazir was a notably inept administrator. During her first 20-month-long premiership, she failed to pass a single piece of major legislation, and during her two periods in power she did almost nothing to help the liberal causes she espoused so enthusiastically to the Western media.
Instead, it was under her watch that Pakistan’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), helped install the Taliban in Pakistan, and she did nothing to rein in the agency’s disastrous policy of training up Islamist jihadis from the country’s madrasas to do the ISI’s dirty work in Kashmir and Afghanistan. As a young correspondent covering the conflict in Kashmir in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I saw how during her premiership, Pakistan sidelined the Kashmiris’ own secular resistance movement, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, and instead gave aid and training to the brutal Islamist outfits it created and controlled, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Harkat ul-Mujahedin. Benazir’s administration, in other words, helped train the very assassins who are most likely to have shot her.
Benazir was, above all, a feudal landowner, whose family owned great tracts of Sindh, and with the sense of entitlement this produced. Democracy has never thrived in Pakistan in part because landowning remains the base from which politicians emerge. In this sense, Pakistani democracy in Pakistan is really a form of “elective feudalism”: the Bhuttos’ feudal friends and allies were nominated for seats by Benazir, and these landowners made sure their peasants voted them in.
Behind Pakistan’s swings between military government and democracy lies a surprising continuity of elitist interests: to some extent, Pakistan’s industrial, military and landowning classes are all interrelated, and they look after each other. They do not, however, do much to look after the poor. The government education system barely functions in Pakistan, and for the poor, justice is almost impossible to come by. According to the political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, “Both the military and the political parties have all failed to create an environment where the poor can get what they need from the state. So the poor have begun to look for alternatives. In the long term, these flaws in the system will create more room for the fundamentalists.”
Many right-wing commentators on the Islamic world tend to see political Islam as an anti-liberal and irrational form of “Islamo-fascism”. Yet much of the success of the Islamists in countries such as Pakistan comes from the Islamists’ ability to portray themselves as champions of social justice, fighting people like Benazir Bhutto from the corrupt Westernised elite that rules most of the Muslim world from Karachi to Riyadh, Ramallah and Algiers.
Benazir’s reputation for massive corruption was gold dust to these Islamic revolutionaries, just as the excesses of the Shah were to their counterparts in Iran 30 years earlier: during her government, Pakistan was declared one of the three most corrupt countries in the world, and Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari — widely known as “Mr 10%” — faced allegations of plundering the country; charges were filed in Pakistan, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States to investigate their various bank accounts, and they stood accused of jointly looting no less than $1.4 billion from the state.
When I interviewed Abdul Rashid Ghazi in the Islamabad Red Mosque shortly before his death in Musharraf’s July attack on the complex, he returned time and again to these issues: “We want our rulers to be honest people,” he repeated. “But now the rulers are living a life of luxury while thousands of innocent children have empty stomachs and can’t even get basic necessities.”
This is the principal reason for the rise of the Islamists in Pakistan, and why so many people support them: they are the only force capable of taking on the country’s landowners and their military cousins. Benazir Bhutto may have been a brave, gutsy, secular and liberal woman. But sadness at the demise of this courageous fighter should not mask the fact that as a corrupt feudal who did nothing for the poor, she was a central part of Pakistan’s problems, rather than any solution to them. Songs of Blood and Sword is a timely and forceful reminder of this.
Certainly, readers of Fatima’s book have ahead of them a wonderfully close-focussed and well-constructed memoir from the heart of the most violent and Borgia-like of the South Asian dynasties to savour. They also, most likely, have further instalments to come. During a recent interview, I asked Fatima whether she would consider entering politics herself: “I am political,” she replied, “but there are many ways to be political. I don’t think that becoming an MP is necessarily the best way to influence people. For the time being, I want to be a writer. But who knows? If in the future there was a way I could serve my country, one that did not involve becoming yet another part of dynastic birthright politics, maybe I could envisage putting my name forward.” Watch this space.
William Dalrymple's most recent book is Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India