Each day, a small queue of mourners forms at the grave of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. There, in his ancestral village on the outskirts of Larkana, they ascend the steps and kneel with their heads slightly bowed. Some lean over to kiss the silk cloth that shrouds the marble-encased remains of Pakistan's most explosive leader. Others raise their cupped hands in prayer, or stand at a slight distance, silently sprinkling fistfuls of rose petals from between the surrounding pillars.
Such displays of reverence are more usually found at shrines consecrated to rural Sindh’s Sufi saints. But for many of the province’s political faithful, a visit to the vast Mughal-imitation structure, crowned with three domes, is equally sacred. Born to one of Sindh’s wealthiest landowning families, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto emerged as Pakistan’s first democratically elected leader. His fiery speeches, often laced with taunts against the generals and the rich, won him prestige among the poor.
In 1977, he was toppled in a military coup, and hanged on trumped-up murder charges two years later. At a distance to Zulfikar’s elevated body, lie those of his two sons. In 1985, Shahnawaz was poisoned while on holiday in Cannes. In 1996, policemen gunned down Murtaza outside his home. And now, lying beside her father are the bones of his political heir, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination in December 2007 convulsed the country.
The dates are ordered in chilling sequence on the cover of Fatima Bhutto’s elegiac new memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword. “It was really after my aunt was killed,” Fatima, Murtaza’s daughter, recently told an interviewer, “when suddenly the numbers just lined up in a column, and it seemed to be every decade.” She mourns her world famous aunt’s death, but unsparing in her criticisms.
Fatima may have shared much with her aunt: the effortless confidence, similarly striking features, an education in America followed by Britain, and a powerful but uncritical devotion to a father who perished violently. But these, she told me in the weeks before her aunt’s final return to Pakistan, “were superficial things”. Sitting under a painting of her grandfather Zulfikar addressing a political rally at the height of his power, she said that her aunt Benazir bore at least “moral responsibility” for her father’s death.
The daughter’s pursuit of her father’s killers is detailed in gripping, and at times, poetic rhythms. The reader’s eye cannot help but pace down each page. The material Fatima draws on could scarcely be more compelling. Still, the story is wrought with a soft pen, a warm, nakedly wounded heart, a cold, probing eye and a hard, unyielding sense of injustice.
The idea for the book was born mere moments before the tragedy that irreparably shook her life. Murtaza, her father, had been sitting at home, recalling the days when he battled the regime of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, the west’s favourite dictator who overthrew, imprisoned and hanged Zulfikar. Unlike his more pragmatic sister, who favoured a political route through a return to constitutional democracy, Murtaza and his brother had established, Al-Zulfikar, an underground guerilla outfit.
Based first in Kabul, where Fatima was born 28 years ago, and later Syria, al-Zulfikar (The Sword) operated with the support of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, Moscow and Indian intelligence. It was accused of orchestrating a series of shootings, bombings, and the 1981 hijacking of a Pakistan International Airlines plane. It was “a terrorist group which often scaled the pinnacles of absurdity,” once wrote Tariq Ali, who is otherwise quoted approvingly by Fatima in her book.
Then just 14, Fatima asked her father if he regretted his life. “No,” he said. “I fought the government that killed my father and brother and I’m proud of that. What we failed in, we failed in, but we didn’t take the coup lying down. We resisted. I’d do it all over again.” Fatima urged him to write a book. “No, I can’t. You’ll do it for me. You can write a book on my life.” She hastened for a pen and paper. “Not now,” Murtaza told his daughter. “You can write it after I’m dead.”
Two days later, Murtaza was gunned down outside his home. His body lay there, beside a convoy of mangled jeeps. The blood streamed into nearby gutters. Bullet-casings were strewn all around. Murtaza’s face had been hit, writes Fatima, “his beautiful, smiling face.” The scene was hosed down within minutes, an event that repeated itself after Benazir’s death.
While keenly apportioning blame, Fatima studiously refuses to entertain competing explanations. Within weeks of Murtaza’s murder, Benazir’s government was sacked. Zardari was thrown behind bars for the murder. A welter of corruption charges was piled on. And after a fresh election, her PPP was reduced to just over a dozen seats. Her opponent secured an unprecedented two-thirds majority. In 1999, she fled into exile, never to taste political power again. If there was a beneficiary of Murtaza’s murder, events demonstrate that it wasn’t Benazir.
Benazir was never comfortable talking about her brother’s murder. She once stormed out of a television interview. “It was my brother who was murdered, not your brother,” she thundered, her voice gravid with emotion. In her own memoir, Benazir refers adoringly to Murtaza as her “baby brother,” who was “so handsome, his dark eyes flashing one minute, gentling the next”.
She saw her brother’s murder as a “conspiracy” hatched by the family’s legions of enemies, the purpose of which was to “kill a Bhutto to catch a Bhutto”. In his 1996 obituary of Murtaza, Tariq Ali suggested that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies might have been involved. “It is hardly a secret that there are forces in Pakistan that would like nothing better than to wipe out the entire Bhutto clan,” he wrote, in words that Benazir’s supporters will regard prescient.
Notably, there is no mention in the book of the former Scotland Yard team that investigated Murtaza’s murder. Enlisted by Benazir’s government, the team found there was at least another shooter on the other side of the road to the police. Before being paid off and kicked out of the country by the new interim government, it drew comparisons with the “grass knoll syndrome” of the John F Kennedy assassination.
Citing a tribunal report, Fatima concludes that Murtaza’s murder could not have taken place without approval from “the highest” authority. But that, as observers of Pakistan’s anemic and abbreviated periods of civilian democracy know, has never meant the prime minister’s office.
Unsurprisingly, Fatima inherited her father’s dislike of Benazir. She repeats familiar but still unproven charges of corruption that triggered the collapse of Benazir’s two stints in government. The Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) many failures are well attested, even by sitting ministers these days. But Fatima’s animus is such that either inaccurate or inconsistent lines of attack often tempt her.
Early in the book, she insists that the PPP’s political opponents “have left the country,” after presumably being hounded there. Casting around the political scenery, it is difficult to identify whom she may be referring to. Life-long Benazir opponent Nawaz Sharif is the country’s most popular politician. The chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, harries the government at every available opportunity. The only notable opponent languishing in (gilded) exile is former dictator Pervez Musharraf, whose return would likely invite charges of “high treason” for subverting the constitution.
Fatima frowns on Benazir’s decision to don a headscarf, an obvious attempt to court religious opinion in Pakistan, just as Zulfikar had banned alcohol and gambling. But Murtaza’s own use of religious symbolism, by wearing “a small and golden” replica of Imam Ali’s two pronged sword, his rival party’s symbol, is described with affection.
In the same vein, Benazir’s return to Pakistan in 1986 is said to have succeeded a term in “self-imposed exile,” something that will surprise those familiar with her solitary confinement in Sukkur jail. By contrast, Fatima is sympathetic to others’ decision to flee, leave alone her father’s understandable absence from Pakistan.
Fatima rightly notes that some of the PPP’s top brass were once notorious opponents of her grandfather’s. But there is a pervasive sense that her father was cheated of his rightful claim, as a male heir. In keeping with Sindh’s patriarchal traditions, the otherwise progressive Fatima never recognized her aunt’s claim to be a Bhutto. Instead, she was denounced as “Mrs. Zardari.”
Yet the path of Benazir’s succession has closely mirrored that of Murtaza’s own party, the PPP-Shaheed Bhutto (The Martyr Bhutto). After his death, his widower and Fatima’s stepmother Ghinwa assumed control, just as Zardari became the new co-chairman of the larger PPP. Both are acting as regents until their children come of age, a process that will appall western liberals but has surprisingly broad acceptance in Pakistan.
The battle over Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s legacy may still not be over. Benazir’s son and heir Bilawal is poised to return to Pakistan after completing his studies at Oxford. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr, Fatima’s younger brother, has also gone abroad to study, as his family was fearful of his status as the sole surviving paternal male heir.
Fatima herself has shrugged off suggestions that she nurtures political ambitions. But as this moving, if uneven, account demonstrates, she is not prepared to let her father’s legacy die.