If courage had a face, it would be Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s. Truly. Hollow posthumous titles and the din of tribute showered on the lady only reveal the hypocrisy of those indulging in such acts for she was the farthest thing from such false declarations.
Despite being an astute leader in her own right, one who made Gen Ziaul Haq nervous with her sheer courage and refusal to back down from the values she held dear, Begum Sahiba never sought the limelight; power much less.
She had her heart and eyes set on more meaningful matters, of which wielding power was never one. When not in confinement of the cruel dictator, she spent her time reorganising the PPP and visiting the families of Zia’s political victims to give them hope — even if against hope.
She was the woman behind the launching of Benazir Bhutto’s political career, without being like BB in any way other than the nerves of steel she passed on to her daughter. It was Begum Sahiba who told Benazir to stop licking her wounds and reach out to the party workers whose families had been in no less distress than the erstwhile first family, whose fathers and brothers were being put behind bars and tortured for siding with the Bhuttos.
Begum Sahiba’s lasting legacy will include emancipation, progressive outlook, commitment to democratic, secular ideals and her bold steadfastness against the floodgates of religious hypocrisy that were swung open in the 1970s. This was first done by her husband, Z A Bhutto, a thoroughly secular man in his private life but who declared Pakistan an Islamic Republic, Islam the state religion, Friday the weekly holiday and Ahmadis as non-Muslim; Bhutto banned liquor and clubbing from public life only to dispatch them to the drawing rooms and the waderas’ autaqs where they have continued to lodge ever since.
Gen Zia in his very dark years only built on this hypocrisy and further squeezed the space for any meaningful debate in society. Begum Sahiba stood tall as she fought, even if as a lone crusader, against the massive obscurantism unleashed by the dictator in the name of Islam. Unlike her daughter, who donned the dupatta and told rosary beads as prime minister, Begum Sahiba kept her faith and its practice a very private affair. Being a granddaughter of a spiritual leader and an emancipated woman, she knew religion and politics could only mix to further fragment the social fabric of Pakistani society.
Hers always remained an unashamedly secular, political lexicon because of her sheer conviction based in progressive values, and her rejection of social hypocrisy of which religious totems became the tools with which to suppress the people.
While she was known as a fashion icon in her day, she matured into a graceful, elegant lady after tragedy struck in the form of her husband’s overthrow, his confinement and execution after a mock trial from 1977 to 1979. Even in grief, she refused to be the victim; she held her head high, without covering it to seek a false respect; she already enjoyed respect amongst her followers, and was always seen as the matriarch.
She felt no need to don wraps and dupattas, much less so as to look like a meek victim of oppression. There was a studied symbolism in this for the women of Pakistan who too could now dare to follow suit, and many did, defying Gen Zia’s controversial Sharia laws at their own peril. Even her opponents came to respect such women’s courage who took heart from Begum Sahiba’s assertion of her right to say and live like she and Fatima Jinnah did before her.
Being struck by tragedy after tragedy strengthened rather than weakened her resolve and faith in progressive values that harked back to Jinnah’s ideals. She took her youngest child Shahnawaz Bhutto’s death under mysterious circumstances in France with equal grace and fortitude. Then, we last saw her making bold before the media her resolve to fight against oppression after the killing in 1996 of her son, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, while his sister was prime minister.
Begum Sahiba did not know mincing words in her criticism of even her own daughter’s dictatorial conduct. She censured the security forces which had fired at and left bullet holes in the walls of her Clifton home in Karachi, as they brutally killed Murtaza and his friends in cold blood. She called it a cowardly act and said that even the dictator Zia had not dared to resort to such violence against Bhutto’s home. Benazir Bhutto reacted by stripping her mother of the title of PPP chairpersonship, conferring it on herself and for life.
Begum Nusrat Bhutto in her aging years was literally snatched away from Murtaza Bhutto’s family as she fell ill and Benazir Bhutto made peace with the grieving widow and orphaned children of her brother after her government was sacked following Murtaza’s killing. The Alzheimer’s which now struck Begum Sahiba must have eschewed her memory of Benazir’s maneuvering of family politics, which returned to haunt Murtaza Bhutto’s widow and children soon thereafter.
In her isolated world in exile in Dubai, Murtaza’s family was kept from visiting the matriarch that the children were so very fond of. In her death too, that separation remained strictly enforced. While Zardari and his children presided over the funeral at Naudero House in Garhi Khuda Bux, the same house from where Banazir had evicted the aged Begum Amir Bhutto, the first wife of Z A Bhutto, Murtaza’s children mourned their grandmother at Al-Murtaza, the Bhutto house located at a stone’s throw from Naudero House.
Thus, no number of honours and titles conferred posthumously on the lady that the Zardari-Bhuttos tormented with their antics in her lifetime will wash the latter’s conscience clean. Begum Sahiba shall be remembered for what she stood for, and the rest for that which they have come to symbolise.