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Begum Bhutto remembered – by Kamran Shafi


When I see the carping on Twitter, and various blogs and discussion boards and what have you, complaining about the holiday to mark the passing of Begum Nusrat Bhutto; or about the government flying journalists to Larkana to cover her funeral, I am further convinced that a whole lot of young Pakistanis simply do not know this country’s tortured history.

Which is not their fault: the mass (Urdu) media, both print and electronic, instead of periodically reminding the nation of its real heroes and heroines (and their tribulations at the hands of army dictators), is much more taken up with trashing our politicians, the pet hate of the Deep State.

You might ask why I introduced the term ‘tribulation’ so early in this piece. Simply because, dear reader, Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s life after the assassination of her husband was, for many many years, one long and painful ordeal, and yes, one of great tribulation.
It began with the arrest of her husband, the former (for Zia had already carried out his coup against the elected government) elected prime minister, and president of Pakistan, on what were quite apparently trumped up charges; his release on bail; and his rearrest under Martial Law Regulations after tens of thousands of people turned out in Lahore to welcome him when he visited that city after his release.

Then came the murder trial in the Lahore High Court under the Chief ‘Justice’ himself, the malevolent Maulvi Mushtaq, an avowed and declared Bhutto enemy who refused to recuse himself even after ZAB said he had no faith in him. If the conduct of the trial was disgusting for outside observers like I, how painful must it have been for Begum Bhutto to daily see needless indignities heaped upon her husband?

One little story to do with the dastardliness of Maulvi Mushtaq. One day, as ZAB was brought out of Kot Lakhpat Jail to the police van that transported him to court, he saw that the chair he used to sit on in the back of the van had been removed. When he asked why, he was told there were ‘orders’ that he should sit on the wooden benches along the sides of the van.

ZAB refused and said in that case he would not attend court that day. Telephone calls flew back and forth, and the ‘orders’ were withdrawn. When the court assembled, Maulvi told ZAB to stand up and to keep standing for that day’s proceedings. When Bhutto protested, saying he should not be treated that way for he was, after all, a former president and prime minister, Maulvi flew into a rage and reportedly shouted: “You are a criminal; you will sit wherever you are told to sit… one more word out of you and I will have you whipped in jail!”

While he was being treated thus, his wife and daughter were also at the receiving end of the dictator’s malice. On December 16, 1977, a mere five months after her husband was removed from the elected office of prime minister, Begum Bhutto and her daughter, the much missed, much lamented Benazir, were lathi-charged by the police while they were watching the England-Pakistan Test match at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore just because the crowd raised ‘Jeay Bhutto’ slogans. Photographs of Begum Bhutto, her forehead dripping with blood, have appeared widely over the internet over the past few days.

The scandalous trial went on: Maulvi’s court sentencing ZAB to death and the Supreme Court rejecting his appeal, with four Punjabi judges convicting and three non-Punjabi judges acquitting him. Despite this split verdict and against all judicial precedence, ZAB was hanged in Rawalpindi Jail on April 4, 1979. I might add that whilst I am a Punjabi myself, it is important to speak up about the ethnic make-up of the bench.

Zia did many a monstrous thing, but one of the most monstrous was when he refused to let Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir attend the last rites of their husband and father! How ‘pious’ this charlatan was can be judged from just this one act. Which Muslim will keep a person’s family from burying their own? Pakistan’s army dictators — the Commando did the same with Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif when their dear father died — and, of course, the wild hordes who beat Muammar Qaddafi to death.

The graceful Begum Bhutto took all that was thrown at her with great stoicism and courage, and in due course started an agitation which led to the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy that showed the world that the tyrant was vulnerable. If Begum Nusrat Bhutto has been named the ‘Mother of Democracy in Pakistan’, she fully deserves the title.

I end with a personal anecdote: in the spring of 1988, after I had accepted Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s offer to work for the government as public information officer (PIO), Begum Bhutto sent for me. She recounted how she and ZAB knew my father and family and asked if I would come work for her on her staff. While I was delighted, I said, “Begum Sahiba, thank you, but the prime minister has just yesterday asked me to work for the government as PIO”. “Really” she said, and then smiled so very warmly. “Well, at least you will be with us”.

And then she started to cry. “They have been so horrible to us… you cannot imagine what they have done to us… even accusing Zulfikar of buying a personal chandelier with government money… but I have the receipts… you know, he would pay even the smallest personal bill in the PM’s House by cheque… and when I said why he was bothering writing a cheque when I had money in my bag, he would say, ‘Nusrat you don’t know them; they will say and do anything to destroy me and my name… I must have records…’”.

I am exhausted dear reader… more another time… may the Almighty give strength to those who loved her.

RIP, Begum Sahiba.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 28th, 2011.

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