Pakistan is poorer without you: Rest in peace Begum Bhutto – by Marvi Sirmed

Islamabad, Oct.24 (ANI): She had been ill since long. In fact after 1996, when her son was killed, none of us ever saw her or heard from her. Yet the news of Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s passing away came as a devastating one. Begum Nusrat Bhutto, former first lady of Pakistan and former Chairperson of Pakistan Peoples Party was wife and mother to two former Prime Ministers and mother-in-law to the current President of Pakistan. Wife to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder Chairperson of Pakistan People’s Party and former Prime Minister, she led a life full of challenges, sorrows, personal losses and hardships.

With her Iranian origin and lineage traced back to legendry Kurdish hero, Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi, she lived in Karachi with her parents who had a thriving business in Karachi and Bombay. She was an active member of Women National Guards when Pakistan came into being. With her selfless work day and night for the relief of displaced people pouring in from India, she greatly impressed Begum Ra’na Liaqat Ali Khan, Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah and Jinnah – the Qaid himself – who once remarked about her, ‘no odds, no challenges, no difficulties could overawe a nation that had youth like Nusrat Khanum in the field’ as mentioned by Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in UK in 2007 on her 78th birthday.

Begum Nusrat married Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan in 1951 and became First Lady after his election to the office of the Prime Minister in 1973. Her unflinching commitment to social issues and women’s empowerment made her a unique First Lady. During her husband’s term as Prime Minister from 1973 to 1977, media could not miss the sight of the First Lady while switching off PM House’s lights to conserve energy. Her contribution to Red Cross society and other social welfare organizations would always remain fresh in people’s memories that witnessed how these efforts made a difference in lives of the marginalized. She remained an active and activist first lady throughout these years.

After the military coup in 1977, she fought bravely for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Zia’s was the most formidable Martial-Law Pakistan ever saw when brutalities committed on people knew no bounds. People who even uttered Bhutto’s name were awarded with the sentence to lashes. People belonging to Bhutto’s party were publicly hanged, flogged, tortured, imprisoned and were denied employment. Many were obliged to seek asylum during those years of outright tyranny. It was Begum Bhutto who took on the leadership of the party in those difficult days. She confronted the most repressive despot Pakistan has ever seen, with toughness beyond imagination. During that struggle, she was beaten up, imprisoned and humiliated by Zia’s men but she carried on with the struggle with her daughter – Benazir Bhutto – on her side.

After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979, Begum Bhutto assumed the leadership of the party as the Chairperson of Pakistan Peoples Party. She played pivotal role in establishing Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) and convinced Benazir Bhutto to work with former opponents of Bhutto. Benazir Bhutto was not ready to sit with staunch enemies of her father, especially some of the politicians who had vowed to ‘hang Bhutto on Attock Bridge’. It was Begum Bhutto who insisted on the policy of national reconciliation – the one currently being followed by the President Zardari in today’s Pakistan – whereby she managed to gather all political actors around one table and strive collectively for the restoration of democracy. It was her who convinced all these opposition parties to boycott the ‘election drama’ of Gen Zia-ul-Haq in 1985 thereby rendering the resultant parliament completely devoid of any credibility, which to date is considered as a rubber stamp body that worked under Zia’s fist.

It was during those years of persecution by Zia that Begum Bhutto got a severe head injury when she was baton charged in Lahore along with many others. Doctors rendered her serious, although she survived that injury but remained ill for quite some time. In 1982, she was allowed by the dictator to leave the country for her medical treatment after she was diagnosed with cancer. Cancer could not shake her faith in and commitment to her people and her country. She continued her political work from London and remained on the side of her daughter who assumed party leadership and carried on with the struggle for democracy.

Begum Bhutto had four children, the eldest daughter Benazir Bhutto, son Murtaza Bhutto, daughter Sanam Bhutto and son Shahnawaz Bhutto. The youngest son, Shahnawaz, 27, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 1985 in his Nice (France) apartment. His death had strong effects on already ailing Begum Bhutto. But it was the death of her elder son Mir Murtaza Bhutto, in 1996 that she could not bear. Her head injury back in early 1980s transformed itself in Alzheimer’s disease after so many tragedies that she had to endure. When in 2007, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, it is said that Begum Bhutto was not told. She probably passed away without knowing about her daughter’s death for she was in virtual coma and could not recognize faces.

In 1986 when Benazir returned to Pakistan after years of exile, Begum Bhutto advised her to meet with every worker of the party. She believed firmly that PPP would not have survived Zia’s tyrannical dictatorship had the party workers were not resilient and strong. A thoroughly pro-people and pro-worker leader, Begum Bhutto used to be the refuge of all disgruntled workers. Talking to some old party workers, many reminded me the instances when they would complain to Begum Bhutto about different party leaders including Benazir Bhutto herself, and Begum Bhutto would angrily warn Ms. Bhutto, “Pinky (Ms. Bhutto’s nick name), listen to my sons”.
Begum Bhutto used to press her daughter, Benazir Bhutto for marriage after she returned to Pakistan. Ms. Bhutto writes in her biography how Begum Bhutto carefully went through appropriate marriage proposals for her daughter and finally chose Asif Ali Zardari, son of her family friend Hakim Ali Zardari. Contrary to public perceptions, tells Hamid Mir while talking to a private news channel, Begum Bhutto and Mr. Zardari enjoyed a very good relationship and in fact it was Begum Bhutto who strongly advised to Ms. Bhutto to keep her marriage intact when a lot of her close friends were suggesting her to get a divorce. Benazir Bhutto’s love, care and respect for her husband is evident from her books, where she gladly thanked her mother for this important decision of her life.

Begum Bhutto would be remembered in history of Pakistan for providing leadership to the nation in its worst moments, following the tradition of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah. She was second among three most illustrious women of Pakistan who confronted despotic dictators of this country and defeated them on their knees. Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah came forward against the first dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Begum Nusrat Bhutto defied General Zia ul Haq and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto challenged General Musharraf. Three of them implied their own political strategies and remained the leading figures in bringing down the image of these despots. Considering that the three icons of political resistance in Pakistan were women, who are now no more, one is horrified to think of any more dictatorships in the country, as we have no Fatima Jinnah, Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto left with us now.

Begum Bhutto will remain an emblem of courage, strength, resilience and resolve for Pakistanis. (ANI)

Attn: News Editors/News Desks: The views expressed in the above article are those of Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistan-based columnist, activist and student of international relations.




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