Millennium Post

Letter to a father from a daughter

In the prologue, she outlines the events leading to her father’s bloody assassination at the hands of the military; in the epilogue she voices her anxiety surrounding the safety of her brother, the last surviving male heir of the Bhutto lineage.

Fatima Bhutto, in her 500-page memoir, embarks on an arduous mission, piecing together the life and works of a father she had lost at the tender age of fourteen. In clear and unpretentious prose, she weaves together an endearing tale, against the corrupt and brutal world of Pakistani power politics, which resulted in the violent deaths of four members of the Bhutto family over three decades.

Fatima begins by tracing the origins of the Bhutto clan, moving on to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rise to power as the first elected Prime Minister of Pakistan and eventually analyzing the circumstances which led to his tragic death. Once the magnanimous head of state, he languishes in the death cells of Rawalpindi prison, debilitated, agonized and broken in mind and body. He is eventually ‘executed’ by Zia and his body is never returned to his family. These are harrowing tales for a grand-daughter to narrate, and Bhutto, whose BA thesis has been on her grandfather’s bilateral foreign policy, has not only penned a poignant tale, but has also enriched it with a rare perspicuity.

Though sketched on a large tapestry and involving three generations of the Bhutto family, it is really the life and works of Mir Murtaza Bhutto that form the book’s centerpiece. Mir is the doting father Fatima has known from a very early age – the father feeds her, braids her hair, calls her amusing names and plays outrageous pranks on her. Mir is charismatic, erudite, an idealist to the core, an eloquent orator and one who has a natural flair for connecting with the masses.

By virtue of being the eldest son of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he is the rightful heir to carry on the Bhutto legacy. His life is, however, embroiled between the double perils of Zia’s ruthlessness on one hand and his sister Benazir’s towering ambitions on the other. It is this constant struggle that emerges as the most discernible thread snaking through the narrative. Fatima ferrets out people – Mir’s loyal friends and comrades in the struggle, and through their accounts, pieces together a deeply passionate narrative that is fascinating and heart-breaking in turns.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in his last letter to his two sons Mir and Shahnawaz, urges them to flee the country to save their lives from the bloodhounds of Zia’s military regime. Thus begins a life of exile for Mir, first garnering international support against the impending execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then forming an armed struggle from Afghanistan and finally living as a political dissident in Syria.

It is Mir’s prolonged absence from Pakistan’s political arena that fuels the ambitions of Benazir, so much so that by the time the ‘prodigal son’ returns to his country, he has already become the biggest threat to his sister. The Pakistan that we see at this juncture is a country sunk deep into the quagmire of corruption, poverty, unemployment and ethnic conflicts.

Pakistan has also been witness to a reign of terror unleashed by its military in the form of Operation Clean-Up. Fatima chronicles multitudes of human rights abuses perpetrated by Pakistan’s military and police which leave the reader unsettled. It is against this backdrop that Mir returns home, determined to redeem Pakistan from her deplorable state in line with his father’s anti-feudal, socialistic vision.

However, in yet another display of brute force that is characteristic of Pakistan’s military, Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s life is ended, and with it, the voice clamouring for socialism silenced. He is assassinated minutes away from his residence, in what appears to be a well orchestrated execution plan.

Written with unprecedented courage, Fatima succeeds in bringing the violence uncomfortably close, so close that you can smell the blood. There is a disquiet that reverberates throughout, however, at this point turning every page becomes an emotional ordeal. Fatima’s account of the bloodbath is painstakingly detailed, leaving the reader to marvel at the demonstration of unparalleled emotional prowess.

While the book has received international acclaim, it has sparked controversies in Pakistan, where critics have blamed Fatima for directly linking her aunt with her father’s murder. While the possibility of nostalgia clouding judgment cannot be ruled out completely, Fatima has unearthed plenty of circumstantial evidence that tilts the balance in her favour. Mir Murtaza Bhutto is shot while Benazir is Prime Minister, and the policemen accused of killing him are acquitted when Zardari is President. There is no warrant for Mir’s arrest, bullets are fired only from the police revolvers, Mir and six of his associates are killed while there is no police casualty, there is no evidence and there are no witnesses.

Official inquiry (in the form of a mere tribunal) seems to have revealed that ‘the order to assassinate Murtaza Bhutto must have come from the highest level of government.’ The anguish and frustration at the denial of justice is palpable and it is not very difficult to see the reasons behind the same.

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