Feudalism and Politics

“Everything is possible in the Bhutto family,” declares Fatima Bhutto in her widely publicised book Songs of Blood and Sword, a sort of family hagiography. True, contrary to Daughter of the East, Benazir Bhutto’s autobiography, Fatima Bhutto goes an extra mile in revealing the skeletons the Bhuttos would love to keep hidden in the closet.

It is indeed bold of Fatima Bhutto to mention the colonial-era certificate no feudal family would like to publicise. The certificate reads: “By command of His Excellency the Viceroy and Governor General, this certificate is presented in the name of Her Most Gracious Majesty Victoria, Empress of India, to Doda Khan Bhoota in recognition of his loyalty and good service as a landholder.” It was honest of Fatima Bhutto to quote Khair Bux Marri as saying, “Bhutto was no different from Hitler.” To publish all this calls for a daring perhaps only “possible in the Bhutto family,” of all the country’s feudal families.

Benazir Bhutto had made courageous revelations about her paternal aunts who were never married off lest the Bhuttos’ feudal estate shrink by a few miles. The Bhutto ladies, however, give up their intellectual chivalry when it comes to embarrassing truths or the need to retain a status quo in the country. Therefore, despite an apparent nihilistic attitude, one finds the feuding aunt and niece in complete harmony on every key political and family concern. Both glorify the Bhuttos’ feudal past and massive fiefdom. Benazir Bhutto proudly wrote about a British official travelling for hours by car through the Bhuttos’ estate. Fatima Bhutto narrates the story of a census taken during the Raj when a British officer instructed a subordinate to tally up the various holdings of Sindh’s elite. ”Call me when you’ve finished detailing the Bhutto land,” the officer was said to have instructed. Several days later, he had not heard from his colleague and returned to ask why he had not reported back. “I’m still working on the Bhutto lands,” was the subordinate’s reply.

Similarly, both Bhutto ladies acclaim the macho acts of their feudal forefathers. While Benazir Bhutto wrote about a great-grandfather who seduced the wife of a British official, Fatima Bhutto introduces the reader to Rasul Bux Bhutto with his “nasty habit of swearing,” who would curse “everyone in sight.” Would he swear even when a white man was in sight? Fatima Bhutto does not say. However, one victim of this nasty habit in Fatima Bhutto’s book is a nameless poor servant whom Rasul Bux Bhutto addressed and referred to as haram zada.

While she nonchalantly speaks of Rasul Bux Bhutto’s “nasty habit,” Fatima Bhutto, like her aunt, chose to ignore the adulatory letter Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wrote to Iskander Mirza in 1959, which one can find in Stanley Wolpert’s book Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan. Expressing his “imperishable and devoted loyalty” to him, Bhutto wrote to President Iskander Mirza: “When the history of our country is written by objective historians, your name will be placed even before that of Mr Jinnah.” He goes on to write, “Sir, I say this because I mean it, and not because you are the President of my country.”

However, Bhutto as an individual should not be judged by his adolescent letters. The way he heroically walked to the gallows in an act of supreme defiance, absolves him of his personal flaws. The problem arises when objective historians in 70 Clifton’s archives cite facts from history only selectively. On capitalism, feudalism, democratic institutions, the role of the military, foreign policy, one finds both aunt and niece in harmony.

While Benazir Bhutto rejected nationalisation outright, Fatima Bhutto does not even want to discuss the “pros and cons of nationalisation.” When Grandpa Bhutto did it, “nationalisation was the only means to redistribute wealth.” Venezuela and Bolivia even now find it the only means to redistribute wealth.

In both books, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appears as an India-centric hawk (although with great contempt for Kashmiris’ right to self-determination). This is not a coincidence, perhaps. India-centric hawkishness implies support and justification for the hefty defence budget. Hence, Benazir and Fatima Bhutto criticise a few generals, but there is not a word about the army as an institution.

Dictatorship is not the Bhuttos’ problem. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto welcomed and served the 1958 “revolution” and collaborated with Gen Yahya Khan in the reversal of the democratic outcome of the country’s first general elections, with catastrophic consequences for East Pakistanis. Likewise, in 1999, Benazir Bhutto, even Ghinwa Bhutto, welcomed Gen Musharraf. Fatima Bhutto ceaselessly eulogises Hafez al-Assad of Syria. Tyranny is no problem as long as it is a gracious host.

No doubt, Fatima Bhutto denounced dynastic politics in her book. She accuses Zardari of ruling “by virtue of having a close enough tie to the dead, to the corpses that demand–and receive–sympathy votes.” But the same criterion is not applied to her father Murtaza Bhutto or his widow Ghinwa Bhutto, or to their PPP-SB group. In the book, she herself invokes family tragedy and seeks sympathy.

Hence, what appears to be a fierce clash of ideas between niece and aunt boils down to strictly personal issues. The Bhuttos have been clashing in the past: Murtaza Bhutto against sister Benazir, Nusrat Bhutto against daughter Benazir. Every clash was cloaked in ideology. In all these clashes, commitment to the status quo in the country remains a constant. None of the Bhuttos contests the status quo.

By: Farooq Sulehria

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