“Songs of Blood and Sword”: The Bhuttos from a Bhutto’s Perspective

Renowned Pakistani journalist, Fatima Bhutto has once again unleashed her outspoken leftist views on the Bhutto family in her latest book, Songs of Blood and Sword. However, this is more than a commentary on the Bhuttos and their influence on Pakistani politics. It is a detailed biography on the four Bhuttos; Zulfikar, Shahnawaz, Mir Murtaza and Benazir, all killed for their involvement in Pakistani politics. Fatima uniquely intertwines a life story of Pakistan’s most politically-entrenched ruling dynasties. Her take is unique as she writes expressively with a mix of sentiments of her experiences as a member of this family. The book also focuses on the feuds between the siblings; especially between her father Murtuza and her aunt, the late Prime Minister Benazir and how it has polarised Pakistan.

The biography is set in a nation-state that is one of the most functionally and intellectually backward societies in the world. India itself still has its political and socioeconomic developmental shortcomings. Yet unlike its twin sister at birth from colonial rule, Pakistan has no great sign of widespread poverty alleviation. There is neither a burgeoning middle-class that spearheads socioeconomic and political reforms required for developed nation. Instead, Pakistan’s society is highly feudalistic. There is a miniscule elite comprising of feudal landlords who live lavishly at the expense of the impoverished peasant masses; of which they subjugate. The military are often the caretakers of this structure. They thrive on it; whenever they install their dictators to rule Pakistan and even so when it is civilian administered.

They are in cohorts with 21 feudal landlord families that form Pakistan’s political dynasties which govern it. They range from the Sharifs to the Soomros. They, alongside the military, have institutionalised Islamic fundamentalism which is now fragmenting the country through Taliban-centric insurgencies. The Bhuttos are part to this elite and are the most prominent among them. Fatima’s book is about them.

Fatima cleverly allures the reader into the premier chapter through a suspenseful thriller narrative format presenting a full-blown recount of the night of her father’s 1996 assassination. One feels the intensity through her writing of the chronological events which lead to Murtuza’s murder outside her family home, 70 Clifton, the autobiography’s main motif. She climatically finishes the chapter by mentioning her uncle Zardari notifying her on that night that “[her] father’s been shot”.

The tone immediately switches to serious as she dictates her family’s history and their rise to prominence in the politics of undivided India and later Pakistan. The alternation in narrative style is essential as she puts into context, the beginnings of the Bhutto’s turbulent relationship with Pakistani politics. She has formally laid down her analysis of the Pakistani politics and its effect on the Bhuttos. On the other hand, she uses a more colloquial, fervent manner when reciting personal experiences with her own family.  However the eloquent language is consistent throughout the book.

While there is criticism for Zulfikar’s controversial role in the Baluch uprising in the 1970s, where under his orders the Pakistani Army perpetrated many atrocities across Baluchistan and even admitted that his tenure as Prime Minister had “many setbacks” which led to his downfall, most of her critique on Zulfikar is positive. She praises him as a Nehruian-like statesman when he was Ayub Khan’s Foreign Minister. She claims that he was striving to make Pakistan prominent in world affairs while advocating a more non-alignment stance during the Cold War. All this was taking place during the period when they were more at odds with their ally, America. She applauds him as someone who spoke out against the human-rights infringements of the Ayub and Yahyah Khan regimes; especially in regards to genocide conducted by the army in East Pakistan. Furthermore, she portrays him as a socialist Prime Minister who was committed to land reforms and more equal distribution of wealth within the Pakistani society. Eventually, Bhutto empowered General Zia-ul-Haq, only to be overthrown and hung, thereby reinstating another military autocracy on Pakistan.

By the time Fatima starts to write on her father, Murtuza, the reader can diagnose her with the ‘hagiographic syndrome’. The bulk of the book is her subjective take and intense affection for her father and his life. Her dotting portrayal of him is that of a martyred freedom fighter who valiantly fought against the Zia regime while in exile in order to avenge Zulfikar’s imprisonment and murder through the Save Bhutto Committee and the succeeding militant rebel organizations Al-Zulfikar. Additionally, she heralds him as a socialist hero in the milieu of a Che Guevara, campaigning for Pakistan’s impoverished masses and against the corruption and undemocratic measures of Benazir’s government. She declares that her father was “near perfect” even though she was “…desperate to have some dirt” on him.

Her biased interpretation of her father indicates the strong emotional attachment to Murtuza, who had reared her with love and affection while they were in exile from Pakistan in Afghanistan and the Middle East. She also restrains from criticising other relatives of whom she is fond, including her stepmother Ghinwa and her uncle, Murtuza. They are after all, the ones who cared for her.

Paradoxically, she writes with disdain of her aunt Benazir and husband Zardari. She strongly accuses Benazir for administering two factionalised and corrupt governments that destabilised and committed many civil-rights infringements throughout Pakistan.  She portrays Zardari as an evil power-hungry individual who, alongside Benazir, funnelled out billions of dollars from Pakistan and bumped off anyone willing to challenge them. She accuses them for the murder of Murtuza. It is Murtuza’s death and the tumultuous relationship he had with Benazir and Zardari that has given her the impetus to write her story. She states that this book is for her to bring justice to her father and to Pakistani people; by voicing out to the whole world Benazir and Zardari’s inhumane behaviour.

Fatima puts into the limelight the negative aspects of both characters with which most Pakistanis concur. She writes of lowly Pakistani dictators Ayub and Yahyah Khans. Yet she reserves her worst criticism for Zia; stating that no other époque in Pakistan had “…such an overt display of the state’s capacity to commit violence to its own people before”. Again, these are all personas that have not been benign to her and her beloved ones. While it is a compelling read on characters we can all relate to having witnessed the history unfold in our life time, her emotions have impeded her from providing a more balanced perspective on them. She provides a wishy-washy version of events, which gives the reader a skewed one sided view rather than a balanced holistic picture of a turbulent country and a dynastic family.

For all of its shortcomings, the book does provide key insights into the Bhutto clan that would have not otherwise been accessible. Fatima was able to browse through the Bhutto family photos and letters between various Bhutto relatives stored at 70 Clifton. She even titles 70 Clifton as the Bhutto’s “archive”, which is strictly off-limits to outsiders. She also travels across Pakistan, Europe and America to interview people who were acquainted with Zulfikar and his children. Consequently, the reader is provided with interesting vignettes on the Bhutto’s private lives. Unfortunately she deliberately contributes her research material to the autobiography’s hagiographic nature.

Despite the questionable interpretation of the historical events portrayed, Songs of Blood and Sword is still a formidably written autobiography on the Bhutto’s. By the end of the book, the reader is well informed on the lives of the four Bhutto’s and how they were nurtured and destroyed by their involvement in Pakistani politics. Fatima has gifted the world not only with a detailed account of their private and public lives, but hers as well. As celebrity writer William Darlymple says, “If there is anyone to write this story, it is Fatima Bhutto”.

Kunal Kirpalani

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