In light of her country’s upcoming elections, Fatima Bhutto, BC ’02 and the estranged niece of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, prefers the might of the pen to that of the sword—and political office.
At age 15, Fatima published a poetry collection entitled Whispers of the Desert shortly after her father was shot and killed. A staunch critic of Benazir, she now travels throughout Pakistan on the campaign trail with her stepmother, Ghinwa Bhutto, chairperson of the breakaway Pakistan People’s Party-Shaheed Bhutto. Based in Karachi, Fatima submits columns critical of the government and her aunt to newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Times of India.
The PPP-SB, founded by Fatima’s father Murtaza Bhutto, is contesting current President Pervez Musharaff, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Benazir Bhutto’s PPP in the upcoming elections, which many have called illegitimate since Musharaff placed Pakistan under emergency rule Nov. 3. The emergency rule also places Fatima under threat, as publishing criticism of the government is now a perilous risk.
Murtaza founded the PPP-SB in an attempt to “restore the PPP to its original principles” as set forth in the 1973 constitution, Fatima said. Now, the party fights against evictions and advocates for social reform, specifically giving vocational help in women’s prisons.
Fatima said that under Prime Minister Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the PPP’s founder and Benazir’s father, the country left the Commonwealth, a 53-member body composed of former British colonies. “People in Pakistan feel under Benazir’s leadership it [PPP] has abandoned its original principles,” Fatima said. “When her father [Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto], the first democratically elected leader, was in power, he removed Pakistan from the Commonwealth. Benazir begged to get back into the Commonwealth.”
“She’s [Benazir] largely seen as an enabler now in Pakistan,” Fatima added. “They call her party the Pervez People’s Party, and they see her as a stooge for the Bush White House. She did an abrupt turn when people criticized her for her initial support, saying, ‘I meant to say no. The chief justice is the real justice and I’ll protest in Islamabad.’ It’s charades, really.”
PPP senator and Benazir’s spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said that Shaheed’s choice to leave the Commonwealth in 1972 was in protest to Bangladesh’s entering the Commonwealth. “As his [Shaheed’s] student, as well as his daughter, it was an honor for Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto to take Pakistan back into the Commonwealth in 1989 after Pakistan had itself recognized Bangladesh.”
Babar also contested Fatima’s depiction of her aunt.
“Most recently Ms. Bhutto narrowly escaped twin terrorist bomb blasts that left 179 of her supporters dead,” Babar said in an e-mail. “Ms. Fatima has not been arrested for one day with or without warrant. Ms. Fatima has never written an op-ed or given an interview against military dictatorship, Osama Bin Laden, or the pro-Taliban militants who today are threatening to take over nuclear-armed Pakistan.”
Fatima has written many columns against sectarian violence and religious extremism.
When asked if she is in touch with her aunt, Fatima said, “No, no, no, no, not at all. I’m in contact with her lawyers because Benazir brings cases against me and my mother on an almost bimonthly basis. She sued my brother and I for property when my brother was 9 and I was 15. She’s really a nightmare. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
“Ms. Bhutto is the symbol of democracy for the people of Pakistan,” Babar wrote in reply.
Because of the dynastic nature of politics in Pakistan, many citizens expect Fatima herself to run for a position one day. But Fatima said she plans to participate in politics through her writing, not by running for office. “The field has to open up, and that’s part of the problem.”
About poetry, she said: “It was my father who encouraged me. When he was alive he used to cut out addresses of publishers and give them to me.”
Murtaza, Benazir’s brother, raised Fatima in exile in Damascus, Syria. A company in New York agreed to publish Whispers of the Desert. Since Fatima was underage, her father needed to sign the papers.
“When we got the letter ... things were hectic, and there was something building against him. We just didn’t know what it was at the time,” Fatima said. “He said ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll sign it.’ And he did, the day before he died.” Fatima decided instead to publish the poems “at home” in Pakistan.
While the details of Murtaza’s death remain heavily contested, Fatima holds her aunt responsible. Murtaza had founded an underground group in Syria, Al-Zafakir, that once was accused of involvement in a hijacking and was acquitted. She said her father was targeted because he too was very vocal in his criticisms of his sister’s leadership.
The New York Times reported the death as a “police fight” and said the police told the Times that Murtaza’s followers opened fire first. According to Fatima, on Sept. 20, 1996, “As he reached the road that our house was on, he realized that all those streets had been cordoned off, the streetlights had been shut, there were 70 to 100 policemen in the trees and snipers positioned.”
“Six men were killed with my father,” Fatima said. “They died from point blank, boom. My father was shot nine times. He would have survived, even though he’d been shot about five times, except for the last shot which was fired execution-style at a point-blank range into his throat.”
Fatima said Benazir was responsible for her father’s death because “she presided over thousands of deaths carried out by her police forces.” She said a court tribunal conducted by the government found, based on forensic evidence, that it was indeed a premeditated assassination, that the police used an excessive amount of force, and that the assassination could not have happened without approval from the highest level of government. “There was no office higher than the prime minister’s office at that time.” The tribunal's findings, available to the public record, show there was no ammunition spent from Murtaza's side.
Despite the tribunal, Babar said Benazir denies allegations of involvement. “Mir Murtaza Bhutto was a loving brother to Ms. Benazir Bhutto who in turn was a loving sister, although their political paths were different,” he said in an e-mail. “Ms. Bhutto followed the path of peaceful struggle whereas Mir Murtaza formed an armed group called Al-Zulfiqar. Mir Murtaza was tragically killed during a fire-fight between his security guards and the police following a raid by his supporters on police stations.”
Many of Fatima’s newspaper columns feature her father’s death. Fatima attributes her skills as a columnist to her Barnard education, where she majored in Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures. Fatima also planned to major in political science, but she said that once she had taken all the classes offered by her favorite professor, Dennis Dalton, she chose to drop it. “My mother, who visited me twice at Barnard, is a Dalton convert,” Fatima said in an e-mail.
During emergency rule, publishing vocal criticism of the government endangers Fatima’s life. “A lot of people claim to believe in freedom of speech, but very few people dare to apply it,” Anais Leon, BC ’10 and a student in Dalton’s class said. “Fatima is one of the people who has applied it to the fullest.”
Joy Resmovits can be reached at email@example.com.