Wearing Bhutto as a last name in Pakistan is analogous to carrying a flamboyant, rare, elitist Prada bag: an accessory that assures you will never be common nor anonymous. The Bhutto merchandise captivates the political landscape as a dynamic, privileged, legendary and plagued real estate that encapsulates all that is wildly schizophrenic, volatile but ultimately endearing about Pakistan. It’s precisely this mythology borne from a feudal dynasty that burdens Fatima Bhutto, the charismatic and outspoken niece of recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto, and daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, himself assassinated in 1996.
The twenty five year old published poet, writer, and columnist for The News in Pakistan loathes “birth right politics” and laments Pakistan’s obsession with “the cult of personality.” Regardless, that Bhutto brand name, for better or worse, places the spotlight squarely on this young Bhutto, who is now coming into her own as both a vocal social activist and highly coveted, Pakistani bachelorette tabloid sensation. Instead of abusing the limelight for pretentious self adulation, Fatima Bhutto has found a forum to publicly blast Musharaff’s dictatorial government, Asif Ali Zardari’s corruption, Benazir Bhutto’s self serving machinations, and the Army’s hegemonic apparatuses.
I recently conducted a lengthy and informative interview with Pakistan’s new “daughter of destiny” and pleasantly discovered that she, despite her regal and privileged upbringing, was not like the narcissistic, self-absorbed Pakistani Clifton elitists I’ve met and come to abhor over the years. Instead, I talked to an extremely opinionated, well informed, sarcastic, passionate, garrulous yet articulate young woman about the recent Pakistani elections, Asif Ali Zardari’s new government, the real Benazir Bhutto, the role of Bhutto and Zardari in her father’s assassination, the disastrous results of American foreign policy, the future of Musharaff, and life living under the “Bhutto” spotlight.
There are many who have partisan views on the Bhutto family dynasty. Some see you as “the real Bhutto” as opposed to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of Asif Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto. Why would you think you warrant the “authentic label” – a political label, I might add, you seem to wholeheartedly reject at the current moment.
BHUTTO: To me it sounds like two different things. First, there’s a question of simple genetics I think. There’s a question of some kind of political birthright. But I think both propositions are frivolous. The first question is: who is actually a Bhutto child by virtue of their parents? I think that is a pretty straightforward answer; one that shouldn’t have other implications but does now in this exciting frenzy of “dynasty” that we live in, right?
The other is which child is more qualified to rule, which is equally frivolous. Because “name” is determining the qualification in this place. It’s not a resume, it’s not any work experience, it’s just who has the closer genetics to the [gene] pool and therefore who is more qualified. It’s an example of how names and personalities rather than principles and platforms have taken over politics in South Asia and Pakistan.
The Bhutto dynasty is legendary in Pakistan. Many claim the dynasty has a curse and a privilege, which can be likened to what we have here in America with the Kennedys. Do you think this cycle will repeat itself in the 21st century: a cyclical pattern of tragedy and privilege? Is there any way to break from this dynastic “curse”, or is this just an overreaching assumption?
I think it’s a bit fantastical actually. When we rely on things like curses and blessings to explain things for us, we lose sight of the real picture. We lose sight of the wider truths and how it is that people live in the countries they live in and the factors that decide the things like violence in these countries. I think it’s all very romanticized to say there is a curse and that’s why they will be part of a cyclical violence for a family like the Kennedys, the Ghandis and so on.
The answer is probably less exciting or less mythical. That’s something people don’t like to look at. It’s amazing the politics of distraction that are practiced, not just in South Asia, but also in the media at large. Where you can take a family and build a myth around it that is exciting and sad and romantic without any mention of actual politics or actual conditions in the country they live in. It’s purely distraction. I think they keep perpetuating this myth of curses and blessings – it’s all very frivolous.
Throughout the history of Pakistan it seems either the military or feudal dynasties control the power. From the ground up, there seems to be a system in place that always hijacks the democratic process in their favor. How can Pakistan tangibly and realistically free itself of this? Can it at all?
It certainly can. The question is will it? One question that is central to both is the issue of accountability and certainly the issue of merit. When you look at the state of Pakistani politicians today – you are right – it’s either a taking over by the army who believe they are the only ones who care for Pakistan and they are the only force that can set Pakistan down the right path. Then you’ve got this sort of feudal dynasty that believes they are entitled to rule and that they deserve power. Neither one of these groups is going to give up power or authority. Now we see a third cycling of politicians.
Musharraf came into power because people were fed up with Nawaz [Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s once exiled former Prime Minister] and [Benazir] Bhutto. Then, Nawaz and Benazir came back to Pakistan, because people were fed up with Musharaff. And when people are finished with Asif Zardari [Benazir’s husband and her party’s current figurehead] and Nawaz, they will go back to Musharaff.
Parties have molded politics in Pakistan into one of personality. They have completely lowered the political discourse and political understanding in this country. It doesn’t have to be about issues anymore, it’s about people. It’s about who looks better on a sticker. I mean it sounds funny, but in a sense it’s true. They are able to do this because in Pakistan we have no discourse that pushes things like principles or platforms or merits. One should be qualified to rule because of their experience, their platforms, their party’s manifesto, because of the internal democratic system. But of course that’s not the question, it’s whom you are related to and how closely you are related to them.
The other factor is also accountability with things like the NRO, which is really an odious piece of legislation called the National Reconciliation Ordinance, which is a bill signed unilaterally into power by Musharaff when he was the General and not the President. It effectively wipes out 20 years of corruption for politicians, bankers and bureaucrats. And it makes it virtually impossible to file future charges against a sitting parliamentarian. It effectively puts those in power above the law. And today the NRO is being used not to excuse just financial crimes, but also extortion, murder, smuggling cases, drug cases, I mean this is certainly the case of Asif Zardari. There’s no accountability, there’s no way of saying these feudal dynasties have stolen from the country and they have not given it back to the country, and the army has increased violence and changed our way of life. We would like to hold them accountable to their rule, and therefore remove them from office. Without that system, we can’t remove them.
Let’s discuss the current election and some political parties. You have actually talked about the rigging of Pakistan’s February elections, and even suggested the PPP [Benazir’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party] had a hand in rigging them. However, many said this election represented the will of the Pakistani people. Were these truly free elections we witnessed?
This election was nothing more than state theatre. It was a complete farce in many ways. First of all, it was the third time the election date was changed. It was supposed to be in December, but then Emergency was declared. Then we were supposed to have it January 8th, and then it was postponed to February 18th. Now for each of these periods, the campaigning time was extremely limited – 30 to 45 days given – and if you look at the original Constitution, you need at least 60 but at least preferably 90 days for canvassing. For those who don’t know, this is an enormous country. We have very distinct provinces, and in order to canvass on that scale you need time. So, that’s the first way the elections were clearly not going to be free or fair.
Secondly, there was no drive for registration in Pakistan. If you look at most rural areas in many of these provinces, women don’t have ID cards. Not just women, but you also have the peasants working the land, your construction workers that come from the Frontier, village people who are in a way bonded labor; people who have no sort of social security or are legally tracked in any way. Women especially just don’t have access.
So, you have an election from the start that is not going to be representative of the people. You’re going to have only a small percentage of the people that can vote. Then, there’s Election Day. Musharaff’s government enabled rigging. I think that’s very important to state. They released, for example, a voter list by the government at one stage. Several weeks later, polling lists were released. Now, let’s say you have a voting list of 60,000 people and a polling list of maybe 300 polling stations; people have no idea where they are registered. So, they may go to their closest polling station where they voted at last elections, wait in line, and then be told, “No, I’m sorry you’re not registered here.” “So, where am I registered?” “Sorry, we don’t have that information.” There’s a complete disconnect and there’s no transparency between these two lists.
The other way is the election commission released booklets and did ads in the media putting out the rules of elections. What you need in an election to vote legally is that you need to appear in person, and you need a valid identity card with your name and card number on it. However, the voter lists that were given to the voting stations by the election commission and the government, they have a name and a birth date but nothing in between. They don’t have an ID card number or address. So, you can appear at a polling station and say, “Hi I’m Afzal Khan and I’d like to vote,” and there’s nothing to distinguish you from 400 other Afzal Khans in your neighborhood.
So, that name doesn’t get checked off, and people can come and vote on the same name over and over again. The Musharaff government certainly enabled rigging, but what’s important to know about rigging especially in a country like Pakistan is that people have this image that the government is sort of a miscreant in a black cloak who comes in to a station, sticks in a separate box, hides it in under his cloak, and somehow rigging happens. But how it really happens is through the local parties on the ground, who have polling agents at the scene and who are technically there to ensure rigging doesn’t happen, but of course that’s not the case.
Parties like PPP, PML-N rig in a number of ways, the first is through intimidation. These are small communities, the polling agent knows your name, knows where you live, and if you don’t vote the right way, you will be noticed. There’s also ballot stuffing, which we saw quite openly. You also have a presiding officer at the polling station who are usually school teachers, and these are government appointed positions who owe their livelihood and job to the government so they are not neutral in any way.
You also have fake ID’s being used. We saw women coming in with several ID’s. They come in wearing the burqahs and you have a 19 year old wearing a burqah who has an ID card saying she was born in 1938. And you are not permitted to ask a lady wearing a burqah to lift her burqah, she doesn’t have to show her face when she votes, and that of course leads to rigging.
CNN recently stated that Asif Ali Zardari is the most powerful man in Pakistan. The Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was sworn in last week, and many people say he is a handpicked Desi [South Asian] uncle who is merely the proxy of Zardari. And, as you know, Zardari’s former nickname is “Mr. 10%” due to the illegal commissions he got off contracts. Has he been reformed 100%?
I don’t think Zardari has been reformed an iota. This reform of Zardari has been through the NRO, a completely unconstitutional and illegal piece of legislation. What they have done is stricken from the record 2.5 to 3 billion dollars worth of corruption from Zardari’s name. And they said, “Sorry, nope, just kidding, he didn’t do it”. But in a city like Karachi most of the citizens don’t have access to electricity. In the summer, the running water comes maybe two or three hours a day. A city that effectively looks like a refugee camp. That’s evidence of that corruption, that evidence you see every day doesn’t erase itself with the NRO. They’ve removed some extortion and drug cases from Zardari’s record as well.
He had 4 murder cases pending against him, and one of them was just removed involving the murder of a High Court Justice and his young son. Just because his name is now suddenly stricken from the record, doesn’t change that there’s a family who remembered him. I don’t think he’s been reformed in any way except to promote this idea of reconciliation, healing and democracy at work in Pakistan. Which of course is for the benefit for people who know nothing about Pakistan.
If you see Gilani the Prime Minister, what has not been mentioned in the Washington Post pieces about his exciting and democratic election, is that he not only served under the parliament of the dictator Zia al Haq [Pakistan’s military dictator from 1977 to 1988 until his assassination], but he also served under the Majlis of Shura council of Zia al Haq, an Islamic council or parliament that Zia had created which he filled with his most trusted and closest advisors. A former crony if you will, or certainly a political worker of Zia al Haq, now stands in Parliament as a Prime Minister of the PPP, whose founder [Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father] was killed by Zia. These are all fiefs. Historical amnesia in Pakistan doesn’t even have to extend that far, it just goes back 20 years. That’s how far you have to go to check Gilani’s political history.
Certainly he’s been placed there because he’s a “yes man”, he has no ideological attachment to the People’s Party, certainly the party that was founded by Zulfiqar Bhutto. However, I’m sure he worked just fine with Benazir and Zardari’s people. But this has become a charade concerning Zardari’s cases. What the NRO does is that those cases with Zardari no longer have to happen under the table – now they can happen over the table.
You’ve said publicly that you hold Benazir Bhutto “morally responsible” for the assassination of your father [Murtaza Bhutto shot outside his house in Karachi, Pakistan in a police ambush in 1996.] We now know the police had a direct role in the murder, including blocking traffic and delaying the ambulances as well dragging the investigation. Do you specifically blame your aunt and Asif Zardari for your father’s assassination? Pointing fingers at your aunt and Zardari is a bold claim no?
As you said we know for a fact that the police pulled the trigger. Some very high level police officers were at the scene of the murder – they placed themselves there. Who authorized the police to stage a private killing of an elected member of the Assembly and coincidentally the Prime Minister’s brother? I always said Bhutto bears moral responsibility for my father’s murder because if you look at her last government in the mid 90’s it presided over thousands of deaths in Karachi. Bhutto used the police force to attack her critics and opponents.
The police were given orders by the Prime Minister’s office to clean up Karachi. They went after the ethnic Muhajir community, a community that came from India [after 1947’s partition], and is primarily Urdu speaking and the MQM party, which is the party that represents them. They were attacked in “Operation Clean Up”, which was as genocidal as it sounds. I mean the police were empowered by the Prime Minister’s office to setup torture cells and assassination squads. It was as simple as the police stop you, they ask for your ID card, and if you don’t have a Sindhi name, if you have a Muhajir name then you’re shot on spot. There were thousands of these daily murders. The MQM were targeted primarily because they opposed Bhutto and primarily because they were a sticking point in the province of Sindh where she got most of her votes and power from. My father was a very vocal critic of the corruption by Benazir and Asif and these extra judicial killings. And he was one man out of thousands that was killed by her government.
Secondly Bhutto’s government arrested the witnesses and the survivors to the assassination but not the police, they were not arrested, they were all internally cleared in a review, and they were honorably reinstated to their job, and they were promoted. One member of the police force who at the time headed the intelligence bureau that directly reported to the Prime Minister’s office, after the murder he was asked by Benazir to join the Central Committee of her Party. That sounds like a reward really. It doesn’t sound like a punishment. It was a very honored position to be given.
Third, the Benazir government didn’t allow us to push forward with a criminal case. They elected to have a tribunal which was to have no legal authority to pass a sentence. It was essentially a stalling mechanism. However the judges chosen were very well respected members of the community. The tribunal concluded three very important things, but unfortunately they were unable to act on these conclusions.
First, it was an assassination. Forensically, they concluded only the police fired ammunition; it wasn’t a shoot out. Second, they concluded that the police used an excessive amount of force, that they stopped traffic, they didn’t take the injured men to hospitals, and they dropped them off at clinics but not to emergency wards. And third, they concluded the assassination couldn’t have happened without approval from the highest level of the government. At the time what was higher than Benazir’s post as Prime Minister?
Many say that the bad blood between your late father and Asif Zardari points the blame at the latter. Do you think that’s pure speculation or accurate?
We have to take into account my father was very vocal about Asif’s role in Benazir’s government. He was outspoken about his corruption and about the manner in which he and his friends essentially hijacked the government. He was given positions like the Minister of Investment, which is almost ridiculous to place in the hands of a man who has corruption cases leveled against him. Asif Zardari certainly with his wife took the party in a direction that rendered it completely unfamiliar in its original form. A party that was founded on the ideals of social justice, land reform, provincial empowerment, and economic empowerment became under Benazir and Asif’s control the party of feudal landlords. It became a party of the industrial class, these oligarchs that control industry in Pakistan, and it no longer is a party for the disposed and disenfranchised. It’s become a club, a club for the rich and famous and criminally inept. My father was very critical about this, of course he represented a threat politically to Benazir. He spoke truth to the power in that case, and it was certainly very threatening.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this is not the only murder case leveled against Asif Zardari. There’s the case of the high court judge as I mentioned. There was a case of the steel mill chairman as well. Asif was a man at the time in power who was not used to hearing no, he was used to getting what he wanted. He received “10%” during Benazir’s first government and he became Mr. 50% during the second. Nothing ran in Pakistan without Asif’s approval, and I don’t imagine that this would have changed very much now. Again we see him at the helm of power pulling the string of the Prime Minister and Parliament.
If you’ve been reading the Western media’s coverage of Pakistan, you’ll know your late aunt, Benazir Bhutto, was heralded as the “beacon of democracy.” Some others state she was merely a shameless self-promoter. What was the reality, and why did the United States want so much to project her as this beacon of democracy?
When people do their bidding for the U.S., they become beacons of democracy. The U.S also, I believe, thought Pinochet of Chile was a beacon of democracy at one time; they heralded Taliban as freedom fighters in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. Let’s not forget they supported Saddam Hussein until he became inconvenient then they toppled him. The Shah Of Iran was also a great friend of America. So I think it’s perfectly obvious why America would choose to support Benazir: she was willing to do their bidding for them. Here was a politician who was certainly corrupt if not financially then certainly ethically, and who had lost, through the years, the necessary ground support to bring her to power any more. That’s why she needed backers like those in The White House.
Before she came back to Pakistan, she gave a number of very controversial statements. She said that once re-elected Prime Minister for the third time, which she assumed – in the way feudal dynasts do – was a given, that she would open up Pakistan’s borders for U.S. troops to stage operations in their War on Terror. Now that statement is not pro American, that statement is anti Pakistani. But those were the lengths she was willing to go to please those pulling the strings. It was Condi Rice who basically pushed Musharaff’s arm to deal with Benazir and said, “Look, you need a pretty face in the government, we can’t keep supporting open dictators. We can support you and give you millions of dollars of aid provided you look sort of like a democracy. It’s not the ‘70’s anymore.”
Purely looking at Benazir’s record, Wajahat, we have to conclude she was not a beacon of democracy. In her first government, she came into power by dealing with the military, through dealing with Zia’s military. She would’ve been his Prime Minister, and she was very fortunate that he was killed before that. It’s worthwhile mentioning General Zia assassinated Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, her father, and abrogated the 1973 constitution. When Benazir won the 1988 elections the army said to her, “Look we will invite you to be Prime Minister, but we will choose your cabinet for you and your foreign minister for you. And, you have to continue on with the IMF and World Bank loan agreements that we have taken on, and they have to be carried forward without any argument.” And she agreed and compromised with the army in ’88.
If we look at her first government which lasted two years, Benazir’s government failed to pass any major legislation – and by any major legislation I mean any legislation. Instead, you’ve got a woman Prime Minister popularly elected who did not remove the Hudood Ordinance, which is the most violent piece of legislation against women and minorities in Pakistan. It is a part of Zia’s legacy. It says if a woman commits adultery or engages in sexual relations before marriage she can be stoned to death. It’s a completely draconian law. The Bhutto government didn’t even attempt to remove the Hudood.
She was ousted in 1990 on large-scale corruption charges. She comes back to government in ’93, which is now known for continued corruption on a major level. We’re talking billions. Two to three billon dollars worth of corruption cases about money stolen from Pakistan’s Treasury. They were also known for major flagrant human rights violations, for the extra judicial killings targeted against the ethnic Muhajirs and political dissidents. To top it off, before falling out of power, she recognizes and provided support for the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Her interior minister used to call the Taliban “my boys.” And Benazir has basically admitted in interviews “Look we made a mistake with Afghanistan. Whoops, I didn’t know. Please forgive me.”
This is her record. During her last government, six Sindhi papers were shut down because they were critical. There was no freedom of press, no freedom of political difference. Her record is not just violence, but also distinctly undemocratic. So, we come out of that and ask, “What did she do afterwards?” She leaves the country and she comes back and makes a deal with a dictator.
She makes a deal with Musharaff and asks for three things: First, the NRO and for [the pardon of] her corruption cases and her friends, which distinctively cover her and not other figures, from the start of her power till the end, from 1986 till now. She asks for the NRO. Secondly, she asks that the Constitution be changed so that the Prime Minister can have more than two terms. Now, most functioning democracies have limits on the powers for the Prime Minister and President. Benazir was asking this be removed so she could return to power for the third time, a personal request. And the third request was to remove Article 58-2b, which allowed the President to depose his Prime Minister without the sanction of Parliament. By removing the Article, it doesn’t empower the people, the democratic institution, the parliament; it simply shifts power from the President to the Prime Minister. Again, that’s a deeply personal sort of request.
For Benazir coming back for a third shot at power, it’s remarkable she didn’t ask for the 1973 Constitution to be restored, or she didn’t say drop the Hudood, or she didn’t ask for the thousands of people that have disappeared since Musharaff came into office. The only legislation she asked for was concerning her own person. Her record is one that is deeply flawed, deeply, deeply flawed. It’s no more democratic than the Shah of Iran or General Pinochet.
But, however, I think it’s this continued sort of racism in the West and this need for expediency to push Benazir forward. Here is this woman that speaks beautiful English and she went to the best schools the West could offer. And she is compliant, and she was a pretty face for this idea of a democracy, this sort of transposed democracy they were planning to put up in Pakistan. I don’t think the US government has dealt with Pakistan any differently than they do with other similar countries they intervene in. Certainly the media, and this is important to note, was remarkably irresponsible in their covering Benazir before she was coming back to Pakistan.
There were these fawning articles written about what a horrible life she had, how attractive she was, how she went to Oxford, who her friends in Washington and London were. It didn’t say much about her record, or her time in government. Ultimately, that’s what she is accountable to – her record.
Western media portrays Pakistan as a hotbed of “rage boys” – yet fundamentalist parties only win a minority of seats. Nonetheless, we see an explosion of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks this past year. This makes it hard for U.S. and the world to hear the age-old tale “Hey, we Pakistanis are peaceful.” If you could control the Western media’s depiction for one day – what would you show as the modern day reality of Pakistan?
Wow. Well, that would be a very heavy day. I think when we talk about things like Islamic radicalism or Islamic extremism in Pakistan, the one thing Western media is really good at is showing the really scary side: men with beards burning things and bombing things. They de-contextualise them. They leave them completely floating in this space of terror and violence. One thing I’ve never seen in the media explanation as to why Islamic fundamentalists have become powerful in Pakistan is the following. In most of this country, you see no evidence of the government in rural areas. They are completely an invisible force, either reluctant or unwilling to provide the most basic needs for people in this country. So what happens in these places, Islamic organizations will come in and set up madrassas. So if there’s no other option for a family to have their child educated, how do you convince a family not to send their child to a religious school, a madrassa? You can’t. You don’t. You have no right to. Of course not all madrassas are bad, and we have to distinguish between good and bad madrassas In the Western media, madrassa is followed by jihad or training camp, and that’s certainly not the case.
After the 2005 earthquakes, which was incredibly devastating with tremendous destruction, what you saw when you went to these areas hit by the earthquake, you saw aid coming from foreign countries, foreign flags flying, and you saw the Jamaat and Islamic parties and organizations building tents and rehabilitations centers. You didn’t see anything from the Pakistan government. I would put that in the newspaper for the day. I think also the thing that happens in the Western media is that they have set the bar incredibly low for countries like Pakistan. That speaks to this sort of – I don’t know what the word is – one could call it Orientalism, neo-colonialism or imperialism – let’s just call it imperialism. Part of imperial thinking is to denigrate the people you are lording over, and say these are very simple people and so we must come and help them. The Western media does this constantly with Pakistan, for example, after the elections, they said, “Oh, only 20 people were killed that’s very good for Pakistan!” No, that’s not good or okay for Pakistan! 20 people or 200 people, it doesn’t matter, this is still 20 people, it’s still violence on Election Day.
You also had Joe Biden and John Kerry come in and say, “Oh, for Pakistan this was incredibly free and fair elections.” No! For no country was this free and fair elections, but the bar has been placed so low in the Western media. When there’s two suicide bombings instead of five, the media says, “Whoa! Things are booming in Pakistan.”
There are so many things the Western media leaves out, sorry for going on like this. The Western media paints this picture of economic progress in Pakistan, you know 10 billion dollars of aid, this country is moving forward, they are allies on the War on Terror, they are receiving foreign investments and so forth.
The idea that the New York Times would say these things that Pakistan is booming under Musharaff – everything is wonderful and everything is great. But what they don’t print is that the growth they speak of is this very small pool. Like 20 families that have always done well in Pakistan and have continued to do well. If you look at the majority of the population, it’s become too expensive to eat in this country in parts of Punjab and Sindh. The price of bread, which is a staple in the Pakistani diet, went from 2 rupees to 18 rupees. The price of flour, wheat is just enormously high in this country.
War on terror has produced kidnappings, battery and even outright attacks on Pakistani people by Pakistan’lue>