ISLAMABAD: Begum Nusrat Bhutto, who suffered the longest torment among Pakistani politicians but put up an epic fight against military dictatorship, died in a Dubai hospital on Sunday after a long illness. She was 82.
Thus came a quiet end to the life of the widow of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, mother of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and mother-in-law of President Asif Ali Zardari, away from her homeland, where she will be brought on Monday for burial in a graveyard laden with family tragedies. The government declared 10 days of national mourning and a national holiday on Monday while the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) announced a 40-day mourning for the woman who led it for several years with a steely determination while facing some of the worst political persecution seen in the country’s history after a military coup toppled her husband in 1977.
President Zardari, who reached Dubai on Sunday after cutting short a visit to London, will personally bring her body by a chartered plane on Monday, the family announced. The family said Nusrat, who lived in Dubai for 10 years after taking exile there and was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was admitted to Dubai’s Iranian Hospital a day earlier in a critical condition and expired in the afternoon on Sunday to become the first member of Mr Bhutto’s family to die in hospital bed. Nusrat had lived a life of comfort after marrying Mr Bhutto as his second wife in 1951 and then of glamour when her husband was foreign minister in the government of then president Field Marshal Ayub Khan in the 1960s and then as the first lady when he was prime minister from 1971-77, often promoting women’s causes mostly from the party platform.
But she showed real mettle when she confronted then military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq after his July 5, 1977 coup by leading the PPP and a campaign that forced the dictator to postpone for years an election he had promised to hold within 90 days, and remained dauntless, as was her daughter Benazir, even when Mr Bhutto was executed in the Rawalpindi Central Jail in 1979 after a controversial conspiracy-to-murder trial. But that was not the end of Nusrat’s tragedies. Her younger son, Shahnawaz, died in mysterious circumstances at his flat in southern France in 1985 in what family members and party officials thought was a case of poisoning and a conspiracy by Zia’s intelligence operatives.
After a troubled sharing of party leadership with Benazir and then serving as senior minister in her daughter’s two prematurely ended prime ministerial terms, came what proved to be a shattering blow from which she never recovered: the Sept 20, 1996 assassination of her elder son, Murtaza Bhutto, in a shooting spree near his home in Karachi, only 46 days before Benazir, with whom he had strained relations, was sacked as prime minister by then president of her own party, Farooq Leghari. And finally came the Dec 27, 2007 assassination of Benazir in Rawalpindi at a time about which hardly any reliable account is available about Nusrat’s health or her feelings. According to a spokesperson of Bilawal House in Karachi, the funeral will take place at Garhi Khuda Bux near Larkana. She will be flown to Larkana where she will be laid to rest beside the grave of her husband at the mausoleum, which is also the last resting place of Benazir, Murtaza and Shahnawaz. Born on March 23, 1929 in a rich Iranian business family, Nusrat was married to Mr Bhutto on September 8, 1951. She had four children, Benazir, Murtaza, Shahnawaz and Sanam.
Nusrat went to Dubai along with her daughter Benazir, who spent eight years in self-exile and took care of her ailing mother apart from leading the PPP from abroad. That was the time when charges of corruption were brought by the government of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif against both mother and daughter as well as Mr Zardari, and some of those cases were still pending before Nusrat’s death.
Begum Bhutto was elected member of the National Assembly in 1977, 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1997 before she shifted to Dubai with daughter Benazir Bhutto. As the first lady she was in the forefront of social activities aimed at alleviating the lot of poor peasants through official channels and as minister.
As first lady from 1973–77, she functioned as a political hostess and accompanied her husband on a number of overseas visits. In 1979, after the trial and execution of her husband, she succeeded her husband as leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party as chairperson for life.
In 1982, ill with cancer, she was given permission to leave the country by the military government of Gen Ziaul Haq for medical treatment in London, at which point her daughter, Benazir Bhutto, became acting leader of the party, and by 1984, the party chairperson.
In the 1990s, she and Benazir became estranged when Nusrat was seen as taking side of her son Murtaza during a family dispute, but later reconciled after Murtaza’s murder. She lived the last few years of her life with her daughter’s family in Dubai and suffered from the combined effects of a stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
According to president’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar, besides President Zardari, his son Bilawal and daughters Bakhtawar and Assefa as well as Sanam Bhutto will accompany the body from Dubai. Former political secretary to Benazir Bhutto and now a party dissident Naheed Khan recalled that Nusrat Bhutto’s health started deteriorating soon after the death of Murtaza Bhutto in Karachi, after which she had started losing her memory.
Talking to the Media, she said that she was unaware about the health condition of Nusrat Bhutto in the past four years, but said that she had already lost her memory in the lifetime of Benazir Bhutto. However, she said that Nusrat Bhutto was not bedridden and even used to take a walk with a special stick. The family feud dating back to Murtaza’s lifetime revived on Sunday when his Syrian-born widow Ghinwa Bhutto and daughter Fatima Bhutto blamed President Zardari for keeping Nusrat Bhutto abroad. Both of them appeared on private TV channels before leaving Karachi for Larkana that they were purposely kept away from Nusrat Bhutto. According to sources, Murtaza’s only son Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Junior is also expected to arrive in Larkana from London on Monday.