Fatima Bhutto’s perspectives on Pakistan make a powerful statement at SWF, discovers Pallavi Sinha (For Indian Link)
The timing and location of Osama Bin Laden’s demise in Pakistan could not have worked any better for the Sydney Writer’s Festival (SWF). Chip Rolley, in his second year as Artistic Director of the SWF, jokingly said that he did not know Osama Bin Laden would be found in Pakistan when he had invited Fatima Bhutto to deliver the Opening Address at the SWF.
‘Power’ was the unifying theme of the 2011 SWF. From May 16 to 22, the SWF presented world renowned writers and poets at a wide range of events covering topics such as politics, religion, global power, climate change and technology. On May 17, the SWF was opened by the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, the Chair of the SWF, Sandra Yates, the NSW Minister for Arts, George Souris and Chip Rolley. This event was sold out, and an enthusiastic audience filled the Sydney Theatre located in the beautiful cultural precinct of Walsh Bay. Sandra Yates stated that the SWF has “grown organically to be the largest in the world”. Chip Rolley noted with profound disappointment the empty chair on the stage because Liao Yiwu, a writer from China who had been invited to speak, had been denied permission by the Chinese authorities to attend the SWF. He read a letter from Liao, 53, in which Liao said that it would seem that he will never be able to reach Australia. He said the Chinese authorities had banned him from travelling, just as it had banned his writing, which explored “a different China” of the “bottom rung of society”.
But the coup of the festival was undoubtedly Fatima Bhutto, as she delivered the Opening Address, “Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”. This enterprising young writer is related to two former Prime Ministers of Pakistan – she is granddaughter of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister), and niece to the late Benazir Bhutto (whose husband Asif Ali Zardari is the President of Pakistan and co-Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party). Fatima is the daughter of the late Mir Murtaza Bhutto, founder chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party Shaheed Bhutto (PPPSB). She is a part of an extraordinary family that has played a significant role in shaping Pakistani politics, and in the process, has suffered many tragedies. Like the Kennedys and Gandhis, there have been controversial assassinations, executions and murders in her family.
Fatima Bhutto’s Opening Address was particularly interesting at a time when Pakistan has drawn international attention following the location and demise of Osama Bin Laden there. Assassinations are ongoing with Saudi diplomat Hassan al-Khatani shot dead as recently as May 16, and the violence seems to be slowly escalating.
Resplendent in a flowing gown of red and green, the latter reminiscent of the colour on the Pakistani flag, the 29 year old displayed knowledge and wisdom way beyond her years. Just like her bold and crisply cut attire, Fatima’s speech was courageous and cut to the heart of the issue of problems in one of the most troubled countries in the world. She spoke eloquently and gracefully, carrying on her family tradition of powerful and articulate public speaking. Fatima Bhutto’s depth of knowledge about Pakistan and the world came through in her witty and often satirical speech, which was well-received by the audience.
Fatima Bhutto referred to Pakistan as a country that is perpetually on the verge of breaking down. It has the world’s fifth largest nuclear state, and has the fifth largest army.
She noted that Pakistan was a nuclear-armed state that had failed to meet its millennium goals to eradicate polio because of the corruption of the ruling elite. Pakistan didn’t have electricity to run refrigerators to store polio vaccines, despite receiving more than $20 billion in aid money from the US over the last decade. She commented with irony that, “We have nuclear weapons but we can’t run fridges.”
She quoted Transparency International as listing Pakistan as the second most corrupt country in the world. The audience reverberated with laughter at her comment that although Nigeria was considered more corrupt than Pakistan, this prompted speculation that “we paid them off to take the fall”.
Pakistan was on the verge of a the nervous breakdown, according to Fatima, because of a fundamental lack of justice, an absence of transparency and overwhelming violence that has been conducted and condoned by the State. She referred to a law that was passed three years ago in Pakistan called the National Reconciliation Ordinance, which erased twenty years worth of corruption charges against politicians and bureaucrats, adding that this made it virtually impossible to pursue charges against parliamentarians even in the future. She cited the gang rape and public humiliation of a young girl in 2002, the result of her younger brother’s impudent flirtation with a girl from another tribe. The incident remained a secret until an Imam of the local mosque said the matter should be reported to local authorities. The case against the six men bounced from court to court for the next nine years, and in April 2011, the Supreme Court released five of the six men charged for the gang-rape.
A dysfunctional relationship
Fatima was scathing in her comments on the USA and its relationship with Pakistan, which she termed as “dysfunctional”. The superpower doesn’t have to check with Pakistan when it starts a drone war in their country, she maintained with open criticism on the US drone attacks. She quoted poignant findings of a report by the Brookings Institute which found that for every purported one militant killed by drones, ten civilians also died. Last year, 118 drone strikes were recorded in the tribal regions of Pakistan, which continued even when Pakistan was faced with devastating natural disasters. Fatima noted sardonically that although they killed hundreds of people, they did not target Abbottabad where Osama Bin Laden was recently found.
Bin Laden in Pakistan
Fatima Bhutto said that within 40 minutes of US helicopters landing in Abbottabad, they had not only killed Osama Bin Laden, but also captured 22 people. And every airport and festival she has been to, has asked her: ‘What did Pakistan know?’
According to Fatima, this is a serious question. It is known that when neighbourhood children accidently pitched cricket balls into the Bin Laden compound, they were never given back and instead, the guards would offer the children money to buy new ones. Intelligence reports cited that the local grocer said Bin Laden’s handlers only bought bulk food orders and chose major brands. They always paid cash and never asked for credit. Newspapers were vocally accusatory because census takers had avoided the compound where Osama Bin Laden was staying. There are many conspiracy theories floating around in Pakistan as well, including that 66% of Pakistani people don’t believe Osama Bin Laden was killed, according to a national newspaper. She noted with irony that, though President Obama publicly stated that they didn’t show Osama’s body because they didn’t want to ‘trump this stuff out as a trophy’, the US Government was willing to show photographs of former Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein in the past, depicting him being pulled out of a rat hole and his subsequent hanging.
Fatima stated that the best theory she has heard is in-house – that the ‘Arab springs’ (prosperity in the Middle East which the US could view as a more useful ‘financial’ mine), negated the need for Osama Bin Laden. She said that Osama had outrun his purpose, and resistance across Asia had increased. Reports in the media indicate that President Obama will “reset” American policy in the Middle East and he will continue to broker lucrative deals to send weapons systems and military equipment to Arab despots.
Corruption at the highest level
Fatima Bhutto was critical of the response of the Pakistani government and army. She highlighted the lack of comment from the Pakistani President, Asif Zadari, while the Pakistani Prime Minister simply blamed the world. She cynically commented that Asif Zadari had been known as “Mr 10%” during his wife’s first term, and that many cases of corruption had been brought against him.
She referred to a statement put out by the Pakistani army that, though they acknowledged that there were intelligence shortcomings, it was the military’s unparalleled cooperation that has led to more Al Qaeda captures in Pakistan than in any other country, which Fatima sarcastically said was “an incriminating thing to be boasting about.”
She highlighted the ‘hot pursuit agreement’, which was signed between General Musharraf, the former Pakistani President, and General McChrystal of the USA which gives the US the right to enter Pakistan at any time and engage in kill-or-capture operations on its soil, whilst the Pakistani Government will always reserve the right to deny that they knew anything about it.
Fatima cited the US Head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, as saying that the Pakistani Government was either knowledgeable or incompetent regarding Osama Bin Laden’s presence in their country. She ironically added that he doesn’t realise that they could be both knowledgeable and incompetent. But then, the Pakistani establishment’s modus operandi in recent years has been to “look the other way.”
A solution to Pakistan’s problems?
While admitting that there are a lot of problems in the country, Fatima stated that answers would start with democracy and freedom of speech. Pakistan is still a young country at 64 years, and nation building takes time. She asserted that sustained incremental change is required by ordinary men and women, not by marshals and generals. She said that it is easy for Pakistan to blame all their failings “…on bogeymen or the CIA, or anyone other except ourselves. It saves us the trouble of confronting reality, it saves us the trouble of having to take responsibility of abusing our country, the promise of our country, so quickly and so shamelessly, it saves us having to take the responsibility of assassinating the potential of our very young Pakistan in the span of one short lifetime. And it saves us from demanding better of our thankless rulers, and depriving them of their overwhelming power over us for they fail us, which they do all the time.” Strong words indeed, from one so young, but clearly impactful.
India in the fray
Although Fatima’s speech covered several angles effectively, the one topic that wasn’t covered was the impact of Bin Laden’s death on Indo-Pak relations. It would have been interesting to know the writer’s views on this aspect, as India has always maintained that Pakistan has harboured terrorists on its soil, who were responsible for the most vicious attacks on India. According to a recent report in India Today, shortly after Bin Laden’s demise, the Indian government gave Pakistan a list of India’s 50 most wanted terrorists, suspected to be hiding in the neighbouring country, including Dawood Ibrahim and Hafeez Saeed.
Though her book describes the assistance she gave to her father during his political campaign in Pakistan, Fatima Bhutto openly states that she has no desire to run for political office. After her Opening Address, I approached Fatima Bhutto and asked her if her decision to run for political office had changed. She was whisked away before she could answer, but she did give me a wry smile in response. In an interview with Lateline on 17 May, Fatima stated that entering politics was the “worst way to get any kind of justice … (and that) … Pakistan has to choose now whether it wants to side with dynasty or democracy, but in Pakistan’s case it certainly can’t have both … I don’t think politics is the only way to make change. It’s certainly not the best way to make change in Pakistan. … And if you look at where change is coming from, it comes from ordinary Pakistanis. It doesn’t come from Generals, and it doesn’t come from dynasties, it comes from journalists and lawyers and activists and women. That’s the hope for Pakistan, always.”
Fatima Bhutto would make a good politician if she chose to, following in the footsteps of other political families like Rahul Gandhi has been doing. However, her verbal and non-verbal communication suggests that she will carry on her family’s legacy with words rather than in politics. And this could be a more prudent path for her. History shows that since 1979, a Bhutto involved with politics has been murdered or assassinated, almost every ten years. There is a saying that the “pen is mightier than the sword”. Writing is a powerful tool. It is through writing that history is recorded, and religious texts and political manifestos are created. Through her writing and powerful public speaking, Fatima Bhutto is making a significant impact in increasing world awareness and affecting social change, which is, arguably, more than she could achieve in political office in Pakistan.
Memories through words
Fatima Bhutto is based in Karachi and is the author of three books: Whispers of the Desert – a volume of poetry published in 1997 and 8.50 a.m. 8 October 2005 – a collection of first-hand accounts from survivors of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Her latest book, Songs of Blood and Sword – A Daughter’s Memoir was published in 2010 and takes the reader on a journey across countries as Fatima traces her father’s life and death. It provides a detailed biography of the Bhutto family, Pakistani politics and foreign policy.
In the book, Fatima’s eye-opening account of the brutal murder of her father, the dangers associated with being part of such a high-profile family, her estranged relationship with her birth mother and life in Pakistan all make compelling reading. Her memories are poignant as in September 1996 at just 14, she cradled her 6 year old brother in her arms to shield him from the terrifying sound of a barrage of bullets outside her family home in Karachi. Fatima took on the onus of exploring her father’s life and murder, and conducted interviews with many people, including her father’s childhood friends and family members, police officers, members of her late grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s cabinet, founding members and foot soldiers of the original Pakistan People’s Party. Her investigations led to the revelations of alleged conspiracies related to controversial issues, such as the question of who was responsible for the murder of her father and her uncle, the alleged involvement of the police, and the power of the army in Pakistan. The description of the evils of a military dictatorship is noteworthy at a time when former president of Pakistan, General Musharraf, openly stated on ABC News that rogue lower-level members of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Agencies and military may have helped Osama bin Laden hide in plain sight near the capital of Islamabad.
Although Fatima is critical of the political ideologies of her aunt, the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in a letter reproduced in the book, she states that the aim of her investigations was: “…not to launch a vitriolic attack on anyone, but simply to honour my father’s life through a meaningful remembrance.” It’s clear that Fatima believes Benazir and Zardari were involved in a cover-up after her father’s murder. The book was well-written, has received good critical review and is a brave description of the circumstances surrounding her father’s brutal murder, which could have been painful and traumatic for her to recount. Fatima’s personal descriptions of the distress and shock she felt when she uncovered upsetting cover-ups and revelations were remarkable.