Most interesting parts are not about the Bhuttos
If I were the campaign manager for the PPP for the next general elections, and told to pick one book to be sent to every prospective voter with the party manifesto, then this would be it: Bhutto Khandan Meri Yaadon Mein by Wajid Shamsul Hasan.
It is an insider’s account by a man who spent a lifetime in the orbit of the Bhutto family. Wajid Shamsul Hasan cherry-picks salient events which lionize the Bhutto family and glosses over any weaknesses of fact which would have impeded the narrative along the way. It is in the sketching of the background of events that Hasan wishes to convey his pro-Bhutto perspective. He takes you there in minute detail, although for just a fleeting moment, to provide a glimpse of an era gone by.
And so, the most interesting parts of this book are the ones in which the author isn’t trying to tell you something about the Bhuttos. These sections are also the most accurate ones.
The book can be read for an understanding of how the civil service and other influential people of the time brought with themselves from India the same culture and bureaucratic corruption along with the scant boxes of stationery. This was the same favouritism and nepotism that had aided the Indian partition and would later cause the creation of Bangladesh.
Take for example, the distribution of evacuee properties among claimants. Wajid Shamsul Hasan explains how his politically connected family managed to acquire allotments of spacious residences from the evacuee property board one after the other. Each one was better than the last but not good enough, until finally they settled on one across from Prime Minister House because his father was a notable officer in the Muslim League, the guardian of the diaries and personal letters of Mr Jinnah, and because his press published the League’s paper from Delhi: the daily Dawn.
Wajid Shamsul Hasan’s father refused to recommend him to a job at Dawn even though the paper’s editor at the time was a friend of his. This was at a time when the paper had become independent of its political party roots and was re-established in Karachi. Hasan feels others thought he shouldn’t have had a shot at the job, such was the competition. When he turned up to apply, the Editor recognised him anyway, deprecated the profession of journalism as a low-paid endeavour but gave him the coveted job regardless.
And so, we are shown how influential people at the time, no differently from those today, wanted what was best for those in their circle without any regard for how it may have a deleterious effect on the system in the long run. Hasan’s father’s friend told him to apply to Burma Shell, where the application process was hijacked in his favour. He was accepted for testing despite missing the deadline to apply, and was leaked the test questions so he could better prepare. After passing the test, Hasan was on his way to the interview, which was similarly rigged, but he did not make it because he had an accident. He took this to be an omen—not one with the sobering lesson that nepotism puts the individual and society on a collision course, but just an old fashioned self-serving omen, the kind that is used to justify your decisions in the belief that a higher power wants you to work as a journalist in your father’s friend’s paper and not join an oil company on your father’s friend’s sifarish.
There are more insights into life as a newsman on a shoestring salary in Pakistan. Even the most honest of them, like Hasan himself, proudly admit to a friendship with ZA Bhutto which began with one cigar and grew to a box each month thereafter. The box was worth several times his salary, notes Hasan, and that it became a tradition that Benazir carried forward after ZAB’s death.
It is this world-building which makes the book worth reading. We see Hasan continue to identify himself as a journalist even when he takes up the position of chairman of the National Press Trust given to him by the Bhuttos. And then, when he goes on to head the high commission in London for many years. Indeed, it is when Hasan is at his typewriter that we hear the best stories of Pakistan and its powerbrokers. Whenever he does tell stories about the Bhuttos, he uses a brush and an artist’s easel. The difference in nuance is almost akin to the separation between reality and fiction. We hear about ZAB’s magnificent memory, and how the man did not have a feudal mindset, other than a deep sense of vengeance. Bhutto’s nationalisation policy was a wonderful programme which depleted the elite capture prevalent in the country.
In another instance, he focuses on their bravado and patriotism. “Idhar hum, udhar tum” was not ZA Bhutto being racist, he attempts to clarify. It was instead him speaking of the provincial autonomy which he envisioned under the Constitution that would allow for Mujib to govern in the East while Bhutto ran the West. Hasan invites the reader to understand that it wasn’t within Bhutto’s power to deny Mujib power after the elections, and that it was the military Establishment which was most fearful of East Pakistani politicians taking over what they felt was rightfully theirs: the central government. Everything else Bhutto did to facilitate the Establishment’s capture of East Pakistan’s legitimately won electoral power is left unattended.
In the years leading up to Partition, Hasan claims to have received some information which looked like a foreign intelligence leak sent in a plain unmarked envelope to his office. It meticulously documented the extent of the rot and decay in the governance of East Pakistan, highlighting clearly the likelihood of secession. Instead of making a career as Woodward and publishing a book on the contents, Hasan forgot to make and keep a copy before handing over the envelope along with its contents to his publisher, who rang up then president Ayub Khan and gave it to him. Ayub promptly tasked the Intelligence Bureau to investigate the dossier. The IB instantly turned around and harassed Hasan about the documents being fake while at the same time wanting to know how he got them and tailing him for months thereafter.
According to Hasan, every prediction in that envelope eventually came to pass. To any other journalist, this lack of record-keeping would have qualified as a career-defining error; for Hasan it was simply written off as “Mujh say ghaltee ho gayi” before he moved on to more Bhutto stories.
Some interesting anecdotes from his time as editor emerge to serve as examples of severe censorship under Zia’s Martial law, and how he constantly tested the limits of getting the news out to the public. One trick by the Pakistani press was to symbolically use news of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (as it was permissible to print), leaving it to the readers to understand that it was actually Zia they were critiquing.
American foreign policy at the time was against Pinochet but supportive of Zia. Reagan once commented on Pinochet, saying martial law was a “war against your own people,” so Hasan put the quote as the next day’s headline. Who said what to whom followed in the body text of the print down below. But the Information Department finally caught on according to Hasan and relegated all Pinochet stories to single column coverage only and off the front page.
Hasan narrates (a currently relevant) story about the age-old establishmentarian hobby of fiddling with the judiciary, and how it was of critical importance to the Bhutto trial. He claims that the Supreme Court verdict would have been 4-4 had Justice Waheeduddin continued hearing Bhutto’s appeal. Waheeduddin was suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure and according to Hasan, the lawyer for the government deliberately elongated his arguments to create enough of a window for the judge to grow ill enough to need hospitalisation. Once the judge was admitted, Hasan alleges he was maliciously administered a glucose drip which ensured he wouldn’t recover and return to the bench. Had Justice Waheeduddin continued, even with all the engineering, we would have had a hung bench—and a living Bhutto.
We ascend then to the supernatural, to be told that after the hanging, the army officer escorting Bhutto’s body to the grave reported that his face was blossoming like a rose, as if vindicated in death. When the author goes to the gravesite, he attests to an indescribable other-worldly feeling enveloping him.
It is in the defence and portrayal of Benazir where Hasan is at his most journalistically feeble. He feels she could have stopped the Gulf War had she been allowed to intervene with Saddam. He feels she was the answer to every question ever asked of Pakistan.
The naivety with which he explains why the Establishment created the likes of Nawaz Sharif against Benazir could have been lifted from a comic book in which the superhero is entrapped by villains, and subtlety impedes the task of the illustrator. To him, she was the greatest of military visionaries, who acquired for us the missiles to carry the nuclear bomb her father gave us. They all hated her because she was a woman. We are told that the cases against her husband were clearly concocted and fabricated, as Hasan feels there was no evidence behind them. There is no mention of the incident in which a cigar-smoking Hasan is caught on tape removing from a record room in Switzerland the supposed court record containing Pakistan’s position with evidence of Zardari’s misdoings.
As with any great tragedy, the tale of the PPP’s sufferings would be incomplete without comic relief. Consequentially, Rehman Malik is mentioned three times. Twice, it is because Hasan remembers him for relaying information which was false. Once when he announced Benazir was alive and well on the day she died. The third is when he called Hasan and told him Zardari wanted him to change his line when talking to the press about the results of the Scotland Yard inquiry into Benazir’s death, and that Zardari wanted Hasan to say that he was satisfied with the findings. Moments later, on the phone to Hasan, Zardari refuted having given any such instructions, and told Hasan to ignore Rehman Malik.
This book is a paean to the Bhuttos. It ignores any complex analysis of their challenges or troubles with their leadership. It is a doting memoir by someone who was genuinely and loyally enthralled with the Bhutto clan and what he felt it represented. It is these parts which are hard to read. All the rest, though there isn’t much of it, is highly enjoyable.