It is impossible to get a grip on Benazir Bhutto and her tremendous sense of destiny without some understanding of the anachronistic milieu of which she was a product: feudal, rural Pakistan. The Bhutto clan’s ancestors were Hindu Rajputs from Rajasthan, who according to family lore converted to Islam after the Muslim invasion of India in the eighth century. The patriarch from whom Benazir’s branch of the family would descend, Sheto, rose to a position of power under the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the seventeenth century, claiming the title of khan, or clan leader. As one historian of the family has put it, “as far back as history traces them, Bhuttos have been adroit at seizing whatever opportunities life offered, equally ready to move on or change their faith if they deemed it expedient for survival’s sake.” Sheto Khan moved to Sindh, in the southernmost province of what would in 1947 become Pakistan, settling near the town of Larkana, which remains the Bhutto power base to this day.
It is an immemorial landscape: thousands of acres of arid salt flats. Larkana is near the site of Mohenjo Daro in the Indus Valley, one of the world’s earliest urban settlements. This proximity to this cradle of civilization has seemed significant to the Bhuttos, as Benazir recounted in her autobiography: “As a small child I thought the ancient city was called ‘Munj Jo Dero,’ which in Sindhi means ‘my place.’ My brothers, sister and I took great pride that we had been raised in the shadow of Moenjodaro, that we lived on the bank of the Indus which had been bringing life to the land since the beginnings of time.”
The British conquest of Sindh, carried out in 1842–3 by Sir Charles Napier, was a brutal affair in which some ten thousand native Sindhis perished. The Bhuttos, however, were loyal to the British and were rewarded accordingly, with Napier singling out the head of the family, at that time Dodo Khan Bhutto, for special favors. Dodo Khan consolidated the immense family holdings in Sindh, while Bhuttos from other branches of this large extended family received titles from the queen-empress and land from the Raj administration. At the height of the family’s power, Bhutto land in Sindh stretched nearly eighty miles — a demesne that dwarfed comparable aristocratic holdings in Europe.
Benazir and her siblings were encouraged to take the romantic view of their family’s history, to see the Bhuttos not as loyal, well-compensated servants of their British overlords but as freebooting mavericks. A favorite family story was that of Benazir’s great-grandfather Mir Ghulam Murtaza Bhutto, who had attracted the affections of a British woman — a love that was of course unthinkable during the nineteenth-century Raj.
The Bhutto version of the tale had Ghulam Murtaza defiantly horsewhipping the British colonel who had warned him off his memsahib, taking refuge with the royal family of Afghanistan, and finally returning to Sindh only to be poisoned by his nefarious enemies. The research of Z. A. Bhutto’s biographer, Stanley Wolpert, has unearthed a less colorful and romantic version of this story; still, Ghulam Murtaza’s place in the family mythology is significant. Bhuttos were to be depicted not as servants of the Raj but as swashbuckling cavaliers. The glowing pride displayed by both Benazir and her father in the more extravagant ways of their feudal forebears was always glaringly at odds with their stated populism; it is one of the central paradoxes of their careers.
The Indian Congress Party was founded in 1885, and from that time nationalists applied pressure on the British for independence. This pressure was to increase sharply after World War I, when Britain reneged on promises to move toward Indian independence even though India, in good faith, had sent more than a million men to fight for the British. Between the wars a measure of self-government began to be accorded the subjects of the Raj, though the authorities attempted to control the subcontinent by recruiting the hereditary landowners (known as zamindars or waderos) into the civil service, the police, and the political arena, rewarding them for loyalty and cooperation. In
1926 the first elections for the new Central Legislative Assembly were conducted in Sindh; seat 207 was contested and won by Sardar Wahid Bux Bhutto. From that time through independence, the creation of Pakistan, and beyond, seat 207 would belong to the Bhuttos, an indication of the tight hold on power that feudal landlords have maintained right into the twenty-first century. This was the seat from which the young Zulfikar
Ali Bhutto would launch himself into power. The Bhuttos were never in much danger of losing it, for in feudal Pakistan the largely illiterate masses have voted as their tribal leaders dictate: in 1988, when Zulfikar’s widow Nusrat ran for the Larkana seat in the National Assembly, she polled 97 percent of the vote — and no one was surprised.
The tempestuous and colorful Ghulam Murtaza had a son, Shah Nawaz, who would work closely with the British as the Indian subcontinent moved slowly and painfully toward independence. In 1920 Shah Nawaz won the one seat allotted to Sindh on the Imperial Legislative Council at Delhi, and began presiding over the District Board and Central Co-Operative Bank of Larkana; he also became the president of the Sindh Mohammedan Association and, eventually, of the Sindh United Party. In 1930 he was named one of sixteen Muslim delegates from all of British India to attend the first of three Imperial Round Table conferences in London, where he was able to convince India’s rulers that Sindh should be awarded separate provincial status; this was an important move, for it legally elevated Sindh’s capital, Karachi, from its position as a relatively obscure port town to a capital city on an equal footing with the great metropolises of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. In 1934, he cofounded the Sindh People’s Party. He enjoyed a close working relationship with the British and became the leading Muslim confidant to the governor at Bombay, Lord Brabourne. India’s rulers in Whitehall rewarded Shah Nawaz by making him a Companion of the Order of the British Empire and, later, bestowing upon him a knighthood.
In 1946 Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto rose to become the prime minister of Junagadh, one of India’s 565 so-called princely states, which were nominally independent so long as they cooperated with British interests. It was a key moment in subcontinental history. As independence and partition of the country into the new states of India and Pakistan approached, slated for mid-1947, the problem of what to do with the princely states became pressing. The ultimate decision was that each prince should decide which country his state would adhere to; Sir Shah Nawaz was instrumental in persuading his employer, the nawab of Junagadh, to opt for Pakistan. As the countdown to independence proceeded — August 14 for Pakistan, the next day for India — and the borders of the new countries were hastily drawn up by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British civil servant who had no previous knowledge of the subcontinent and was armed with out-of-date and inadequate maps, panic and chaos ensued. The tragic story of the partition, during which twelve and a half million people were displaced and at least a million, perhaps many more, killed in ethnic violence by both Hindus and Muslims, is well known. Things went no more smoothly in Junagadh than elsewhere: when the time came, Indian troops seized the state and the nawab fled into exile.
Sir Shah Nawaz’s grand plan had failed, but his career was nonetheless impressive. As Zulfi kar Ali