Flawed tale of Bhutto on sale
by Stephen Schwartz
The American audience for sensational films, including documentaries about terrorism, is large, and it has now been provided with a flossy morsel about the late Benazir Bhutto. The 111-minute video, titled simply Bhutto, has been screened in American cinema houses and is scheduled for television presentation on the Public Broadcasting Service on 11 May 2011.
The brutal 2007 murder of Benazir Bhutto – whom I had briefly met in Washington, DC – was unquestionably tragic for Pakistan. It was the turning point after which the war on terror in South Asia entered its acute, Iraq-style phase, culminating in the Mumbai atrocities a year afterward. I wrote at the time of her death that the Wahhabi warriors of al-Qaida, having suffered a defeat in Mesopotamia, were flocking to Pakistan.
The killing of Bhutto was a blow against her promises of political reform, but also against her stated commitment to resist the growth of Taliban influence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its awful effect was aggravated by the assumption of power in Pakistan, in the name of her legacy, by her weak-willed husband Asif Ali Zardari. As I and my colleague Dr Irfan Al-Alawi wrote in the London Spectator of 24 September 2008, blame for the rise of terror in South Asia belongs "with the Talebanised sectors of the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence service (ISI), and the pusillanimity of the Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto."
The terrible death of Benazir Bhutto – in which the complicity of elements in Pakistan's own government is unarguable – deserves a memorial and an explanation to the Pakistani as well as the American public. But the story should be told with rigorous devotion to truth. In that context, the U.S.-produced Bhutto documentary has notably failed.
Having watched the film I wonder if, when it is presented on PBS, it will include an allegation by a Pakistani diplomat that John F. Burns, a journalist of impeccable ethics and professional standing, planted false stories in The New York Times describing the scandals that surrounded Benazir Bhutto and Zardari. Such a charge is extremely serious.
The Bhutto documentary was produced with the active participation of Washington Democratic political consultant Mark Siegel, who was considered Benazir Bhutto's main advocate in the U.S. Siegel appears throughout the film. The video also depends heavily on leftist commentators such as the former Trotskyist Tariq Ali and the American writer Amy Wilentz – who is repeatedly identified as the author of a book titled Martyrs' Crossing, which deals with Israel and Palestine, not Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Henry Kissinger, a man for whom I have little good to say, is apparently slandered in the film by the claim that he threatened Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with a terrible fate if Pakistan were to develop its own nuclear weapon.
The Bhutto documentary also includes lengthy criticism by such family members as Benazir's niece Fatima Bhutto. Yet in the end it glides lightly over the reality of the Bhutto family's feudal wealth and the corrupt business practices of Mr Ten Percent, President Zardari.
Worse, however, is the film's appallingly false libel against India. The separation of Bangladesh from then-West Pakistan is described without nuance in the Bhutto video as an aggressive act by the Indian government.
This portrayal of the origins of Bangladesh, in which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as shown in the film, engaged in some picturesque antics before the United Nations, is false and I know it to be false.
The independence of Bangladesh came about because the authorities in West Pakistan would not accept the political success of a party from then-East Pakistan, the Awami League, and its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was among the loudest and most demagogic in demanding denial of the programme for greater autonomy put forward by Sheikh Mujib. The "country" of Pakistan split and the leaders of West Pakistan sent teams of jihadists and other terrorists to then-East Pakistan. Thousands of Muslims were massacred by the West Pakistanis. The patriots of Bangladesh organized themselves in guerrilla forces to fight for the freedom of their nation. West Pakistan bombed India, which came into the conflict to establish order, and secured the independence of Bangladesh.
But it is an absurd and contemptible lie to claim that the separation of Bangladesh was a preplanned act of aggression by India against Pakistan. To believe this fabrication may be useful in flattering the image of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and, by extension, his daughter. But it remains an untruth.
I remember the birth of Bangladesh very well because at the time I was a 22-year old member of the international radical left – Trotskyist division – and the Trotskyists, of whom Tariq Ali was then a leader in the UK, firmly supported the stand of Bangladesh against the domination of West Pakistan. Foreign partisans of Bangladesh were not advocates for Indian expansionism; rather, we defended the principle of national liberation and, especially, its achievement through popular military action.
Leaving ideological memories aside, however, the reality of what happened in Bangladesh is better known by my colleague Salim Mansur, Canadian director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism (CIP), who was born in east Bengal and took flight as a refugee to India during the 1971 independence war. Salim, although of the same youthful age cohort as myself, had been put against a wall and threatened with execution by West Pakistanis. He and other Muslims from what would become Bangladesh viewed India as their rescuer.
Dr Al-Alawi, who is international director of CIP, has conducted extensive public work exposing the role of jihadists in the Bangladesh massacres of 1971. And one would be remiss not to mention the film-maker Shahriar Kabir, whose extensive cinema documentation, including War Crimes 71, has energized the Bangladesh public to demand a public apology and reparations from Pakistan.
Pakistan refuses to acknowledge the criminal role of its armed forces and jihadist auxiliaries in the bloodshed in Bangladesh in 1971, just as Pakistan now declines to remove jihadist sympathizers from its military establishment or to shut down support networks and safe havens for Afghan radicals along the border between the two countries.
If the story of Benazir Bhutto merits presentation to a global media audience in Hollywood-liberal form, certainly it is time for the same world-wide public to be offered an accurate accounting of the bloody birth of Bangladesh. The over-promoted U.S. film's treatment of this matter alone, as if the conduct of Zardari as president were insufficient, demonstrates that, sadly, the heritage of Bhutto remains stained with dishonesty even after her martyrdom.