Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, wife of three-time prime minister of Pakistan, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, passed away in London Tuesday.
She was diagnosed with lymphoma in August 2017. She had been undergoing treatment in London since then, and was frequently hospitalised in critical condition.
Begum Kulsoom was the First Lady of Pakistan from 1990 to 1993, from 1997 to 1999, and recently from June 2013 to July 2017. On each occasion, the tenure of her husband ended with him being ousted from power, twice via military coup and the last time via a judicial coup.
Born to a Kashmiri family of Gawalmandi, Lahore, Kulsoom was educated in Islamia College and the Forman Christian College University from where she graduated with a Masters in Urdu Literature. She served as the President of the PML-N from 1999 to 2002.
She was her husband’s closest confidante and adviser, and his bravest supporter after his incarceration by General Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator. Her political wisdom, grit, and courage all came to light after Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif’s government on 12 October 1999 and jailed him. Willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of her life partner, when political associates disappeared from the scene, Kulsoom led a fierce campaign for the return of her husband and for the restoration of democracy.
“It is one thing to get into politics when the going is good but quite another when one throws the hat in the ring to challenge a brutal dictator. In this, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz followed the fine tradition of Pakistani women like Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and Begum Nasim Wali Khan who had challenged the military regimes of the times,” said Mohammad Taqi, Pakistani-American columnist and analyst.
“Speaking at the Attock Fort, where her husband had been imprisoned, she lambasted General Musharraf for the Kargil misadventure he has plunged the army into. She was perhaps the first leader who spoke of the massive casualties our army suffered in Kargil as a consequence of the dictator’s egotistic blunder. She also flayed him for suppressing the Kargil probe report.”
One of the most memorable moments of her struggle came in July 2000 when the mother of four had resolved to embark on a long march from Lahore to Peshawar via the Grand Trunk Road (GT Road) in defiance of the military’s orders against any political gathering or rallies. At this time Mian Nawaz Sharif was in jail on trumped up charges of terrorism and hijacking an airplane, and thousands of party activists were under arrest.
On the day of the proposed rally, Kulsoom’s home was under siege, surrounded by thousands of Punjab police personnel. “Even if they put me under house arrest, the caravan will go on,” she said.
She then managed to somehow slip through the police cordon the next day and emerged on the streets of Lahore with loyalist Javed Hashmi. Along with others, she led the police on a dramatic 10-mile car chase across the city.
Dubbed as the ‘only man’ in the PML-N at the time, she famously rolled up the windows of her car and locked the doors in the July heat, in a stunning showdown with the police, insisting she would have to be killed before being removed from the car.
“Sharif’s wife towed away in Pakistan police raids” read The Telegraph’s headline the next day. Eventually a crane was used to lift the car, with Kulsoom locked inside, and hauled away to a local police compound where mechanics tried to open the doors, with an ambulance on standby because of extreme heat inside the car. She was eventually allowed to drive home after a 10-hour standoff with the police.
Shafi Naqi Jamie, a long-time veteran of the BBC and Sairbeen, recalled, “I conducted a live interview of Begum Kulsoom Nawaz on Sairbeen, while she and Javed Hashmi were locked in her car. To a question of mine as to what she would do about hunger, thirst and other human necessities, she replied, ‘our policies will match the nature of the struggle’.” “I found her language, tone and commitment rare,” he added.
Not many had come out to welcome her at the attempted rally. Many party leaders were cutting deals with the military in secret negotiations, while others were too afraid to face the police brutality. Notable deserters were Mian Muhammad Azhar, Khurshid Kasuri and Ijaz-ul-Haq. “I am not concerned with whether anyone comes out to support me or not… I will do it alone if I have to — I will mobilise the masses against the military government,” she was quoted as saying at the time.
Her own book, Jabar Aur Jamhooriat, chronicles the intrigues of various party leaders at the time. Many had opposed her becoming a member of the party’s central executive committee and playing the pivotal connection between her husband and the rest of the party. She undertook a hunger strike of several days and sent a slew of letters to General Pervez Musharraf just to be allowed to communicate with her husband while he was at the Attock Jail.
Hundreds of politicians associated with the PML-N were dragged from their homes and thrown into jail. Other leaders fled or went into hiding.
Shafi Naqi Jamie met Sharif in exile in London in 2006 and told him: “Mian sab, she speaks better than you, runs better campaigns than you with better strategy, and I saw evidence of it when you were in jail, where is she now?”
She had retreated to her traditional role of a homemaker and behind-the-scenes mover, with men of the party having resumed control after the crisis was over. Abbas Nasir, former editor of the DAWN Group, said: “What I remember from the Sairbeen interview was that it made me think she was the smartest of them all. Why was she not in the front line all along?”
A friend of the Sharif family spoke of Kulsoom being deeply religious and liberal at once. “Kulsoom apa would never impose. She would dispense advice in unassuming conversations. Yet, her political analysis and opinion were taken very seriously by the Sharif family, and by us all, till the last day.”
According to this family friend, Kulsoom prepared her daughter Maryam “long before the father was to acknowledge her”.
Kulsoom shaped the recent past, present and future of this country in her role as the First lady, a wife and a mother.
Try as I might, I cannot separate her image of being forklifted out by a crane in 2000 from the image of the PML-N refusing to accept defeat today as it is being forklifted out of politics in 2018.
History appears to be repeating itself on a much larger scale. Kulsoom’s defiant action has contributed to the rich repository of history-making legacies of Pakistani women. You have done your part, Kulsoom sahiba. May you rest in peace. And may the rest of us follow in your footsteps.
Every time Kulsoom came into consciousness briefly at the hospital in her last days, she would ask why Nawaz Sharif and Maryam were not there by her side. After months of separation, the two will be now allowed parole by the authorities to visit her burial ceremony in Pakistan.