VICTORIA Schofield shot into the limelight in Pakistan when she visited this country to attend the trial of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1978-79. The outcome of this visit was the book, Bhutto: Trial and Execution. Published in 1979 by Cassell, it was the first book to cover an event which was a landmark in Pakistan’s turbulent history. With the press stifled under a blanket of pre-censorship imposed by General Ziaul Haq, the people were starved for news. Schofield’s book attracted much attention and the copies which managed to find their way into the country were immediately doing the rounds to meet the demands of voracious readers.
There has to be a compelling reason for a Western writer to get interested in South Asia. In Schofield’s case the reason was her “friendship with Benazir Bhutto”, a contemporary at Oxford where the two were elected to the Oxford Union — Benazir as the president and Schofield as the librarian. When Benazir was leaving for home she invited Schofield to visit Pakistan. In the summer of 1977 came the military coup and Bhutto’s trial.
With politics in her blood, Benazir immediately sensed the advantage of foreign publicity when the death sentence on her father was pronounced in March 1978. As the case went into appeal, she wrote to Schofield asking her to come over “not so much for a holiday, but to write a few articles”. Schofield still has the letter because “receiving it completely changed my life”, says Schofield.
She had expected to stay in Pakistan for a few weeks and write an article or two on the trial, while giving some moral support to Benazir. But the appeal lasted a year and Schofield’s visit was extended until Bhutto was executed and she had completed her book
Thus began a long journey into the world of scholarship which has brought Schofield to South Asia on at least ten trips mostly to collect material for her research, prepare radio programmes, write articles and, on one occasion, attend a conference on terrorism in New Delhi.
Having developed tremendous interest in and fondness for the region and the people, Schofield has loved every moment of her work — basically freelance writing. It has not always been easy, though. She recalls the incident in 1981 when she was deported from Karachi back to India when she tried to visit Benazir at the weekend. “I had not been allowed to see her since just before her father was executed,” Schofield recalls her intense disappointment. Those were politically difficult times for the Bhuttos — and their friends. Hence she did not even attempt to return to Pakistan until 1987 when she had to lobby hard at the Pakistan embassy in London to obtain a visa to attend Benazir’s wedding.
Another problem she has had to face was from the intelligence personnel who trailed her all the time when she was attending the Bhutto trial in 1978-79. She describes the experience as bizarre and being under surveillance round the clock the worst kind of pressure she has ever been through.
But editorially, Schofield has never been put under any constraints. The various books she has authored are testimony to the freedom she has enjoyed in her work. She wrote in 1979, “No one could honestly say that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was sent to death for his alleged part in a murder; he was sent to death because in the political climate of Pakistan at the time, the people who had the power wanted him out of the way.” Yet she managed to return to Pakistan while Zia ruled the roost.
Similarly her two books on Kashmir (Kashmir in the Crossfire and Kashmir in Conflict) published in the nineties when the valley was in the grip of an insurgency are products of objective and unbiased research. “When I was writing my book on Kashmir and Benazir was the prime minister, she not even once suggested that I show the text to the ministry of foreign affairs for approval,” Schofield says. In India too she was free to come and go and see who she pleased in New Delhi and in the valley. Even when she landed in India from Pakistan, the Indians never searched her bags or scrutinized her tapes and books. It was the same when she returned to Pakistan. This freedom as well as the fact that Schofield has adopted a truly non-partisan approach in selecting her sources of information has lent an objectivity to her work which is rare for someone so involved in the region. She relies predominantly on primary sources (interviews and documentary written material) because she is wary of secondary sources. “As soon as you use a secondary text, you have to realize that you are taking on another person’s analysis. On numerous occasions I have gone back to primary sources and found that I totally disagree with the analysis in the secondary text,” she observes.
She skilfully uses her sources to present both sides of the case — the uprising in the valley is an indigenous one provoked by India’s refusal to grant the Kashmiris their right to self-determination, and Pakistan is supporting the militants with financial and military assistance, which makes it difficult for New Delhi to control the situation, and so on.
What solution does Schofield feel would be feasible for the Kashmir problem? Without taking a categorical stand on the question, the author hopes that the two countries would come to the negotiating table. If the LOC were to continue as the status quo, Schofield suggests that a soft border be set up and trans-border crossings be allowed . “Even in the darkest days of the cold war when West and East Berlin were divided, there was a Checkpoint Charlie through which people could cross from one side to the other. Why then not a Checkpoint Chakothi? It would be a small step which might mean a new beginning,” Schofield writes in Kashmir in Conflict.
Yes, she enjoys writing, describing it as “sculpture”. “You start with blank paper and you have to chip and chisel to get the words, balance, and subject matter right,” she says. There is more literature in her words and not surprisingly, she says she has tried her hand at creative writing but not got anything published apart from a few poems years ago. She would love to write children’s stories and has already started work on a book for children but never found time to finish it. In the eighties she was pondering the theme of a novel in which General Zia would be seen living in Saudi Arabia after his air crash. The reader would soon discover that the crash was an elaborate plot to help Zia escape from the country and exercise control through the ISI. At least one cannot fault Schofield for lack of imagination!
Finding publishers has been no problem — not surprisingly given the quality of her research and writing and the topicality of her subjects. That has the flip side, though. For the first Kashmir book her publisher hurried her, fearing that the subject may no longer be topical (one with some understanding of the South Asian scene would have no such fears) while for the second one she had asked her publishers to leave a few blank pages in the proof for eleventh hour developments (like the Indian elections in October 1999). There came the coup in Pakistan and she could include that too and the book didn’t appear dated when it was published five months later. She speaks of these anxious moments which she says are one of the hazards of writing contemporary history.
At present she is working on the biography of Lord Wavell and is travelling around Britain visiting libraries and meeting people who personally knew Wavell. In Pakistan she met Sahibzada Yakub Khan who was in the Viceroy’s bodyguard at the time.
Plans for the future? “Keeping myself healthy mentally and physically. Staying happily married and teaching my children (Alexandra, 15, Anthony, 13, and Olivia, 9) the meaning of “integrity”, and taking care of my mother in her old age”. And, of course, to come to Pakistan on a trekking holiday with her family which has been a “huge omission”. Her writing job fits very well into this scheme of things because she finds that working from home and with the freedom to organize her own schedules, she can do more writing than she could have done otherwise.
Tailpiece: She fits in a lot of domestic chores in her “thinking about” stage, which means taking her taped interviews with her. “I vividly remember listening to an interview I had done with Farooq Abdullah in Srinagar at the same time as I was shopping for my grocery in the supermarket near my home in London. I ran into a friend and was totally taken by surprise, for mentally I was thousands of miles away in Srinagar”.
Educated at the Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford where she took an MA (Hons) degree in Modern History (1974-77).
Professional Experience: Writes for newspapers in Britain, India and Pakistan. Also prepares radio features for BBC.
Her books are: Kashmir in Conflict, Britain and Pakistan, Kashmir in the Crossfire, Every Rock, every Hill, the Northwest Frontier and Afghanistan, Bhutto: Trial and Execution and the United Nations. Edited Old Roads, New Highways.
Membership: Royal United Services Institute, Society, Friend of the Royal Academy, The London Library and the Oxford Union
Source: Dawn, 16 Aug 2000