ALMOST everybody old enough to recall that fateful November day in Texas when JFK was gunned down recalls what he was doing when he heard the news. Similarly, I have a very clear recollection of the day Benazir Bhutto was so brutally murdered exactly a year ago today.
A few days ago, Kamran Shafi wrote movingly about the slain leader on these pages. To me, it seems amazing that a year has passed since the horrifying events in Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh on Dec 27, 2007. I was in England then, having arrived a few days earlier. Just a fortnight before her death, I had met Benazir Bhutto for the last time at Asma Jehangir’s home in Lahore. There, she had been warm and gracious, and asked me to see her in Karachi.
A year after her assassination, it is perhaps possible to step back and analyse the event objectively, and see what her life and death mean for Pakistan and the wider region. The threats and the earlier assassination attempt by Islamic groups, as well as the unfriendly snarls from the establishment, were all indicators of how threatened these forces felt by her return.
But if, as Bhutto’s critics assert, she was willing to cooperate with Musharraf and his creatures, why should he and the jihadis have felt any danger from her presence in the political arena? Surely, a politician willing to accept the status quo should have represented no threat to the existing order. So why go to the lengths they did to silence her forever?The answer lies in what she represented, and not necessarily who she was. The very presence of a woman in a position of authority in a paternalistic society like Pakistan poses a perceived danger to the ‘natural’ order of things. In our country, women have a distinctly inferior position. So a hugely popular woman who is a role model for millions represents a clear danger to those who want to cling to power in the name of religious sanction.
Throughout her political career, Benazir Bhutto was criticised by opponents as being ‘western’. This is a derogatory label applied to all those who hold modern, rational views that are out of line with the retrogressive ideas that seek to make women second-class citizens, and the minorities non-persons. Bhutto was passionate about bringing about social change, and this is why the dispossessed of Pakistan supported her. And this is also why the rich hated her. Her critics say she did not achieve much, and this might well be true. But as long as she had a chance of returning to power, she was a threat to the status quo.
For the military establishment, she was simply unacceptable because she was a Bhutto and a Sindhi. Two generations of officers have been brainwashed into believing that the military debacle of 1971 was caused by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s refusal to allow the Awami League to take power, and effectively shift the centre of gravity of the country from Islamabad to Dhaka. These people conveniently forget that Gen Yahya Khan was in power as an army dictator in those days, and all decisions were taken by his coterie of dissolute generals. Whatever the historical causes of the break-up of Pakistan, the army was directly responsible for the disaster.
For religious parties, a woman in authority is anathema. A woman prime minister to them is the first step towards gender equality, something they have been fighting tooth and nail since the creation of Pakistan. Over the years, they have colluded with any politician and general to make sure that no party with social reform on its agenda comes to power. And when the PPP won the 1970 elections, they began plotting with the army and right-wing politicians to topple the government. For these religious leaders, Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan at a time when the militants were rampant was bad news. After being given free rein by Musharraf for nine years, the jihadis and their sponsors did not want to face a popular leader who was against everything they stood for.
While Nawaz Sharif and the other conservative politicians are prepared to engage the Taliban and their clones in a dialogue, Benazir Bhutto recognised very clearly the danger they pose to Pakistan. For these militants, any offer of negotiations is a sign of weakness; and if they accept a truce, it is to rearm and regroup. Benazir Bhutto understood that this was a war to the end, and no negotiated settlement was possible with a foe that wanted to impose its stone-age views on the rest of us. And because they insist that they have the sanction of Islam, they refuse to compromise. Given these diametrically opposed world views, militants like Baitullah Mehsud saw her as an enemy who had to be removed from the scene.
Critics accuse Benazir Bhutto of having supported the Taliban in their infancy in the mid-1990s. It is true that General Naseerullah Babar, her interior minister at the time, did recommend that her government should help the Taliban end the ruinous civil war in Afghanistan as he thought he had some leverage with the ragtag band of Islamic students. Nobody at the time could have imagined what a dangerous and repulsive genie was being let out of the bottle. While we might disagree with her decision with the benefit of hindsight, nobody can argue that she was not squarely against everything the Taliban represent.
Although she was a deeply religious person, her beliefs did not make her presume she had the right to impose her faith on anybody else. Her education and experience had opened her mind to modern ideas and rational thought in a way many of her countrymen do not appreciate to this day. And although she was certainly fallible, and made many mistakes, she genuinely wanted the best for her country and her people.
During her lifetime and her brief stints in power, she suffered many hardships and humiliations. But she did not allow these experiences to embitter her. When many of her supporters were appalled at her willingness to forgive her bitterest foes, and take back the many traitors the PPP has spawned, she remained magnanimous to the very end. Ultimately, it was this ability to rise above the fray and forgive that set her apart from other politicians.
Sadly, the party she led so successfully is now in less capable hands. One can only hope it survives its fourth stint in power, even though it is no longer a threat to the status quo.