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A leaf from history: Benazir ends exile

November 29, 2015


General Ziaul Haq had imposed a number of ‘unacceptable’ conditions on the functioning of the National Assembly formed after the 1986 elections and it seemed the members had accepted these in exchange for the lifting of martial law and return of democracy. Gen Zia had evolved a political formula which was democratic in appearance and dictatorial in practice. However, despite undesirable political atmosphere Mohammed Khan Junejo provided a ray of hope as he tried to bring respectability to the parliament, to the extent that he even put his career at stake.

The absence of opposition from the Assembly was quite noticeable, though opposition is essential for any democratic forum; and nonexistence of opposition did not give the parliament a democratic look. With Junejo’s nomination as prime minister it was being felt that Muslim League was the ruling party and hence a few members who belonged to other parties assumed the role of opposition. The politicians felt satisfied that democracy had returned, though it was in the form of a sugar-coated martial law aimed at deceiving the world and reaping its fruit.

The resurgence of the MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) which tended to act as a leftwing political alliance since its formation in 1983 had put up little show in 1986. In April 1986 Benazir Bhutto returned from self-imposed exile to launch a fresh campaign with greater intensity to force the general to either restore real democracy or leave.

Benazir returns to Pakistan to find a softer Zia in comparison to when she had left

The general was moving in a planned manner towards 1990, when his tenure obtained through the sham referendum was to end. He had also retained the post of COAS and used it as leverage and his main source of authority.

It was also being said that it was not only internal influence that forced Gen Zia to hold elections and silence the democratic voices till certain objectives were achieved, like a breakthrough in Afghanistan talks and the ouster of Soviet forces. Since the formation of the national government, political parties had almost given up the effort for a change. The reason for non-action on the part of political parties was not the absence of cohesion but it is believed that they had an idea of the whole plan.

It was also being said that Benazir’s exile came to an end (in 1986) as a result of some pressure from the US.

After her release from detention in 1984, Benazir had visited her mother in Switzerland where she was under treatment and after two days went to London where she met political leaders and media persons. In an interview with the BBC she refuted allegations that she would live in exile forever. She reiterated that her difference with Gen Zia was not on the grounds of Bhutto’s hanging but on restoring democracy. She underwent ear surgery which was, according to her, the reason for her visit. While in the UK she met various political groups in Birmingham, Glasgow, London School of Economics, Lincoln’s Inn, Berlin (Germany), European Union and Frankfurt and told them about the political victimisation and dictatorial rule.

Later she travelled to the US and met various political figures and influential groups, and spoke to the media and architects of foreign policy; she retained her ties with the US think tanks even after her return to Pakistan. This was the basis of the rumours that she had sought help from the US for her return, though her objective of meeting them was just to communicate the position of the country.

On the day of Benazir’s return from exile at Karachi (May 3, 1986) the general sent a simple but stern warning that there should be no disturbance of any kind or he would clamp another martial law, much stricter than the previous one. He even did not show a sharp reaction in retaliation to Benazir’s sharp criticsm.

The international media reported the situation in many ways. The Economic and Political Review, Delhi, on Sept 5, 1987 reported that after coming back to Pakistan, Benazir had been in contact with top US hierarchy and was told what to do. Political observers take this attitude as a close observation of the affairs of Pakistan. As part of the plan, it was said that Gen Zia was also being monitored and informed of every development and future actions. This was not averse to Zia’s plans. A report said: “In 1986, Zia permitted Bhutto to return to Pakistan . . . The elections held on non-party basis was also a gimmick by the general and he ignored all the political parties and ended up with a front behind which the general and his coterie could deal with more important matters rather than face the abuses of the people, the press and political parties. For that there was Junejo.” (weekly E&P, Delhi, Sept 5, 1987). It is generally believed that at this juncture, the United States leadership reposed more confidence in Gen Zia than Benazir as a mature and professional man who had the ability to handle political issues quite as the need of the hour demanded. Perhaps Benazir had received the message and stuck to the advice to wait till 1990 polls — ending Gen Zia’s 5-year post ‘referendum’ term as President.

With a near-firm assurance from the sources riding the events, Benazir found time to attend to other issues especially family problems after the hanging of her father. A daughter of a political genius Z.A. Bhutto, Benazir knew what awaited her. She waited while she struggled, drawing people close to her to listen to the smallest whisper and responded. She also used the respite to solve the non-political issues that had accumulated for quite some time. Not an easy task but she made it. She steadily found a way to practical life, in the family and in the world.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 29th, 2015