“SHE is no more,” said my daughter over the phone, giving us the tragic news of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. We were at a recording at Dawn studios. The news was shattering. My worst fears that she may not survive this time had come true. By that time, she had matured into a confident leader. She was clear that Taliban-style terrorism must be eliminated for Pakistan to survive, and was determined to take up the challenge.
BB expressed her resolve to take on the establishment and their militant friends some weeks before she was killed. She shared these thoughts with journalists and rights activists she met on her last visit to me. She expressed her mistrust of deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. I pleaded his case, but BB gave several examples, casting doubts on his integrity. What transpired between that day and the moment she decided to acknowledge him as CJ remains a mystery for me.
Not perfect, BB was still one of Pakistan’s most, if not the most, outstanding leaders. She enjoyed a luxurious life, first as daughter of a foreign minister and later as prime minister. After her father’s hanging, she suffered a long period in jail. Yet she hardly ever reminded anyone of those agonising years she spent as a young woman.
Her suffering did not harden her but turned her into a more humane person. As a leader, she introduced the politics of tolerance. She understood human failings, was never judgemental and quick to forgive. This encouraged unscrupulous persons. Often her friends would point out that her party members were exploiting her position. She would simply say they were ‘booray waqt kay saathi’.
####Benazir was one of our most outstanding leaders.
Politics changed as BB brought back the PPP style of taking politics to the streets and villages. Her rallies were the face of the excluded, the working classes, religious minorities, badgered writers and poets and ordinary women. In her first tenure, BB banned public whipping practised by the Zia regime. She granted amnesty to jailed women and children and lifted media censorship.
Many women were placed in the cabinet and seen around Prime Minister House, previously a male domain. In her second term, BB elevated the first set of women to the high courts. These advances weren’t enough. Many expected her to perform miracles by overturning Zia’s legacy within a few years. On my impatience, BB would teasingly remind me she was running a complex country, not a rights organisation.
I remember receiving a complaint that a PPP stalwart was engaged in bonded labour. As HRCP chairperson, I protested to the prime minister. Her principal secretary who was with her in Japan called to say she saw my fax and had instructed him to assure me that the government would not tolerate such practices. On my suggestion, she sent messages to all Sindh’s deputy commissioners to cooperate with civil society in freeing bonded labour. Thousands were set at liberty with government support.
When journalist Zafaryab was arrested on trumped-up treason charges, some journalists asked me to speak to BB as her interior minister refused to relent. When I met BB, her foreign secretary, his wife and Shahnaz Wazir Ali were also present. After hearing me, she confirmed from Shahnaz that Zafaryab was only an idealistic communist. She ordered that the government not oppose his bail and apologised for his suffering.
BB had a sense of humour, and could laugh at herself. But she could also grieve. I met BB in London after her brother Murtaza’s death. I joined the crowd she was addressing. She called for me and we hugged. She was very stressed. On her return, her government fell. I met her in Islamabad, where I was participating in a seminar. When I mentioned how charming Murtaza was she wept bitterly. A TV interview with her had to be put off. At the seminar, I mentioned BB’s distress to Malik Saeed Hassan, our senior lawyer in Lahore. He immediately invited himself, Farooq Naek and other lawyers to accompany me to see BB. She was pleased but for the first time looked unsure.
BB loved this country. You could see it in her eyes — the TV footage of her landing in Karachi shows this. Yet she was accused of being a security risk and seen by our establishment and its lackeys as a traitor. She was not capable of torture or killing but was accused of conspiring to murder her own brother. Her private life was a matter of gossip.
The ‘chattering class’ as she called them, were suspicious of her, but ordinary people loved her. They knew her worth and admired the dignified manner in which she challenged her rivals. She lives in the hearts and minds of millions of us who pray for her each day we enjoy freedom in Pakistan.
The writer is a lawyer and a human rights activist.
Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2015