BENAZIR BHUTTO IS TAKING PAKISTAN TOWARDS ATHEISM’
[After becoming Minister of State in the first government of Benazir Bhutto (1988-1990), and a not-entirely-convinced approval from the Prime Minister, the author announced a change of policy for state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) and Radio Pakistan, long shackled under the constraints of tradition and dictatorship. The change primarily consisted of allowing the state broadcasters to give time to the opposition in the daily news bulletins and allowing the professionals within the organisations to assess the newsworthiness and thus the prioritisation of various events.]
The first explosive consequence of the new policy was caused by a headline narrated in PTV’s Khabarnama in the second half of December 1988.
Referring to a speech delivered at a public meeting by Nawaz Sharif in his dual capacities as the Leader of IJI [Islami Jamhoori Ittehad] — the opposition coalition also represented in the National Assembly with 54 seats — and in his capacity as Chief Minister of Punjab, PTV’s Khabarnama’s first — repeat, first — headline was to the following effect : “Punjab Chief Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, who is also the IJI chief, says that Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan is taking the nation towards atheism.”
The word “secularism” is most often translated into Urdu as “laadeeniyat” (without faith) or “atheism”. In a population that is 97 percent Muslim, atheism is overwhelmingly seen as being heretical and sacrilegious. Secularism has three real meanings — respect for all faiths, respect for the universality and unity of Nature, and respect for all of humanity. And non-imposition of one particular set of religious beliefs into the state constitution and laws, so as to prevent discrimination among citizens on the basis of religion.
Article 1 of the Constitution of Pakistan bestows the title of “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan” to the State, thus defining the symbiotic relationship between being Muslim and being Pakistani — even though to be Muslim is not to seek to impose Islam on non-Muslims, as is enunciated in the Holy Quran.
Article 25(1) of the Constitution states: “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law…”
The new policy I had outlined did not mean that I personally withdrew, fully or partly, from monitoring the substantive content of the two state-owned news media. While introducing the new policy, I stressed that I would continue to keep a close eye — and ear — on how Radio Pakistan and PTV would implement it. Further, either on a daily basis or once every two or three days, I would discuss the content of the most recent news bulletins.
From its inception, the PPP [Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party] was portrayed by the opposition’s orthodox, conservative, religion-based parties as being secular, Western / Christian-oriented, and its leaders allegedly being habituated to un-Islamic practices.
The allegation by Nawaz Sharif was false and preposterous. It broke the norms of partisan political discourse to become callous character assassination.
While both Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto were modern, not conservative, Muslims, they were both firm adherents of Islam with a profound respect for its basic principles and practices. In no way could they be justifiably accused of being non-believers or atheists or apostates, leave alone conspiring to divert the country’s population toward becoming a Godless society.
Hurled irresponsibly to a population hyper-sensitive about the name of Islam, about faith, about the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), about the Holy Quran, the accusation was worse than being accused of treason.
From its inception, the PPP [Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party] was portrayed by the opposition’s orthodox, conservative, religion-based parties as being secular, Western / Christian-oriented, and its leaders allegedly being habituated to un-Islamic practices.
Years earlier, during one of his speeches to a huge crowd, Z.A. Bhutto had responded with vigour, wit and telling sarcasm to the charge that he consumed alcohol by defiantly saying at a public meeting: “Yes, I drink. But at least I do not drink the blood of the poor, like most other parties’ leaders do!”
Yet later, to preempt campaigns and protests by the opposition before and after the March 1977 polls for Nizam-i-Mustafa (“an Islamic system”) and alleging that the PPP government had massively rigged the polls, the very same Z.A. Bhutto banned the sale of alcohol to Muslims (but not to non-Muslims), prohibited gambling (as in betting on horse races, etc) and shifted the weekly holiday to Friday instead of Sunday.
None of these three concessions to the mullahs curbed the intensity of the call for his ouster and for fresh elections. The image persisted of the PPP and its leaders being Westernised. And this anti-PPP bias of other parties was inherited by Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto when they assumed the leadership of the party after the judicially sanctioned execution of Z.A. Bhutto on April 4, 1979.
In the election campaign of October-November 1988, the IJI publicity wing circulated widely to the Urdu press photographs of Nusrat Bhutto on a dance floor taken some years ago, as also images of Benazir Bhutto from her student days in Harvard and Oxford, to depict them as Westernised women unfit to lead a Muslim nation.
Photographs were also doctored and fabricated to present the two women in an unfavourable light. For the record: one of the individuals who engineered this defamatory, scurrilous campaign was Husain Haqqani. Just four years later, the same individual abandoned Nawaz Sharif and IJI and was appointed Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in the second government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (1993-1996).
Fortunately, the people of Pakistan, despite the overwhelming majority being Muslim, and despite, at that time, the majority being illiterate and therefore in theory being liable to be easily misled, had tended to show extraordinary maturity.
When it came to casting their votes in elections for the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies, they voted on political, not religious grounds. Even after 11 years of the extreme obscurantism and bigotry promoted by Gen Ziaul Haq, the people had made the allegedly secular, Western-oriented PPP led by a woman into the single largest political party. As usual, both in 1970 and later, the religion-based political parties received well less than 10 percent of the popular vote.
But in December 1988, with the Punjab ruled by a coalition hostile to the federal government and the PPP, and with the knowledge that Nawaz Sharif and the IJI overtly represented the military and the civil bureaucracy that had traditionally been hostile to the PPP, the telecast of this particular report about the speech of Nawaz Sharif alleging atheism on the part of the PPP prime minister produced an instant and angry response.
I received a call within minutes on the green phone — which is used for highly-restricted communication between the senior-most levels of state and government — from Nusrat Bhutto. She said: “Javed, what kind of freedom have you given to PTV and Radio Pakistan?! To freely broadcast all kinds of lies and slander about BB? What are you doing about this?” And further words to the same effect.
When I could respond, I expressed my regrets and acknowledged that even if Nawaz Sharif said what he did, PTV was not obliged to report verbatim what was clearly an outright lie and thereby carry a falsehood to millions more than those thousands who attended the public meeting. Nusrat Bhutto abruptly put the phone down, clearly very unhappy with the Minister of State for Information.
Benazir Bhutto did not call me on this particular occasion. But she was probably seated with Nusrat Bhutto in the same room when the latter called. Indeed, I recollect hearing her voice in the background while Nusrat Bhutto was speaking to me. Benazir Bhutto probably wanted me to get an earful from the chairperson of the PPP who was also Senior Minister in the cabinet.
In discussing with the PTV News team this extreme and irresponsible use of the new freedom, I had to bear in mind some covert elements. On the face of it, the new freedom to use their own professional judgment to decide which event deserved lead reporting and what duration had, in this instance, simply been used correctly, or literally correctly. A major political figure, the head of the leading opposition alliance and the chief minister of Punjab had laid a serious charge against the prime minister — certainly an event of high news value.
Yet, in the context of the medium still remaining a state-owned government-controlled medium, should not greater consideration have been given to the sheer outrageousness of the allegation and to its patent falsehood? If so, then did this allegation deserve to be the first lead story in the news? Could it not have been placed far further down, later, in keeping with its obviously scurrilous nature?
There was also the possibility that the prominence given to this allegation was due to the unspoken, tacit loyalty of members of the PTV/ PBC news teams to the previous authoritarian era of Gen Ziaul Haq, of which Nawaz Sharif had been an active part, indeed a principal beneficiary. Under the guise of simply being professional, perhaps a calculated act of mischief had been carried out.
The main point underlined in my own comments was that, even if a major public figure makes a substantive statement, news professionals nonetheless have an obligation to take into account the credibility of a statement, the potentially negative fallout from prominently projecting a statement of a dubious or false nature, and placing the treatment given to a particular news item within the larger national context of social reality and public sensibility.
No punitive actions were taken against any member of the news team. My comments were meant to serve as adequate reprimand and a caution for the future.
Coverage of the opposition on a daily basis on radio and TV continued. Inevitably, the government and the PPP, being the elected holders of public office and power, received comparatively more time and prominence.
During sittings of the National Assembly and the Senate, at various points, or in the corridors, when and if the opposition grudgingly acknowledged that its views were now receiving some projection through state media, there was also the complaint about the duration of such coverage being far less than it deserved to be.
To address this perception of bias, I asked Radio Pakistan and PTV to initiate a daily report to me, listing the exact subjects and durations of all items reported in the main news bulletins of the previous day. I used to duly receive these reports early the next day. The same were circulated to the Prime Minister. Whenever required, the data from such daily reports were quoted in parliament or outside and in interactions with the press.
‘IT WON’T HAPPEN, JAVED.’
In response to my somewhat frantic requests to her military secretary and ADC, the prime minister agreed to see me in about the third week of July 1990. I was told to be at her chambers in parliament in Islamabad one afternoon and that she had agreed to meet me as she drove to an engagement in Rawalpindi.
The reason for my requests was that Najib Zafar, my wife’s brother-in-law, had been informed by a person he regarded as an impeccable source in the military, a serving officer, that President Ghulam Ishaq Khan was soon going to dismiss our government and dissolve the National Assembly.
Such speculation had swirled and persisted for several weeks. Even earlier, within a few months into our tenure, in 1989, such a scenario was touted as a possibility. The initial unstinted support given in November 1988 by Gen Aslam Beg for the right of Benazir Bhutto to become prime minister had begun to weaken for multiple reasons...
At least a handful confirmed first-hand accounts of how certain cabinet members and party leaders were misusing their positions to gain personal financial benefits in return for arranging official actions that would benefit the bribe-givers.
So, given this context, there was nothing absolutely new about the message. However, what made me take this more seriously than the general buzz was the fact that the unnamed source was said to be a serving military officer. That he had chosen to confide in Najib Zafar and had asked him to pass this message to me meant that I should not ignore it. He obviously wanted the caution to be taken seriously.
At the same time, there were two possibilities. One, that as part of a well-planned conspiracy to destabilise the PPP government, feeding such a rumour attributed to a serving military source could have been meant to force a possible preemptive counter-measure by Benazir Bhutto, i.e., reverse the momentum by herself formally, publicly, offering her resignation and requesting the president to dissolve the National Assembly — thereby acquiring a new credibility and respect for the courage shown and the risk taken to face a new general election, which would then mean that the president, in turn, could try his own unexpected manoeuvre, i.e., accept the resignation but not dissolve the Assembly. And, based on information to which he had access, ask her or other parliamentary party leaders to demonstrate a supportive majority.
A second possibility was that this report was being routed to her to encourage her to make a secret appeal to the president and/or the COAS [Chief of Army Staff], assuring them that the PPP government would mend its ways, would act entirely as per the advice and guidance of the head of state and the COAS. No more assertions of independence on her part. Failing which — “Or else!”
Possibilities, yes, but one could not be certain.
What did appear to be solidly true was the fact that a serving military officer had made an effort to provide information so extraordinary, in an apparently serious attempt to be helpful. This possibility had to be given weightage because Najib Zafar happened to be a friend of that official from times before the induction of our government.
Seated with her on the back seat of her limousine as we sped down Constitution Avenue, I conveyed the report to her, naming the source and listing the two possibilities as above.
After listening to my briefing, she gently, firmly shook her head and spoke the words with which this chapter is titled. “These rumours are deliberately circulated to demoralise us. It won’t happen, Javed.”
I thought, “Is this an example of extreme self-denial, a refusal to acknowledge a reality that is staring her in the face? Or does she think I too am merely yet another means being used to distract her, to force her to take the wrong route?”
She referred to her recent interactions with the president and the COAS and asserted that, neither through those encounters, nor from her other sources, could she conclude that my report was reliable. We then discussed other aspects of government till we reached Rawalpindi.
Less than two weeks later, the report I had conveyed to her turned out to be absolutely prescient and correct.
POST-MORTEM OF A GOVERNMENT
In the last week of August 1990, about three weeks after the arbitrary dismissal of our government, Benazir Bhutto convened a meeting at Bilawal House, Karachi, of the PPP’s Central Committee. Additional invitees comprised non-members of the committee, such as this writer who had served in her cabinet for 20 months.
There was optimal attendance. Seated at the head of a long conference table, the former prime minister’s opening remarks were perhaps aimed to set the tone for the discussion to follow. Grievance against the president and named as well as unnamed officials in the army shaped the basic message of accusation and victimhood.
There certainly were justifications for the accusatory aspect, because the government and coalition which she led in the National Assembly, maintained a majority right up to the date of dismissal on August 6, 1990.
Identified by the party leader herself and by others, there was a reasonably impressive list of initiatives launched in our 20-month tenure. This list was made the more notable because there was crude resistance from the Punjab government of Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif to allow effective implementation in the country’s largest province. In Sindh, in the urban areas, the uneasy relationship with MQM had led to the open breach in October 1989. This prevented visible progress in the large cities of Sindh.
Nevertheless, the federal government in the 1988-1990 period — about 20 years before the 18th Constitutional Amendment emasculated the powers of the centre in favour of the provinces — possessed direct authority over several sectors and organisations that had a country-wide mandate. These spheres included: a new priority given to women’s rights and empowerment as reflected in the creation of the First Women Bank Ltd., women’s police stations, and appointments of women to steer policy processes in and outside parliament; upgradation of telecommunications; initiation of new highways; accelerated electrification into rural areas and small towns; improved incentives for oil and gas exploration; expansion of ports and shipping; advancing infrastructure for aviation; supporting enhanced freedom for electronic and print media; revising import and export policies; attempts to improve the standard of legal and judicial appointments; strengthening outreach of public health services in the social sector; reform of state-owned enterprises; and refining interior, defence and foreign policies to more accurately reflect the restoration of party-based democracy.
Constructive steps were taken in virtually all the above sectors while being aware that giving each reform a practical and tangible manifestation required time, sustained focus and follow-through. These last three requirements were not easily available partly due to our own failures and equally due to the unholy alliance of forces arrayed against us.
The absence of a PPP majority in the Senate in the 1988-1990 period limited prospects for bold new legislation — though the non-PPP senators complained that had they been taken into confidence and their support sought, such support would have been readily given.
In retrospect, it was clear virtually from the word “go” in December 1988, that the presidency, the armed forces, parts of the civil establishments and the Punjab government led by Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif, plus all those right-wing and religious elements who shared a distrust of the PPP — and unease about a woman prime minister! — had combined their energies to harass and intimidate the federal government at every turn. Notable sections of the print media also displayed this hostility, despite providing reasonably prominent coverage to the speeches and engagements of the prime minister and of senior PPP leaders.
As former ministers, ministers of state, advisers, special assistants and senior party leaders expressed their respective comments, there was a common feature in almost all the observations. This was the “blame-them” factor. It was almost as if the 11 years of Gen Ziaul Haq’s rule, in which the PPP had been persecuted, did not actually end on August 17, 1988 with the general’s demise in the air crash at Bahawalpur.
The meeting’s deliberations sounded as if an unjust, unholy alliance against the PPP and the Bhutto family were still alive and well, that it had in fact flourished and grown stronger even with the PPP in-office at the centre. Indeed, that the animus against the PPP and the Bhutto family had increased precisely because they had managed to obtain and then remain in public office for over a year and a half.
‘THERE WAS NO CORRUPTION!’
Benazir Bhutto invited me to speak after about 20 other participants had expressed their views. Not a single one of the preceding speakers had mentioned a certain basic feature of our government’s troubled tenure.
After making an initial, qualified endorsement of the thesis — and the reality — of the unholy alliance we had faced, and which we continued to face after our removal from office, I said words to the effect: “…but Prime Minister, we need to acknowledge that corruption in our government was a major reason for our dismissal. Though the reality of corruption may be exaggerated, corruption by some did mar our performance and thus also shaped a negative perception about us.”
I had not anticipated the intensity of Benazir Bhutto’s abrupt, explosive reaction. In an intense, very annoyed tone, her face frowning and her eyes focused on me, she said: “Corruption? Corruption! Of course not, Javed, there was no corruption. This charge is a fabrication, sheer propaganda to malign us. Corruption indeed! Give me one example, show me some evidence. Don’t just echo what our enemies claim. There was no corruption. Our dismissal was only due to a conspiracy.”
I responded by saying: “Prime Minister, it is not for me to produce hard proof of corruption. I am not able to do so. That is for the specialists, with access to details. I simply want to stress that there were strong grounds to …”
She abruptly cut me off and invited others present to comment. To my profound disappointment, not a single other participant endorsed my views. Instead, they reverted to the prior theme of bias against the PPP and its proletarian ethos, and that this attitude was ingrained in the so-called establishment. Thereby, went the argument, this intrinsic anti-PPP prejudice led to a deliberate disregard for the several positive policies and actions introduced during our government’s tenure.
Neither did Benazir Bhutto invite me to respond to a categorical rejection by her and all others to the apparently absurd allegation nor did I request for a second opportunity to speak. One knew that the request to speak a second time would either be declined citing constraints of time or one would be ignored.
When the meeting was adjourned for lunch, at least two former ministers approached me to quietly express compliments for my candour and to indicate their full agreement with my views. As this kind of post-event, quiet, unnoticed-by-the-boss support had also been given to me on a couple of previous occasions, including cabinet meetings, I accepted the moral support with appreciation mixed with scepticism.
I did not urge them to speak up as well because that decision had to be their own volitional choice — they were not exactly little children who had to be guided about the need to speak frankly and without fear.
With regard to the reality of corruption or to the over-blown perception about it, there were multiple reliable sources who made these charges. They included persons long-known and well-known to me. At least a handful confirmed first-hand accounts of how certain cabinet members and party leaders were misusing their positions to gain personal financial benefits in return for arranging official actions that would benefit the bribe-givers.
The “Mr. Ten Percent” label published by a leading English magazine cover story ascribed such activity to the husband of the prime minister. Even if so-explicit-a-label was entirely fictitious with no basis in truth, the sheer fact that the image of corruption had become prevalent deserved to be discussed in a dispassionate manner.
But, to one’s deep regret, Benazir Bhutto was clearly unwilling to face the facts. Perhaps the pain of dismissal still lingered sharply, for it was less than three weeks since our ouster. Or perhaps the harsh truth was too real to acknowledge, especially in the presence of those whom she led.
SELF-CRITICISM IS A DIFFICULT TASK
In any case, self-criticism is one of the most difficult processes for any individual to conduct — this writer included. So Benazir Bhutto was not the first person in the world or in Pakistan to evade facing the truth in candid self-scrutiny.
The reluctance was also understandable because responsibility for the government acquiring the perception about being associated with corruption ultimately rested with her. The buck stopped with an even bigger thud than normal at her own desk because her own spouse was directly linked to the stigma.
More disturbing for me than to be sternly chastised by the party leader in a large committee meeting was the sad, inescapable reality that corruption had become an unspoken yet undeniable facet of the party’s culture. As the burden of this truth grew heavier during and after the post-mortem meeting, so too did my distance from Benazir Bhutto grow further.
There was discomfort because, with our government having been undemocratically removed from office, all party members needed to remain united, expressing uniformity of views in public and demonstrating solidarity with the leader — despite the grave disappointment felt at the leader’s unwillingness to accept unpleasant facts.
With about only six months remaining for the end of my six-year term of Senate membership in March 1991, a new uncertainty also began in end-August 1990 about one’s future relationship with the leader and the party. There had already been some marked instances of divergence of views between Benazir Bhutto and myself on some issues. So the next few months offered only mixed, or rather murky prospects for our relationship.
Header illustration by Radia Durrani
The author is a former Senator and served as Minister of State for Information under Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministership between 1988 and 1990. He also served as federal minister in two other governments
Extracted and published with permission from “But, Prime Minister...” — A Political Memoir, published by Paramount Books this year
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 17th, 2021