January 18, 2008

After Benazir what?

Print edition : February 06, 2015

BENAZIR BHUTTO knew death. In April 1979, she had reached out to touch her father one last time through the bars of his cell hours before he was marched off to the gallows by General Zia-ul-Haq. In 1985, despite the danger of being arrested by the Zia regime, she brought back the body of her youngest brother, Shahnawaz, who she suspected had been murdered, all the way from France to Pakistan so that he could be buried at home near his father. And in 1996, when she was Prime Minister of Pakistan for the second time, she buried her other brother, Murtaza, who was gunned down by policemen outside his home in Karachi’s Clifton, amid charges that she was involved in his killing.

After Murtaza’s burial, as she, her mother and her sister received mourners in her family home in Naudero, a village in Sindh province, she told them with tears streaming down her face: “There were three Bhutto men, and they are all dead, and now there are just the three of us Bhutto women.”

Perhaps it was this familiarity with death that made her take chances with life, such as the one she took on the afternoon of December 27 when she popped up through the sunroof of her armoured black SUV to wave to a crowd of supporters cheering her and waving flags as she left Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh, minutes after addressing an election rally of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

At that instant, shots rang out and a huge ball of flame went up in the air with a deafening explosion. Pakistan would never be the same again. Less than 24 hours later, another Bhutto would be buried at Garhi Khuda Buksh, this time a woman, the one who had built the marble mausoleum in the likeness of Taj Mahal to “shade” her father’s grave when she became the Prime Minister. She had spent two hours on December 22, the day after Id, sitting next to her father’s grave inside the mausoleum reading passages from the Quran. A week later, she was buried at almost the very spot where she had sat and prayed.But her end was not immediately apparent. Benazir’s Lexus sped away from the scene seconds after the explosion. A heap of mangled and bloodied bodies lay at the site, but most believed that she had escaped this latest attempt on her life, that she had been bundled back to her home in Islamabad just as she was raced out of the October 18 Karachi carnage. Shell-shocked PPP workers beat their heads, wailing and weeping among the bodies of their friends, but consoled each other that “Bibi is safe”.

Within minutes, a different picture started to emerge, one that would overshadow everything else including the January 8 parliamentary elections, plunging Pakistan into confusion and more uncertainty. Benazir was critically injured in the attack and her car took her to the Rawalpindi General Hospital. There doctors battled to save her for about 40 minutes. At 6-15 p.m. (local time), Babar Awan, a senator of the PPP, came out of the hospital and announced to the party workers who had already gathered there in large numbers that their leader was dead.

The announcement sent a wave of grief and anger through PPP supporters in all of Pakistan. At the hospital, the crowd shouted slogans against President Pervez Musharraf. Enraged party workers broke glass windows and doors of vehicles as they came to terms with the death of the leader who had shepherded the PPP ever since her father’s death, leading it to election victories and through defeat and exile, and creating the possibility for a comeback after the elections.

Later that night, thousands of people fought to carry the coffin containing her body as it was brought out of the hospital or just strained to reach out and touch it. Over the plain wooden box, someone had thrown an ajrak, the traditional block-printed black-and-red Sindhi cloth that both men and women in the rural hinterland of the province wear.

It was this hinterland that erupted with fury and outrage at the killing of a woman who was perceived as a “daughter of Sindh”. As the coffin was being transported, first from the hospital to Rawalpindi’s Chaklala airbase, and from there in a C-130 aircraft to Naudero in Sindh’s Larkana district, violence spread across the province. From Karachi to Jacobabad, angry mobs took to the streets, torching vehicles, trains and government buildings, blocking roads and uprooting railway tracks. As 25 people were killed and the Army had to be called out in 16 districts of the province, political pundits predicted “civil war” and continuing unrest.

In some places, arsonists targeted Punjabis—Benazir was killed in Rawalpindi, which is in the Punjab province, the largest in Pakistan and resented for its domination of the country. The city is also the symbol of the Pakistan military, with General Headquarters located there. There was talk that “Rawalpindi has sent back the bodies of three non-Punjabi Prime Ministers” —Liaquat Ali Khan, who was killed in 1951 as he addressed a public meeting at the same venue, which was subsequently named after him; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged a little more than a kilometre away at a spot which is now being converted into a shopping-cum-restaurant complex; and now Benazir.

In a country consumed by Islamist extremism and militancy, and where anti-Americanism is all-pervasive, Benazir was perceived even by committed PPP workers as too close to the United States, while her repeated pledges to wipe out Islamist extremism and her comments praising the Army action against militants holed up in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid angered many ordinary Pakistanis. Even before she arrived in Pakistan, Beithullah Meshud, the Taliban-Al Qaeda leader based in Waziristan, had made the open threat that he had “hundreds of suicide bombers” waiting to kill her.

But that did not stop her from reiterating her position again and again. In her last speech, too, an animated Benazir, wearing a huge garland of roses over her bluish-purple kurta, her trademark white scarf covering her head in deference to conservative notions of modesty, and red in the face, shouting into the microphone, repeated her pledge to reclaim the country from extremism.

Despite all her failings, Benazir, in sole charge of the Bhutto legacy, kept the hope alive for many Pakistanis that their country would somehow make it. Where other leaders are in denial about the deep roots that Islamist extremism has struck in Pakistan, she was the only one who spoke out openly against it.

She also believed in democracy and a plural, tolerant Pakistan. It is this that gave even those who had several political disagreements with her, especially of late, the conviction that she could still do something good for Pakistan. Her death and the manner of it have taken away a large measure of that hope.

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