By Beena Sarwar
Disbelief. Intense grief. Anger. Despair. More grief. It hits
you in waves. We are a nation in mourning. Benazir Bhutto is no
more. It's a nightmare you wish you could wake up from. Somehow
rewind the last few minutes as seen on our television screens,
so that she doesn't step into that four-wheel drive, doesn't emerge
from its sunroof to smile and wave at the jubilant throng around
her. Somehow undo that
last fatal mistake.
The government now claims that she died from hitting her head
against the sunroof. This counters the eyewitness accounts of
two to four gunshot rounds, one of which struck Benazir Bhutto
on the head. She slumped back down between two party stalwarts
Amin Fahim and Naheed Khan who initially didn't realize what had
happened. Within seconds, a bomb exploded by the vehicle, claiming
twenty lives. Amin Fahim and Naheed Khan were unhurt but realized
that their party leader was
profusely bleeding, unmoving and soundless.
The `sunroof' theory obviously attempts to deflect the fingers
being pointed at the government for failing to provide adequate
security to the twice-elected former minister. Bhutto's party
had outlined various steps for her security that the government
basically ignored. There was no police detail visible as Benazir
Bhutto climbed down from the stage where she had just addressed
a rally in Rawalpindi and
got into the vehicle.
Whatever the case, Benazir Bhutto is dead. Her death, unbelievable
and shocking as it is, has left a huge vacuum in Pakistani politics
at a juncture where her presence was vital to the transition towards
democracy. The forthcoming elections on January 8 are now in doubt,
despite the pressure from the Americans to hold them on time or
in the near future. Benazir Bhutto's home province Sindh and its
capital city Karachi have been virtually shut down, the roads
blockaded, offices and petrol pumps shut, food and fuel shortages.
The PPP workers who initially expressed their rage on the streets
by burning tyres have been overtaken by various dubious elements
looting and burning of public and private property.
The government also claims that `Al Qaeda' carried out the attack,
countering the popular belief that the secret `agencies' were
involved. To support its allegation, the government has produced
`proof' in the form of a telephone conversation between
someone they say an anonymous `maulana' and Baitullah Mehsud,
the self-proclaimed head of the Taliban in Pakistan. Interesting
that they can intercept incriminating telephone conversations
but those engaged in such conversations continue to roam free.
The allegation omits the historic linkage between these `agencies'
and the `Taliban' or Al Qaeda that many believe is still maintained
in some form despite the government's official distancing from
the Taliban and other groups with a similar ideology.
Almost three decades ago, Washington pressurized another military
dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq, then heading Pakistan as a front-line
state against the war on Communism, to steer the country back
towards democracy. At least nominally. Zia obliged by holding
sham party-less elections in 1985 that brought into power a Sindhi
Prime Minister, Mohammad Khan Junejo, expected to be subservient
and pliant. Zia also
allowed Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan and engage in politics.
Her triumphal return in April 1986 drew mammoth crowds at rallies
all over the country. There was no concept of suicide bombings
then, no assassination threats. The eruption of popular support
for democratic politics, symbolized by the young Benazir, made
it clear that the General would have to keep his famous `elections
in 90 days' promise
we had been hearing for nearly a decade.
Four months later Gen. Zia was dead in a mid-air explosion in
his C-130 plane that killed all those on board including the American
Ambassador Arnold Raphael. Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch
has termed the assassination of Benazir Bhutto "the most
significant political event to happen in Pakistan since the death
Zia". Zia must have been mourned by those who loved him and
by those whom
he had propelled into power like Nawaz Sharif and other previous
political non-entities. But his death was also openly celebrated
by many in Pakistan. It is a terrible thing to be happy at the
death of another human being, but such was the level of resentment
Zia aroused because of his repressive policies and his handing
over of Pakistan to the forces of religious extremism, that many
sweet shops were sold
out at the time.
Benazir Bhutto's assassination, on the other hand, has plunged
the entire country into mourning. Even her fiercest critics and
bitterest enemies have been momentarily silenced. There are no
sweets being handed out, despite the alleged congratulatory phone
call between those who planned her death. Al Qaeda has since denied
responsibility, saying that they don't target women and children.
The murder aroused revulsion and horror at many levels. She was
a woman, a wife, and a mother. She was a courageous politician
who lived by her convictions and never stooped to the level of
the opponents who cast vicious personal aspersions at her. Writing
in the daily Dawn on December 28, the day of her funeral, the
Kamran Shafi shares an anecdote that reveals her principled stand
on such matters. As Press Information Officers, he wanted Bhutto,
then in her first term as Prime Minister, to sanction funds to
counter the `lifafas' (bribes) that the opposition was using to
"influence the more purchasable parts of our press".
She flatly refused. "Let
them do what they want; we will not do the wrong thing."
When she became the world's first Muslim woman prime minister,
Benazir Bhutto also became a symbol for the youth. Now, when asked
what she wanted to be when she grew up, a Pakistani school girl
could hold her head up and reply: "A prime minister."
Of course Benazir Bhutto was no ordinary Pakistani woman. She
was the daughter of an elected prime minister, hailing from a
powerful and wealthy feudal family. Within these identities, there
were multiple contradictions starting with her identity
as a woman. At the end of the day she was the best hope for democracy
in Pakistan. She
represented the aspirations of millions for liberal politics in
It is hard to transcend the feeling of that hope having been
completely extinguished, but this must somehow be done if Pakistan
is to survive.