Four years on…

Benazir Bhutto on her arrival in Karachi in Oct, 2007. Photo: Beena Sarwar

It’s four years since those pistol shots and bomb blast in Pindi’s Liaquat Bagh ended the life of Pakistan’s most promising politician and hope for democracy. There is no one to replace Benazir Bhutto but her legacy lives on in many ways. This is the first legitimately elected government ever in Pakistan to remain in office for as long as it has – and it will be the first to complete its tenure if allowed to do so and hand over power to the next elected government. This political process is essential to move Pakistan out of a quagmire that has taken decades to push us into. There are no quick fixes, no magic wands that can change things overnight. What’s important is the process and at least that is under way – thanks to Benazir Bhutto.

Thanks to YouTube, archival footage is now available to remind us of her legacy.In his moving article on Benazir, Saroop Ijaz refers to this interview of her’s soon after Gen. Zia’s death, in which she outlines her political vision of looking ahead, without vindictiveness. He begins the piece with lines that Benazir Bhutto recited, quoting from Dr Khalid Javed Jan’s iconic poem on her return to Pakistan in 1986: “Mazhab kay jo byopairi hainwoh sab se baree bemaari hain…. In jhute or makkaron semahzab kay thekedaron saymein baaghi hoonmein baaghi hoon” (The traders of religion are the worst disease, I rebel from these liars and hypocrites).

Complete lyrics at this link.

Cameraman Arif Khan (seated 1st right) was one of those killed at the bomb blast at Karsaz. Photo: courtesy Asadullah Khan

When Benazir arrived in Pakistan in October 2007, the air of anticipation was infectious. I ended up riding out to the airport on the back of a motorbike, passing hordes of celebrating people (see my cell phone photos) and pushing my way through a huge mob, past her ‘janesars’, to the top of her truck with my colleague Absar Alam who interviewed her for Geo TV (thanks to Naheed Khan who invited us up top). This was just hours before the bomb blast that killed over 180 people and injured scores of others, including Benazir, as her convoy passed Karsaz Road in Karachi.

The next morning to everyone’s astonishment, despite her own trauma (ears oozing blood from the bomb blast), she breached security protocols to visit the injured in hospital, and by afternoon was patiently presiding over a chaotic press conference at Bilawal House. The place was ill equipped to deal with the explosion of TV channels that had taken place over the past few years. At one point, our eyes met and she smiled in recognition of the absurd situation.

Barely two months later she was dead – literally having paid with her life for democracy. I was in Lahore then. As we mourned together, Hina Jillani’s observation on how much Benazir had changed during her years of exile has stayed with me. She looked different, positively radiant, with a simple plait replacing the old bouffant hairdo, no heavy make-up, her by now trademark white dupatta draped over her head rather than the earlier matching shawls and jackets with padded shoulders. She was no longer arrogant, she listened, she was willing to learn.

Benazir Bhutto giving her first interview to a Pakistani journalist on her return in Oct, 2007. Photo: Beena Sarwar

But she remained consistent in her adherence to peaceful, non-violent, constitutional means to bring democracy back to Pakistan. This was clear even in the early years when she campaigned around the world against Gen. Zia’s military regime and came across enthusiastic young turks talked of revolution or fighting the army regime with guns. Her fighting spirit remained evident in her insistence on contesting elections under the Musharraf regime (as she did during the Zia years), even as many progressive liberals urged her to boycott. Her answer: “Boycott, and then what?”

She prevailed upon her former arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, who was dithering on the boycott issue, to agree to contest elections. Imran Khan in his wisdom, stayed out of the fray and in the political wilderness (until suddenly being projected into prominence earlier this year).

To those who tried to push her into supporting the individual over the institution (with reference to the restoration of the judiciary), Benazir wrote: “I remain committed to the freedom and vitality of democracy as the great Quaid-e-Awam had dreamt of. Yes, it is true that you have to deal sometimes with the devil if you can’t face it but everything is a means to an end. I have great respect and admiration for the Judiciary both bench and bar. I have great respect for individuals both present and ex. Ultimately, however, it is the institution that has to decide collectively what course to take. I hope this clarifies my viewpoint.” (Dec 3, 2007)

The devil of course was Musharraf and the deal was the much-maligned National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) without which she and other politicians could not have returned to Pakistan to participate in politics.

Lawyers’ movement: PPP and ANP workers took the heaviest casualties on May 12, 2007 in Karachi. HRCP report: http://bit.ly/uv0uV4

As Marvi Sirmed writes in her heartfelt personal tribute remembering Benazir today, being a woman never hindered her,

“so much so that when the forces opposing her tried to use her biology against her, she turned it around. When she was expecting Bilawal, they announced elections around the dates they thought she would be in maternity. I cannot forget her coming to the political rallies with her intravenous drip in her hands… When she was expecting Bakhtawar during her premiership, the crisis was once again carefully chosen to coincide with the dates of her delivery. She did not make herself absent from her office for more than 48 hours.

“All through her political life, she struggled against the hegemony of the oppressive deep state that used every jape that they could, and from right-wing rhetoric that was nauseatingly misogynist and anti-people.”

Despite the hurdles, despite being always under siege – “We were in government but not in power” – she would say – she achieved much. Her son Bilawal lists some of these accomplishments in his tributeto his mother.

Benazir Bhutto with her children visiting Asif Zardari in prison. Photo: Larkana Times

What we do know is that there are 86,000 more schools because of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. That, under her government foreign investment quadrupled; energy production doubled; exports boomed. Under her government, 100,000 female health workers fanned out across the country, bringing health care, nutrition, pre and postnatal care, to millions of our poorest citizens. It was under her government that women were admitted as judges to the nation’s courts, that women’s police departments were established to help women who suffered from domestic violence and a women’s bank was established to give micro loans to women to start small businesses. It was under Shaheed Benazir Bhutto’s leadership that cell phones, fibre optics and international media were introduced, and the Pakistani software industry blossomed. And it was on her very first day as prime minister, that all political prisoners were freed, unions legalised and the press uncensored. It was an amazing record of accomplishment, made even more remarkable by the constraint of aborted tenures, by constant pressure from a hostile establishment and presidents with the power to sack elected governments.”

The hostile establishment remains hostile but the President no longer has the power to sack an elected government. This is one of the current elected government’s several achievements that tend to get overshadowed by the explosive (no pun intended) situation around. Other achievements include the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan Package, increase of minimum wages from Rs 4,600 to Rs 7,000 a month, political rights to Gilgit-Baltistan, extension of the Political Parties Act to FATA, bills for women’s rights and empowerment, the 18th and 19th constitutional amendments (that include getting rid of Zia’s clause that allowed the President to dissolve Parliament), the combined NFC Award (moving towards provincial autonomy), signing Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline agreement despite American opposition, forcing the Americans to tie aid to Pakistan to the continuation of democracy with the ‘Kerry-Lugar Bill’ (another reason the military hates this government), kicking out the Saudi ambassador for distributing money to terrorists, expanding the Lady Health Workers programme (initiated by Benazir Bhutto), and continuing her legacy of non-vindictiveness towards political rivals and dissent. It should be a matter of pride for Pakistan that this government has not carried out any capital punishments, in line with its unofficial moratorium on executions.

The political situation remains volatile. But there are many positives to build upon. Things will not change overnight, but the process is underway. Despite the apparent unpopularity of the present government, theare is a difference this time round, given that efforts are being made to take preemptive steps to mobilise politically (for example, the Citizens’ statement on the ‘Memogate’ issue) against unconstitutional moves to topple the government. Perhaps some lessons have been learnt from the past.

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