I wrote this for Frontline, India for this week. The caretaker prime
minister under pressure from the editors at a meeting 'apologised'
for the silly 'sunroof' theory put forward by the interior ministry
(as if the spokesman Cheema propounded it on his own - people are
cursing him for the obvious lies he was telling, forgetting that he
was only acting under orders). Incidentally, the Toyota company
spokesman also rubbished this theory that casts the safety of their
landcruisers in doubt.
More later. May the new year be kinder to us all.
(back in Karachi)
Lahore, Dec 29, 2007
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 engaged in
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 of General
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 columnist
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 the
It is hard to transcend the feeling of that hope having been
completely extinguished, but this must somehow be done if Pakistan is