Not the people’s princess

Published in the Daily Star (14 mar 2008)

Death by assassination confers a saintly halo, especially on this subcontinent with a craving for dynasties, heroes, fathers and kings. Consider the hosannas for Benazir Bhutto in, of all places, the Bangla media. And now will that halo transfer to Zardari as the new emperor-king of the family business known as PPP.

The western Benazir fetish is comprehensible because she wore comforting markers (pitch-perfect English, British governess, convent schooling, Harvard/Oxford degree). A “kleptocrat in Hermes scarves,” but she was still “one of us.” But should we on this side of the border know the Bhutto legacy a little better?
Since 1971, Bangladesh has framed at least some of its political reality in opposition to the idea of Pakistan. This is visible in popular culture, everyday attitude and political rhetoric. It ranges from antipathy (“Thank God we’re not Pakistan”) to struggle (“We will never allow Pakistanisation of our politics”) to prognostication (“How can we allow Islamisation, isn’t this why we broke from Pakistan?”).

The death of another Bhutto (after Zulfiqar, Shahnawaz and Murtaza) sent shivers down many Bengali spines, as well as a silent sigh of relief. There but for the grace of history go we.

It was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s refusal to accept the 1970 election landslide that precipitated the army crackdown and 1971 genocide. I will break the legs of any politician who visits East Pakistan, he threatened at one point (so much for that urbane suaveness that western papers talked up).

Visiting Yahya on his estate, Bhutto maneuvered behind the scenes and egged the Pakistan army to “sort the bastards out”. Having pushed the country to war, he then engaged in theatrics at the UN, tearing a resolution to pieces and walking out — playing deftly to West Pakistani sentiments.

Nine months of war and Zulfiqar got his wish, coming out as the only winner on the Pakistan side. Better to be Prime Minister of divided Pakistan than to be second fiddle to Sheikh Mujib in united Pakistan.

Jailed by General Zia-ul Haque in 1977, Bhutto wrote If I am assassinated on smuggled paper in his jail. On the Bangladesh side, his nemesis Sheikh Mujib had already been assassinated. Even an international campaign by his children could not save Bhutto from the gallows.

Death made an instant martyr of a man with very bloody hands (even inspiring the Soviet-funded militant group al-Zulfiqar). Bhutto’s past sins were forgotten as Benazir whitewashed his 1971 role in “Daughter Of The East”. In a 1988 review of the book, Salman Rushdie catalogues the omissions:

“Worst of all, (Benazir) falsifies Bhutto’s role in the events leading to the secession of Bangladesh to a quite scandalous degree. In Benazir’s version, the blame is placed firmly on the shoulders of Sheikh Mujib, leader of the then East Pakistani Awami League. After the 1970 elections, Benazir says, “instead of working with my father … Mujib instigated an independence movement … Mujib showed an obstinacy the logic of which to this day defies me.”

You feel like using words of one syllable to explain. Listen, dear child, the man had won, and it was your father who dug in his heels … in the elections of 1970, the Awami League won an absolute majority of all seats in Pakistan’s two “wings” combined. Mujib had every right to insist, “obstinately”, on being Prime Minister, and it was Bhutto and General Yahya Khan who conspired to prevent this from happening. That was how the war of secession began, but you wouldn’t know it from reading this book.” (Reprinted in Imaginary Homelands).

Only after the aborted crowning of Prince Bilawal, and ascension of Rasputin Asif Zardari, did some of our press belatedly discover that (gasp) Benazir was no democrat. But her own two regimes gave ample evidence of her basic tendencies. Amnesty International accused Benazir’s PPP government of having one of the world’s worst records of custodial deaths, killings and torture.

Sehban Zaidi (my co-director on a short film) recalls, “The police in Karachi were allowed (if not encouraged) to torture and kill a lot of the ethnic class of Urdu speaking Muhajirs. From boys in their teens to men in their thirties — it was borderline ethnic cleansing.”

Benazir’s rule, marked by corruption, feudalism, and human rights abuse paved the way for the eventual train-wreck of Pakistani democracy. After the triple play of Benazir-Nawaz-Musharraf, Pakistan’s democratic institutions have been weakened perhaps beyond repair.

Pakistan is on perpetual flames (from slow burn to forest fire) and some are relieved that Bangladesh is not part of that conflagration. The unrest in Baluchistan and NWFP, the volatile border with Afghanistan, the spillover from the Afghan poppy trade, the Lal Masjid standoff, the growing muscle of the Islamist groups, the Kalashnikov culture of Karachi, the gangs and organised violence — some think these are uniquely Pakistani problems.

But there is precious little comfort from such soft and naive sentiments. Yes we are no longer part of Pakistan, and 1971 was a rejection of that concept. But with changing political landscapes and power blocs, it would not take much to flip the switch. Like Pakistan we also have dynasty politics, corroded political establishment, and extremely intermittent democracy.

It is primarily geography (non-adjacency to Afghanistan, no stake in Kashmir) that rescued us from the madness of Indo-Pak nuclear brinkmanship and American-Soviet pawn moves. Tariq Ali once wrote that Pakistan was the used psophylactic from the Afghan war that America had fished out of the toilet after 9/11.

With the newly ascendant idea of Islamist threat, and the State Department’s tagging of HuJI, we could also become another (willing/unwilling) member of the American “axis of evil.” The consequences of that are clear in today’s Pakistan brinkmanship.

After Benazir’s assassination, the Pakistan shadow lay heavy over Bangladesh. Palpable jitters on the Dhaka streets. Can Bangladesh get engulfed by similar syndromes? This is no time for complacency or relieved sighs. Vigilance and institution building is the only safeguard of democracy.


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