Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming came to an abrupt end at 6.16 p.m. in Rawalpindi on Thursday. For someone who has mystified herself as the Daughter of the East, home has always been a privileged place in history. When she came home in October, though, it was arguably the most merciless place on earth, caught between radical Islamism and military dictatorship.
She was, predictably enough, welcomed by bombs, for she was the usurper who challenged the conceit of the General as well as the rage of the mullah. For the Islamist, she was the one who made an unholy pact with the Evil Imperium of America. Her democratic credentials were overshadowed by her subservience to the satanic enemy in Washington.
For the ruling establishment, she was a difficult democrat who refused to play along: Benazir had all along been suspicious about Pervez Musharraf’s idea of a democratic Pakistan. It was an idea subordinated to the indispensability of the President. On Thursday, Benazir died while struggling to regain home. It was the struggle of a lone woman pitted against those who claimed absolute control over the lives of a people.
In retrospect, Benazir’s struggle, to quote a novelist, was the “struggle of memory against forgetting”. More than 27 years ago, in the Rawalpindi District Jail (which is not far away from the hospital where she breathed her last), her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose prime ministership in 1973 marked Pakistan’s first tryst with genuine parliamentary democracy, was hanged.
Recently she wrote in an op-ed piece, “I have buried a father killed at age 50 and two brothers who were killed at the prime of their lives. I raised my children as a single mother when my husband was arrested and held for eight years without a conviction—a hostage to my political career. I made my choice when the mantle of political leadership was thrust upon my shoulders after my father’s murder. I did not shrink from my responsibility then I will not shrink from it now.”
Such self-appraisals may be a familiar passage from the narratives of sub-continental Dynasty (and aren’t we too familiar?). Still, Benazir’s story was exceptionally singular as it evolved in an underdeveloped civil society where power was nasty, brutal, tribal and masculine. In 1988, when she became the first woman to lead an Islamic country, it was the beginning of a dangerous liaison with a political culture soaked in the blood of the deviant.
“When I first got elected”, she wrote, “they said, ‘A woman has usurped a man’s place! She should be killed, she should be assassinated, she has committed heresy!’” Who were they? She didn’t say. Today, “they” don’t require names or faces for us to identify them. In a world re-shaped by 9/11, they embody everything that negates the spirit of Benazir. In today’s Pakistan, Benazir meant more than a counterpoint to Musharraf. Her audacity in the face of life-threatening adversity was redeeming as well as liberating.
It was a repudiation of the un-freedom that envelops Pakistan, the unofficial headquarters of jihad. America’s most important non-NATO ally in the fight against Islamist terror is the last refuge of radical Islamism. Musharraf, as a bargainer, benefited both financially and politically from America’s war on terror— and from the warrior’s fear and paranoia.
For Musharraf, everything—jihad, democracy, justice—was negotiable. Except his own primacy as the supreme arbiter of national destiny. When Benazir came home, Musharraf was at the peak of his desperation. Her freedom struggle coincided with the private struggle of the dictator, whose very existence was democratically illegitimate. He talked democracy and silenced dissent. Benazir quoted Stalin to call Musharraf’s bluff: “Those who cast the vote decide nothing; those who count the vote decide everything.” Musharraf, obviously, wanted to be the decision maker.
There is someone else beyond him—and because of him-—who wants to have the last word. He doesn’t count the vote. The jihadi holds the Book—and the bomb. Benazir’s struggle threatened his fantasy as well. The daughter of a heartless history had always known there was someone beyond the adoring crowd, determined to deny her home. Pakistan is a darker place without her Such self appraisals may be a familiar passage from the narratives of sub-continental Dynasty (and aren’t we too familiar?). Still, Benazir’s story was exceptionally singular as it evolved in an under-developed civil society where power was nasty, brutal, tribal and masculine. In 1988, when she became the first woman to lead an Islamic country, it was the beginning of a dangerous liaison with a political culture soaked in the blood of the deviant.