December 27 marks the 12th death anniversary of former prime minister and chairperson of PPP Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. She was martyred 12 years ago outside Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi after an election rally and public meeting. Pakistan lost a true democrat- brave daughter and an enlightened popular leader. She was a symbol of resistance and struggle in her life and became icon of courage and sacrifice after her assassination.
Benazir Bhutto sacrificed her life for a cause. She wanted to see Pakistan as a modern, progressive and pluralistic democratic country. She wanted a Pakistan free of terrorism-violence and religious extremism. She fought for an egalitarian and fair society. She knew that her clear and bold stance against religious extremism and authoritarian government would put her life at stake. She was aware of the dangers linked with her return.
But she still decided to challenge all these forces. On her return, she was warned via a bloodbath at her rally. She refused to bow down. Finally, she was assassinated on December 27, 2007 after a public address at Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi. With that, Pakistan lost a courageous, progressive and popular leader. Her assassination was a big blow to the democratic, liberal, secular and progressive forces in the country.
Benazir Bhutto’s sudden death created a huge vacuum not only in the PPP but also in national politics. She was a towering figure in the party and in national politics with a history of struggle and sacrifice against military dictatorships. PPP has not been able to fully recover from this loss.
For millions of Pakistanis she was the embodiment of their hopes for a democratic- pluralist-peaceful and prosperous country and the desire to be free of the scourge of extremism and terrorism. Benazir Bhutto and her party offered the only ideological alternative to this rising tide of intolerance and obscurantism. She led and kept the PPP alive against many odds during and after the dark years of the obscurantist dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq.
Benazir Bhutto touched the lives of many Pakistanis by confronting military dictatorship in opposition and through her programmes to address the issues of the poorest and most marginalised during her two short stints in office. She was seen as a threat by those who saw her vision for Pakistan as a challenge to their militarised intrigues. For that reason alone she was hounded during her life and killed by the bigots who have hijacked our beloved country.
In the words of Bilawal Bhutto- she was the best hope for democracy in Pakistan. She was the best hope because she was the most popular leader of this country. She had the charisma and leadership quality to lead the country and democratic movement. Her family background- the most appropriate education and the most needed political training and mass party made her ultimate choice of millions of poor working class and downtrodden people. And above all- she was a daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The leader who inspired the middle class students- intellectuals- political activists- labour leaders and most exploited and repressed sections of society. She was the political heir of great Bhutto.
Little did she know that her participation in the anti-Vietnam war protests during her stay at Harvard University and her election as the president of the students union at Oxford were to come in quite handy in the future. She was fun loving girl and wanted to join the Foreign Service. But she was forced to lead the struggle against a military dictatorship. She was forced to lead the party that her father founded in 1967. She spent the six years of her life under arrest, sometimes in solitary confinement, without any contact with the outside world.
She was forced under the circumstances to led the democratic struggle against the most reactionary and vicious military dictatorship in the history of Pakistan. His father was hanged. Thousands of party workers were imprisoned and tortured. She earned respect of her party workers through relentless struggle and sacrifice. She established the credentials of a democratic leader in the course of struggle.
She won and lost elections. She saw many highs and lows. PPP were routed in Punjab in 1997 general elections under her leadership. PPP won just 19 seats nationally. But she bounced back and become the most popular party in 2002 elections. Her party won the highest number of popular votes in the 2002 election – in which she was a target of official machinations to manipulate the electoral verdict. She, wisely, stayed away from striking a Faustian bargain with the Musharraf regime even though it would have brought her to power much earlier than her detractors and critics had expected and despite the fact that her decision split her party.
Her resilience- courage and her willingness to take threats against her personally and her country head-on kept her popular. When she returned from exile- a sea of people from across Pakistan came to receive her in Karachi on October 18, 2007. By some estimates this welcoming crowd was even bigger than the one that had gathered in Lahore slightly more than two decades ago in 1986 to receive her as the daughter of Pakistan.
She was the symbol of federation and national unity. PPP, which the Bhutto family nurtured with its blood and personal sacrifices, has its following in all the four provinces of Pakistan. Despite the efforts of the establishment to splinter the party by winning over some of its erstwhile stalwarts through ministerial positions, the party held its ground. This, in itself, is a credit to the leadership of Benazir who withstood all pressures bravely by rising above her personal pains for the larger cause of democracy and constitutional rule.
In a society where divisive ideologies and extremist viewpoints are a noticeable feature, she was an icon who stood for enlightenment and inclusive society. She was for diversity in unity. She stood in the way of extremists and for an enlightened and democratic Pakistan.
I have always admired her courage and struggle. She was a brave and charismatic leader who stood for the democratic, constitutional and fundamental human and economic rights of the people. She stood for social and economic justice and equality. She was a true democratic leader who fought against dictators for democracy without any fear.
She had two brief stints in office (1988-90 and 1993-96) during which she was busier firefighting the conspiracies and allegations against her than actually accomplishing anything. She was a progressive visionary; her ideas, however, did not match that of the torturous administrative apparatus run by a bureaucracy made inefficient by a decade of Ziaul Haq’s military rule. She wanted better ties with India; her meetings with Rajiv Gandhi are well remembered as a means to carve a new roadmap to peace. But this, of course, did not go down well with the military establishment.
She had an ambitious economic agenda but she was not able to realise much of it, partly because of the friction with the army, partly because of opposition from political players such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Nawaz Sharif, and partly because of the incompetence and corruption of her own party. Most of her time in power was spent battling for survival against the machinations of those opposed to her, including the then presidents of the country, who were constantly trying to bring down her governments.
Benazir faced constant character assassination- smear and vicious propaganda from the establishment and reactionary rightwing forces. Every effort was made to discredit her. She faced perpetual resistance from the religious right who would try to stir up the public by proclaiming that a government headed by a woman was un-Islamic and persistent refusal by army generals to salute a female prime minister. Yet she managed to leave behind a legacy of commitment to democracy, economic empowerment of the downtrodden and social equality that is rivaled by only the one left by her father.
Whether she wanted it or not, Benazir continues to reign on as the most influential Pakistani of our times, overshadowing sportspersons, rock stars- army generals and religious leaders. As she was once quoted to have said, “I have led an unusual life. I have buried a father killed at age 50 and two brothers killed in 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.”
We all know that, among other things, she fought hard for human rights, democracy, and a just peace in the region.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *