Benazir Bhutto has left a rich legacy for Pakistan. Above all, she changed the political culture of the country and raised the level of tolerance in politics.
Throughout her political career her opponents ridiculed her, spread hurtful rumours about her and her family, and humiliated her in the most despicable manner. In return, she never stooped to their level and remained dignified. This won her many admirers but, sometimes, her refusal to attack her opponents in the same tone and manner was seen as a sign of weakness.
Her life experience was traumatic. Losing a father to the gallows can haunt anyone for life. Being imprisoned by a harsh dictator in her youth, especially when none of her family members was in the country, would have broken anyone’s will to pursue politics. But Benazir Bhutto was an extraordinary woman. She emerged stronger by the end of it.
By the time she was exiled she was a hardcore political activist. She kept in touch with her party members who were either suffering under Zia or had fled into exile. At the same time she lobbied effectively with political and human rights groups abroad so that Zia could be tamed and some political space created for the restoration of democracy. Unlike most Pakistani politicians, Benazir Bhutto understood international politics as well. She also knew the value of empowering a progressive civil society in Pakistan.
A change from Zia to Benazir Bhutto in 1988 dramatically turned the atmosphere in a few weeks. Women became more visible and regained their lost confidence. The ordinary person did not benefit in material terms but they felt less insecure and there was generally a happier mood in Pakistan, though this was short-lived.
As soon as the PPP government came into power, Benazir outlawed public whipping. Pretrial prisoners who were women, children, and disabled prisoners were released. The message was clear: Benazir was a friend of the underdog. She valued the vulnerable.
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Press clubs and bar associations were promised support to strengthen their institutions. Artistes were encouraged and placed in key government posts. Cultural activities, which were virtually banned by Zia, were encouraged. Women’s programmes were introduced on radio and television. Embargoes on those banned from appearing in the national media were lifted. A new set of faces and voices was heard nationwide. The ban on trade unions was lifted and censorship gradually disappeared.
The PPP government took no revenge. Judges who were on the bench that confirmed her father’s hanging were left untouched. She did not go on a witch-hunt as was being predicted by a terrified elite that had supported Zia and his actions against the PPP. This was no relief to Bhutto haters as they realised that Benazir was not just a crowd puller but had also acquired political skills to win support at home and abroad. She had charmed world leaders and had reached out to those who had previously been victimised by the previous PPP government.
Benazir Bhutto was perceived to be arrogant but she could be very charming to those she wished to woe. I recall that members of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan met in Peshawar in the spring of 1987. Our host was Iftikhar Gillani, who was also a prominent PPP member. He hosted a dinner for us, and we were informed that Benazir Bhutto would also attend. Some members were not happy at the idea of associating a human rights body with a political party but were persuaded to accept the invitation with grace. Somehow Benazir got wind that some guests were reluctant to be associated closely with the PPP. Within an hour she had the same guests eating out of her hand. All of them returned mesmerised by Benazir Bhutto. Amongst the guests were Fakharuddin G Ebrahim, Justice (retd) Dorab Patel, Iqbal Haider and Late Justice Sabihuddin Ahmed.
I recall that after her second term in office when Benazir Bhutto was in Dubai, she had been sidelined effectively by the establishment and this had made her most unhappy. To reconnect, a few of us planned a meeting between her and Asfandyar Wali in Dubai. Once it was arranged, I called Benazir Bhutto to set up the appointment. The ANP member who arranged it was apprehensive as he had experienced some of Benazir Bhutto’s more arrogant moments. I reassured him and promised that the Khan would be welcomed. Asfandyar Wali, it was reported, returned fully impressed by her.
Benazir had the quality of taking timely decisions. She could look ahead. Nawaz Sharif announced his infamous Shariat Act while some of us from the Human Rights Commission were in Islamabad. Somehow we managed to get hold of the draft before it was made public. We made a desperate call to Benazir and she responded promptly by inviting us over to her house in Islamabad. We handed her the draft. She took one look at it and said, “It is all about him”. She got on the phone to journalists and other political leaders. In those days relations between her and MQM were tense but she realised that MQM would oppose Nawaz’s initiative so she encouraged us to get MQM support.
Within a few hours the draft law was international news and criticism poured in from across the country.
After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, journalist Imtiaz Alam rightly commented that her murder was a tragedy for everyone but her party lost a leader, a worker, an activist, a strategist, a planner and a person who executed her own decisions. Benazir Bhutto was almost indispensable to her party.
Subsequently, Benazir and Nawaz mended fences and the historic Charter of Democracy was signed. Soon thereafter they fell apart over the National Reconciliation Ordinance. Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 2007 and was placed under house arrest at Latif Khosa’s house in Lahore. Once released, she called me to meet her at Khosa House. As usual, she was surrounded by a large number of people so we could not discuss the situation openly. Whilst I was leaving she decided to return the visit later in the evening.
As I had also been released from house arrest, I felt obliged to invite some of the people who had seen me through my lean moments. This was my last meeting with Benazir Bhutto. She was always pleased to meet people. This was a crowd of young and old journalists, lawyers and human rightists. She faced a few tough questions but by now Benazir Bhutto had mastered the art of dealing with criticism and her discussion that evening was candid and convincing. She had developed a deep understanding of the political realities of Pakistan and was determined to play a robust role in bringing back democracy and to challenge terrorism. She came across as the most promising hope for the country.
After the discussion she hinted to me that she would like to make contact with Nawaz Sharif. She only had his Jeddah phone number. I had an important errand to run for her and it could not fail. Eventually, through some safe phones, I reached Sharif and convinced him to speak to Benazir Bhutto and eventually they were able to do so. Their differences were put aside and they agreed to co-ordinate.
Despite being a hardcore politician, Benazir Bhutto was a compassionate person. Perhaps very few people know that she was instrumental in getting scores, if not hundreds, of haris freed from bonded labour. She had sent direct instructions to all deputy commissioners in Sindh to support all efforts to free any bonded labourer in the province. A number of organisations moved in to take advantage of this most humane government policy. Hundreds of haris were released with minimal effort. This was an example of how support from the state can alleviate the miseries of hundreds of marginalised people.
It is widely believed that individuals are dispensable, therefore, institutions should be strengthened. This may be true to some extent as institutions are sustained while individuals have a life span and fade away with the passage of time. But, in some cases, it is the individual that is the strength of an institution. Benazir was one such person.
It is no wonder that her very existence was a real threat to all those who wanted to drive the country into isolation and towards Ziadom. Tyrants could physically remove her from this world but she constantly lives in the hearts and minds of millions of Pakistanis. Long live Benazir.