By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
The dastardly assassination on 27 December 2007 of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s twice-elected Prime Minister and the Islamic world’s most outstanding ever female leader, entailed the loss of a rare voice of wisdom and sanity in a world characterised by conflict and uncertainties. Universally acknowledged as a bridge between East and West, Benazir Bhutto was a prophet of peace and reconciliation in a world polarised by obscurantist forces on either side of the religious divide.
My association with martyred Benazir Bhutto – called Bibi in reverence – covered a period of more than three decades. When in London I used to spend at times 14 to 16 hour-long daily. The closer I got to know to Bibi the more I discovered her exceptional leadership qualities, as a human being, the vastness of her vision, and her profound commitment to and concern for deprived communities regardless of caste, creed, colour or gender. She was brave and beautiful; she had dauntless courage to struggle for the empowerment of the poor and downtrodden, women and minorities.
As a journalist by profession, I have travelled the world over and have met some of the great leaders of the last century. In my humble assessment Benazir Bhutto stands tallest of them all. She was surfeit with the rare qualities of compassion, generosity and, above all, forgiveness and unparalleled courage. As a politician she was not only a great stateswoman but also a rare strategist, able to outplay her opponents with few or no trump cards in her hands. Best tribute to her was offered in a passionate speech before the UNGA in 2017 by the British Prime Minister Theresa May. “This year is the tenth anniversary of the death of the woman who introduced me to my husband and who is known well to many of us in the United Nations. Benazir Bhutto was brutally murdered by people who actively rejected the values that all of us here at the United Nations stand for.”
From 1999 Bibi lived in self-exile and yet she ran and organised the country’s largest political party – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – through her computer. The party still till today remains the only formidable challenge to the status quo and the obscurantist forces in Pakistan; its formation and survival after her death are testament to her courage to do what she believed to be right even if it was considered to be an unpopular notion. Remember, it was her singularity of purpose that made her to decide to swim against the tide in the run-up to the 2008 elections held by President General Pervez Musharraf. Most of the leading political parties were united in their decision to boycott the elections and a crescendo of opposition arose against Benazir’s decision to participate. Her decision also inflamed the lawyers’ community who deemed it at odds with their priority of seeking restoration of the sacked chief justice and other judges.
Ms Bhutto, on the other hand, saw in the elections a means to a bigger end– the restoration of the supremacy of parliament as the sole arbiter of power and agent of the will of the people. She believed that a boycott would leave the field open for the King’s party to romp home to a victory that could be denied if voters were instead mobilised. As a student of politics, trained at the feet of her illustrious father martyred Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she was confident of her decision on three counts. Firstly, the threat that the regime would continue to engineer rigged results, as it had during the pre-poll period in 2002 when it held referendum and elections in 2002. Secondly, she underscored the need for participation in the elections to expose the regime to the world and especially those western democracies that were giving it the benefit of the doubt on account of geo-strategic expediencies. Thirdly, once the voters were convinced that they had been cheated they would inevitably storm the streets to revolt against the corruption as had happened during the Orange Revolution. Besides, she was also sure that the countrywide electoral exercise would ignite dynamics of change needed to defend the people’s right to elect their own legitimate representatives.
Of course, it is another thing that the shameless dictator committed the greatest act of sabotage against the PPP and had her assassination in cold blood when she riding a crest of popularity to landslide victory. But the party and its Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari remained faithful to her decision of participating in the polls despite pressure from those who favoured a policy of boycott even more vehemently after her murder. The decision proved right. As Bibi anticipated, the people demonstrated their hatred of the regime by voting against the King’s party, demolishing its top leadership entirely. The PPP’s decision to stick to its election manifesto seeking the supremacy of parliament, rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the media freedom consequently received more votes than any other agenda.
Ms Bhutto painstakingly groomed her followers to have goals larger than their own lives – goals that bring change not just for individuals but the greatest good for the largest number in a pluralistic society. She used to say that once a person’s ideals are higher than selfish interests, they will learn to value their goals and pursue them passionately with commitment and singularity of purpose. She also believed that very little distance separated a dream becoming a reality and that it was possible to overcome this divide through hard work and dedication. She was strongly of the view that it was impossible to kill a dream and that the surest way was by making it come true. I am sure that it was her dream to make Pakistan a self- respecting nation that took her into the lion’s den despite the fatal risk to herself.
Just a few days before her departure to Karachi I vividly recall having coffee with her favourite London coffee shop in Harrods (Punch—now closed). Despite my close association with her she had not asked me to accompany her back to Pakistan. I was both intrigued and depressed, and as I searched for the words to question her reasons, she said, ‘I know what you have in mind. You must be wondering why I have not asked you to accompany me. You don’t know what horrible could be in store for me – what they might do to me. I want you to stay in London and hold the fort.’
I knew about the threats being conveyed to her, warning her not to return to Pakistan until the elections are over. Leaders of friendly countries had also warned her of possible assassination attempts awaiting her. I asked her why she didn’t delay her return to Pakistan given the threats to her life. Her response sank my heart. ‘My people are waiting for me. I cannot disappoint them,’ she replied. ‘I know the threats are there but life and death is in the hands of God – when it is time to die nobody can escape from it. It is better to die for a cause that you have lived all your life than be run over by a double-decker bus in the street.’ When the conspirators bombed her rally in Karachi on 18 October – failing to kill her –later that night I pleaded with her in vain to return to London or Dubai.
At around the time of her assassination I was in London feeling extremely uneasy. I could not sleep. I stayed away from my computer. But two days before the fatal attack I got a call on my mobile and Bibi was at the other end. ‘How is your health? Why are you not seeing your internet messages?’ she demanded. I told her I was depressed and gravely perturbed, and I repeated my apprehensions for her safety. She agreed that ‘they’ were determined to get her but said that she could not be scared into giving up her life-long mission of saving Pakistan from imminent disintegration. ‘Don’t worry. God is great’, she told me.
In the background I could hear the crowd chanting slogans. She was obviously phoning me from the midst of a meeting. Just before she cut off, assuring me that nothing would happen to her, she said, ‘I wanted to ask you to do something for me but now I have forgotten – can you make a guess?’ Since it was Christmas Day I knew that she probably wanted me to give a gift to her porter. When I told her about the Christmas present for the porter she described it as telepathic communication between us and added, ‘Sorry for the inconvenience but please do it before 12.00 midnight.’
Her words keep reverberating in my ears and I believe she is now safe in heaven with her great father, where her enemies can do her no more harm. No doubt the country having had elections in 2008, her party having returned to power and dictator eased out without bloodshed—her dream seemed to have had come true. Unfortunately, later events and the ascendancy of the military with a puppet prime minister are casting a long shadow of darkness on the future of democracy. Let all political forces join hands to thwart erosion of civil society.
(Author is former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist.)