Benazir Bhutto, the iron lady

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By Wajid Shamsul Hasan

My association with Bibi (Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto) covered a span of over three decades until her death. My affinity with her father Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from my student days as a fan until I became a journalist—made it easier for me to get very close to Bibi after I was introduced to her by Bhutto Sahib in Simla in 1972.Gen Zia’s coup against Bhutto Sahib, his incarceration, arrest, murder trial and execution—was the most tortuous period in my life. The agony and pain suffered by the Bhuttos further cemented our relations. And as a student of history, I saw in Benazir Bhutto all the making of a great leader and a successor to Bhutto Sahib.

Bibi had rare qualities of leadership. Unlike most of the leaders she was never revengeful, nor vindictive and a very soft human being who would forgive her severe adversaries at the first drop of tears of regrets in their eyes. Often, she was advised to be strong handed against her opponents to bring them on their knees. She would have none of it. Rather, she preferred to forgive and forget.

Pakistan’s overly rightist media was never supportive of Bhuttos or PPP. Being a female, it was easier for a male chauvinist media to malign her with baseless stories and insinuations even when she was in power. I remember one morning there was an obnoxious column in an Urdu newspaper just when we were having a meeting of the media heads. One of the more enthusiastic senior bureaucrats, taking leave to speak dared to say that the way newspapers had gone berserk against her and PPP administration–it seemed that the government did not exist.

Mohatarma Benazir Bhutto Shaheed (21-06-1953 – 27-12-2007)

“Madam Prime Minister, if I am given charge of Ministry of Information, I shall ensure that the editors of the truant newspaper come to you on their knees to seek your forgiveness and not to repeat their baseless propaganda.” Addressing us (media heads) she made it clear that she had not struggled all her life to “make people walk on their knees”. She wished to convince the journalists that freedom was their right but did not give them a licence to be irresponsible.

I cannot forget the analogy she gave about the upsurge of freedom newspapers exercised during her days of power. “When a caged bird is freed, it takes a big plunge to fly but being not used to it, falls flat.

It again makes an attempt, again falls. However, after a few falls, it manages to fly off—that’s the way our media is behaving. It will be ok sooner than expected’’. My journalist friends who had the pleasure of knowing her would endorse that she was very kind to them, more than willing to help them in their professional duties.

As an outstanding political leader, she was par excellence in wisdom, intelligence, grasp of issues, negotiations and deliberations. Though she had her own views, yet she listened to others as well and believed in politics of consensus. My friend veteran journalist Ziauddin once described called her as “an Iron Lady”. She indeed was. She was firm in her actions and no bullying by the powers that be could break her. Imagine her going to the highest battle ground Siachin Peak/Glacier when she was 8-month pregnant. She was deliberately invited to visit the Siachin heights knowing well her advance stage in pregnancy that she would refuse. She gave them shock of their lives when she braved the treacherous helicopter ride, icy cold weather and stay with the brave Pakistani soldiers at the height without taking any oxygen. Perhaps this was for the first time any head of the state or Army Chief had dared to visit Siachin heights in advance pregnancy.

Her Party jiyalas were always dear to her. Her house was open for them and they would find her next to them in their hour of need and distress. I remember how she defied her security and to visit a party worker’s house in Orangi Town for condolence despite knowing that the area had become a live battlefield held under siege by an ethnic group. She was accompanied by late Iqbal Haider and myself and as our vehicle neared the house, we could hear the sound of bullets. Police escort advised us to return but she would not have it. In a tense atmosphere she sat with the deceased family for several hours to defy fear of fear.

Dictators and their mouthpieces—being guilty of their crime of committing treason—never let go any opportunity to declare her a security risk. I remember that when Pressler Amendment (1985) was on the anvil by the Congress to impose economic sanctions on Pakistan and to stop aid under General Ziaul Haq, it was Benazir Bhutto in exile who pleaded with the Americans not to punish Pakistan on account of General Zia and convinced the American Congress leadership not to impose economic sanctions or to stop US aid as such a step would be detrimental to Pakistani people. She went out of the way to plead with the American leadership for Pakistan’s sake. Many in Pakistan and abroad were surprised to see her pull Zia’s chestnut out of fire when he had killed her father and was sworn enemy to her. Obviously, it was Pakistan first and foremost for her.

Bosnia was in the midst of war in 1994. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her Turkish counterpart Tansu Çiller decided to visit strife torn East European state to express solidarity with Bosnian Muslims.

She travelled to Ankara via Geneva. We had an overnight stay in Geneva. Around midnight a senior bureaucrat of Pakistan Foreign Office knocked at my hotel door. There was some emergency. He wanted me to convey to the Prime Minister that she should not go to Bosnia as there were intelligence reports that they would be fired up on by the miscreants. I contacted the ADC and was informed that she had gone to sleep as she had an attack of migraine.

I conveyed her ‘secret’ message at the breakfast table, she rubbished it and said “Whatever–We have to go, Turkish PM is waiting and so are the Bosnians who had been looking forward to our visit”. And so we went. Indeed, Bosnia was on fire, her entourage was fired upon by miscreants. Both the Prime Ministers had long discussion with the Bosnian leadership and were fully seized of their grave situation. Later Bibi took up the matter with President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair and her efforts proved to be game changer in the region.

Indeed, had there been a lesser brave person than she, she would have just abandoned the visit halfway in Geneva. Her commitment to freedom for Bosnians was deeply acknowledged with profound gratitude by the Bosnian leader. Their President met me in London when I was High Commissioner and asked me to convey his sublime gratitude to Prime Minister Bhutto and the people of Pakistan who stood by them in their most difficult time.

Looking at the state sponsored leaks regarding the intense possibility of Pakistan recognising Israel in the immediate future as initials talks having been held secretly during the clandestine visits of some of PTI functionaries seems to have covered lot of ground for an official visit of Prime Minister Khan to Israel. Saudis are all for it, so have been the Americans since long. There is definitely going to be a sea change in Muslim countries relations with Israel.

Like Imran Khan and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif martyred Benazir Bhutto too was under lot of pressure in her two tenures from the Americans to recognise Israel and roll back Pakistan’s nuclear programme. I am privy to what she had been through resisting American pressure. She was overly defiant and brave to tell them almost to go to hell.

I remember in February 1999 she was offered safe passage to Pakistan, withdrawal of cases, a media blitzkrieg to write off all allegations of corruption and her return as prime minister a third time provided, she agreed to nuclear roll back and Israel’s recognition.

Indeed, thirty-five years is a whole life time that I spent with her especially in the last ten years from 1997 to 2007 when she was in exile. Here she was a single person demolishing squad for dictators and I had the honour of working with her as and for her almost 16 hours a day. I have been privy to the negotiations she had with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, American Under- Secretary of State Christina Rocca, her successor Ambassador Richard Boucher and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prior to her meeting with President General Musharraf in Abdu Dhabi in January 2007. How she came up with the idea of Charter of Democracy, my humble role to get both Bibi and Nawaz Sharif to talk and finally why I was told by her that she would not take me with her to Pakistan since according to her– ‘’ Something horrible was waiting to happen to me” and who would be responsible for her elimination.

Since I know what her fears were and who were determined not to let her return to Pakistan and why she named General Musharraf as the main villain of the piece.

Benazir Bhutto was “an amalgamation of innocence and remarkable maturity.” Indeed, it were travails of her personal tragic journey –seeing execution of her father, the killing of her two brothers) that had matured her beyond her years, and the child in her could not find expression. And when she was murdered, I knew who was responsible including those powers that are inimical to peace and stability in our region and who have used us as their proxy in their conflicts.

“She was an inspiration for every little girl across the globe, especially Muslim girls. She was the hope, the beacon light, the lady with an iron and steel exterior, who seldom, if ever, faltered to allow a glimpse of the soft, vulnerable woman in her. Indeed, she was the epitome of indomitable fortitude. To survive in a men’s world like Pakistan especially in politics when the word has become synonymous for dirt, in itself, was an astounding achievement and recognition of her courage and determination.

Indeed, all that she achieved against heavy odds, jackboots and barrel of the gun—only Benazir, the par excellance, could do it. She was the first to establish women courts, appoint judges, women police stations and women banks, create a women’s division in the government—to take women forward to greater empowerment and her father’s socialistic socio-economic agenda of greatest good of the largest number, irrespective of caste, creed, colour or gender.

(Author is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist. Email: wshwsh786@gmail.com)