By Bashir Riaz
Fourteen years after the martyrdom of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, “Zinda hai BB, zinda hai” still echoes in political rallies and in the hearts of her party-workers. I often think that indeed, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto still lives in our thoughts and memories. Every year, June 21 is marked as her birthday and cakes are cut to pay tribute to this phenomenal woman who was the pride of Pakistan nationally and internationally. Despite knowing about the potential threat to her life, she chose to return to her people for the sake of democracy and the rule of law. Her sacrifice will be remembered in the history of Pakistan as part of the Bhutto family’s irrefutable contribution towards the restoration of democracy.
During her tenure as the Prime Minister, she created employment opportunities and helped numerous people who had nowhere else to turn to. She even financially supported needy people from personal charity, such as the caretaker of Pak Tea House, which was a space of freedom where political, intellectual and artistic culture flourished. Today, all those whose lives she touched remember her with deep respect. Shaheed Benazir Bhutto is an example of a true leader that stays alive in the hearts of the people long after leaving this world. Her generosity is also evident in her ideology of reconciliation instead of revenge.
Today, this legacy of respect in politics should be a lesson for everyone about promoting a culture of tolerance. There are countless instances from her life that are a testimony to her courage and struggles for democracy. She never gave in to the pressures of the military regime and firmly stood by her ideologies, almost as an article of faith—she protected her vision with her life.
On January 14, 1984, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto reached Heathrow airport in London after five years of jail and house-arrest where she received a very warm welcome from her supporters. On this occasion, she spoke to the media and said, “Pakistan is my homeland. I will live and die there. I have come to Britain to seek medical treatment. In Zia’s martial law, I stayed in confinement for five years and now I am breathing freely in a free country. After consultation with party leaders here, I will decide on the future course of action. Pakistan People’s Party does not belong to any single individual but it belongs to the people of Pakistan. I will return to Pakistan as soon as my treatment ends.” After the surgery of her ear, she increased the intensity of her struggle against the Zia regime in London.
Only a few days after arriving in London, I received a call from Sanam Bhutto that Benazir Bhutto was looking for me. She wanted to ask me if I wanted to work with her as her spokesperson. I was humbled by this proposal and accepted. I responded that I would try my best to do justice to this position. It was her guidance that taught me a lot and gave me a fulfilling mission in life.
The international media gave a voice to her struggle for democracy on the world stage. A newspaper from Denmark introduced Shaheed Benazir Bhutto in these words, “Who knew that a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, tall, slender and sophisticated ‘Princess of the East’, would become a symbol of unity for the people of Pakistan.”
Whenever she spoke about her struggles against the oppression of the military regime, there were never tears in her eyes and she never wallowed in self-pity. When she would talk about her time in the jail, she always remembered her party workers awaiting punishment in the Pakistani jails. She never forgot the need to fight for her people, staying true to the legacy of her father, Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. She said that we have to end this autocracy and if this can be achieved by her going to jail then she would do it again and again. She raised her voice for a democratic Pakistan on multiple forums internationally and helped to establish a strong base for PPP around the globe.
In 1986, she rendered everyone speechless when during a television interview she said that despite the oppressive tactics of General Zia, she would not resort to politics of revenge. The TV anchor repeated his question and asked that despite the fact that Zia hanged her father and kept her in jail, she will not take revenge? She replied she did not believe in revenge and this was the difference between Zia and her. This interview was seen by hundreds and thousands of people. When the next morning we went out for breakfast, she was received by a crowd of people who highly appreciated her response from the interview by applauding upon her arrival.
On April 10, 1986, when Benazir Bhutto landed in Lahore, she asked me to exit first and see the situation regarding the police’s behaviour. The area was surrounded by the police and along with some other party leaders, I became a part of the historic welcome procession that reached Minar-e-Pakistan for a jalsa. In the general elections of 1988, PPP’s victory was a watershed moment when democracy won against terror and oppression. Shaheed Benazir Bhutto became the first woman Prime Minister in the Muslim World–a proud moment for everyone who supported a progressive and democratic Pakistan.
Shaheed Benazir Bhutto had clearly decided that she would not resort to any vengeful acts against the widow of General Zia or his family. She instructed her party workers as well to maintain an attitude of respect towards their rivals. She set a unique example for the future political leaders of our country, staying true to her great political stature, by forgiving her rivals. Her legacy is a lesson that verbal or physical abuse, personally maligning opponents or other modes of vengeance should be discouraged by political leaders. They should remember her conduct and refrain from stooping low to the level of common ruffians.
As I look back, I recall aspects of Benazir Bhutto’s personality that I was fortunate to witness personally. Her generous and empathetic nature was evident from her behaviour with others. She regularly celebrated my birthday until December of 2007, the year she passed away, and now only her memories are left behind. In an international conference in Portugal, she was paid tribute in these words, “Amongst all the stars in the sky, you alone are the shining star.” Only if Shaheed Benazir Bhutto were alive today, the radiance of her generous personality and political brilliance would have lit our country on the world map many years ago.
On this occasion of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto’s birthday, let’s remember this great political leader and her legacy of selflessness, respect, and steadfastness on her ideology for her land where the tree of democracy is flourishing today, nourished with the blood of Bhuttos.