Remembering SMBB

It is not surprising that the debate about the murder of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto (SMBB), even ten years after its occurrence, is raising such deep emotions. After all, she was one of the most charismatic and popular leaders in Pakistan’s history, who was killed on December 27, 2007, just before a crucial general election in which she was poised to be elected third time prime minister of the country. She had the knowledge, experience and determination to root out extremism and terrorism. Her murder by terrorists and their masterminds was a brutal coup that not only prevented an enlightened, progressive and experienced leader from coming to power but it also deprived the people from her leadership forever.

She had been in constant struggle against the dark forces of obscurantism right from the beginning. Even when she was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan after winning general elections in 1988, in the aftermath of the death of General Zia, she faced conspiracies at the hands of the then top generals who created IJI for trying to block her path to power by distributing money among her opponents ( the case against the retired generals in this regard is still pending in the Supreme Court after long years). The guardians of Jihadist Project of 1980s regarded her as their arch ideological foe because she supported democracy, equality and peaceful coexistence. She had to pay a heavy price for her struggle. She remained behind the bars for many years and was also forced to live in exile for long years.

But it was more than a narrow political struggle between two ideologies in Pakistan. There was a gender dimension and an international aspect to this struggle. The fierce traditional patriarchy reinforced by religious obscurantism couldn’t accept a woman as leader of the country, even when she was elected by popular vote. Ridiculous questions were raised about the capacity of a woman to perform her duties as a national leader. When the remnants of Zia couldn’t stop her from getting elected as the Prime Minister, they hatched conspiracies to overthrow her. It wasn’t just the ISI, led by General Hamid Gul, that choreographed these intrigues against her government, but the Arab monarchies and Wahabi ideologues were equally active for keeping her out of power. For them, the election of a charismatic women politician as national leader in an important Muslim country like Pakistan can give ideas to the people in their own countries. They generously poured money to block her path in elections, but when they realized that she was too popular and strong to be stopped by political intrigues, they decided to physically eliminate her. In 2007, the question of Taliban project was also important. Although General Musharraf was supposed to be an ally of US in its war on terror, practically, Taliban had not only regrouped in their sanctuaries in Pakistan by this time but they were also allowed to start a new round of war in Afghanistan. It was SMBB’s considered opinion that Project Taliban was as harmful for Pakistan as it was for Afghanistan. She believed that instead of becoming a launching pad for Taliban, Pakistan should cooperate with the elected government in Afghanistan for eliminating terrorism.

I knew Benazir Bhutto because we worked together in an alliance of political parties known as People’s Democratic Alliance ( PDA) in 1990s. I met her the last time in Lahore a week before her murder and had a detailed discussion with her on political and security situation in the country and in the region. I had been sent to her by my party’s leadership to exchange notes with her about the emerging political scenarios. I benefited immensely from her political insights and felt assured that finally Pakistan has a leader with a clear vision, who will steer the country out of the quagmire of extremism & terrorism and take it towards a peaceful and democratic future. I vividly remember her words when I stood up to say goodbye to her at the end of our meeting. She said, “Mr. Khattak, isn’t it very sad that we have to still discuss the same problem that we used to discuss many years ago because they stand unresolved?” Little did I know that it would be our last meeting.

There is a lot of hue and cry about General Musharraf’s latest interview in which he has opined that “rogue elements” from within the establishment might have had a role in SMBB’s murder. It’s true that the former army generals, as part of permanent ruling elite, enjoy impunity in disclosing state secrets or distorting the facts. But in this case, the former dictator doesn’t seem to be wide off the mark. Rogue or not so rogue, there have been elements within the security establishment who worked against SMBB, and in fact, against all progressive and democratic forces. The busted Operation Midnight Jackal and formation of IJI are matters on record. The UN inquiry report on BB’s murder has also given broad hints to this effect. Even today, the tail wagging the dog comes to mind when one seriously evaluates the role of Jihadist elements in formation of security and foreign policies of the country, the pious noises of our leaders in contradicting it notwithstanding.

Be that as it may, SMBB was a political leader and some of her decisions would remain questionable in historical evaluation. First and foremost would be her decision to accept power on the condition of the establishment in 1988. It resulted in legitimizing the controlled democracy that is at the core of political crises even today. Similarly, failure in shaping strong constitutional machinery for conducting across the board accountability is another question about her political legacy. But then, she wasn’t alone in all this. All other political parties also decided to support the deficient and corrupt system contrived by General Zia instead of challenging it. Signing the Charter of Democracy ( COD) in 2006 was an effort at correcting the mistake. As experience has shown, it had mixed results. Political parties have to go a long way in reforming themselves before they could reform the state and society. But there is no doubt that SMBB’s struggle will remain a source of inspiration for the coming generations.


The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.

Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs

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