Pakistan: A Continuing Tragedy

Perhaps this was a situation of two people and one coffin again.

Pakistan’s current US-backed dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, did not want to share the space with Benazir Bhutto, and so the latter had to go.

This was certainly the case in 1977, when Brigadier General Zia ul-Haq seized power and removed Benazir’s father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.  Two years later, Zia executed Bhutto as “Washington and London watched from the sidelines.”  The act, wrote Tariq Ali in his magisterial book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, set off a tide of “despotism and lies [that] mutilated a whole generation.”

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a complex man.  He was many things to many people.  A veteran journalist once described him as “someone you can define in countless ways . . . and all of them are true: liberal and authoritarian, fascist and communist, sincere and a liar.”  He founded the Pakistan People’s Party “built by the activists of the only popular mass movement the country has known: students, peasants and workers who fought for three months in 1968-69 to topple the country’s first military dictator.”

He was a rooted aristocrat who studied in Berkeley and then in Oxford and who called himself a “Marxist and . . . a Muslim” though he would be the first to say he was no saint.  And rightly so: he had many faults and he made serious mistakes while he was in power.  But Bhutto’s execution by Zia was “a grave injustice” and it would transform him into a martyr.

Perhaps this is what some who are intent on canonizing Benazir Bhutto are thinking.  Death can cauterize all warts; it can erase creases and wipe the slate clean.  But what is death when the deceased are determined to live beyond their temporal allocation?

Three days after she was shot dead — with a bomb detonated for good measure — “a conclave of feudal potentates gathered in the home of . . . Benazir Bhutto to hear her last will and testament being read out.”  The whole affair, wrote Ali in an article that came out in the Independent (UK) on the last day of 2007, was nothing less than a “disgusting, medieval charade.”

In her will, Benazir transformed the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) into a family heirloom: she passed on the leadership of the PPP to her venal husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who would run the party “till Benazir’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal, comes of age.  He will then become chairperson-for-life and, no doubt, pass it on to his children.”

There was once a very different Benazir, who was welcomed by a million upon her return to Lahore in 1986 “to challenge General Zia ul-Haq.”  And there was a different Bhutto daughter who returned to Karachi airport in October 2007, who wanted so much “to demonstrate her popularity to the world and to her political rivals, including those inside her own fiefdom,” the PPP.  Despite a whole month of frenetic recruiting by the PPP, only 200,000 lined the streets to welcome her.

The PPP drew from its national machinery and it was not surprising that Bhutto’s organization was able to muster such numbers.  But it could do no more, despite the legacy of Benazir’s fight against the executioners of her father, despite her father’s memory, and despite the sheer ugliness of the Musharraf regime, the insurgent judiciary and Pakistani lawyers, and the incendiary anger of Pakistan’s poor.

Perhaps Benazir’s early abandonment of the reforms that she had promised since her first term had something to do with it, along with the standing corruption cases against Bhutto and Zardari in Valencia and London?  Maybe the Geneva magistrate’s conviction of the couple in absentia in 2003, for money laundering and for accepting millions of dollars in bribes from two Swiss companies, had some effect on Bhutto’s mobilizing power?  And maybe popular enthusiasm was irrevocably dampened by the widespread suspicion that the couple were involved in the 1996 murder of Benazir’s brother Murtaza, who had become a strident critic of her rule?

In the end none of it mattered.  To the US, Pakistan was strategic. Benazir could be re-cycled as a “progressive, reform-minded, more cosmopolitan” face of democracy just as Musharraf had been sold as one of America’s most staunch allies in the War on Terror.

But Benazir is no more.

With only one horse to bet on, America is now forced to reach out to others, including ex-Prime Minister and Saudi lapdog Nawaz Sharif, an ex-protégé of the vile Gen. Zia, who “was brought into politics as the clumsy, dirty boot of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)” of Pakistan, the same institution which largely helped create and finance, using billions of dollars generously provided by the US, groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  Some would form the Taliban and some swing out of the orbit of the Afghan jihad to form the Abu Sayyaf, Jema’ah Islamiyah, and other assorted specters currently haunting America.

Renato Redentor Constantino is a writer and painter based in Quezon City.  Constantino is the author of The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire.  He can be reached via  This essay is the second part of a two-part series run in the Business Mirror.

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