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February - March 2008

Political News

Inside Pakistan: Benazir Bhutto - Shaper of Pakistan's Democratic Future Falls to an Assassin's Fatal Gun Shot

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

I met Benazir Bhutto for the first time in 1983 in London, when she was still a baby in politics and nobody could imagine that she would ever be allowed by the Military Dictatorship to take her place sometime in the future as the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Within the next 5 years Benazir Bhutto shot her way through one of the rare democratic processes that became unavoidable in Pakistan following a political vacuum that was created by the death of General Zia ul Huq in a flying accident. As she assumed power as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, she went into the record books as the first woman in a Muslim country to have achieved that distinction. Once again, nobody could imagine this could ever happen in Pakistan. She was a woman capable of producing many surprises.

I met her at a security seminar in London where I had introduced myself as a retired Indian diplomat who had taken up residence in the UK. She was then perhaps only 29 years old. Even at that tender age, the former President of the Oxford Union, never found wanting in words to articulate her thoughts. Her eloquence was breath-taking. No less was her ambition to reach out to the top exhibiting her guts, her charm and her charisma shining forth in her personality in full measure. Tall and slim and of very fair complexion, she had a delicate personality and was strikingly beautiful. She had the makings of a resolute mass leader.

The stamp of her upper class upbringing was there for anybody to see. Although a product of Oxford and Harvard, she maintained at least a bit of the sing-song-lilt of the sub-continental accent. It was a pleasure to hear her speak in English particularly in the ambience of the drawing room. But her Urdu – so far back in the eighties - was below par. I would always insist on her that she must brush up her Urdu – a beautiful language in its own right - if she aspired to be a mass leader in Pakistan. When I told her that I was an alumni of the Osmania University in Hyderabad, the centre of Urdu learning in the sub-continent, she carefully articulated in her inimitable style " Uncle, I am trying ".

Her patriotism for Pakistan and love and affection for her people flowed from the bottom of her heart. She would not accept any criticism of her country. Once I raised the issue with her of a nuclear deterrence that India needed to build vis a vis China, she went ballistic and said that it was equally important for Pakistan to build a nuclear deterrence against India. What is more, she wanted an efficient delivery system to make the deterrence effective and meaningful. She was thinking of Pakistan developing its missile technology too. I was taken aback by the strength of her convictions. After she became Prime Minister, Benazir paid a visit to Pyongyang, North Korea and set in motion Pakistan-North Korea co-operation in a two-way exchange of technologies – nuclear from Pakistan to North Korea and Missile technology from North Korea to Pakistan.

The one thing that she hated most passionately was the military dictatorship in Pakistan. She never failed to talk about General Zia ul Huq who had hanged her father in 1979 nor would she ever fail to repeat that the General murdered her father " Shaheed Zulfiquar Al Bhutto " in political vendetta on false and trumped up charges. She was filled with unmitigated hatred of the military dictator. I asked her if she ever thought of taking her revenge against the "murderer" of her father. She was categorical : Yes I would, when the time came. What kind of revenge ? She said that she was an ardent believer in democratic values and keeping that in mind she would endeavour to build a democratic movement with a view to remove him from power. If she succeeded in this campaign, she would send him to jail to suffer rigorous imprisonment for life.

I raised the issue of dynastic politics of the sub-continent. I asked her that just as the Nehru-Gandhi family thought that the Indian National Congress was their private fiefdom, did she feel it the same way about the Bhutto family in regard to the Pakistan Peoples Party. Her reply: " You are forgetting that Shaheed Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto created the PPP, it was the product of his hard work, while to be frank the Congress was not founded by the Nehru-Gandhi family, they have only used it for a good cause. That is where the difference lies. "

I queried her if the PPP, although it had carved a place for itself on the national scene and catapulted her father to national leadership, should not look into the mirror and ask if it was not essentially a Sindh-based political party? In other words the PPP is a regional party. Her reply was that every political party must have its own "vote bank". These vote banks are the survival kits of political parties.

I argued with her that, the Jiye Sindh Mahaz ( JSM ) founded by the indefatigable G.M.Syed who had the guts to declare that he would not settle for anything less than a separate homeland for the Sindhis for which he was jailed for life, should be a good partner for the PPP. If she had agreed to embrace them, I told her, it could broaden the appeal and the support base of her party in Sindh? She parried my question and revealed that one thing was sure that the cadres of the JSM regarded her late lamented father ZA Bhutto as the shining beacon of Sindh. What about you ? I asked her.

" They regard me with equal affection and accept me as the leader of the Sindhi people as much as a national leader". So is Sindh your vote bank or is it the symbol of your identity politics? Reply : Sindh is our vote bank, the country is our constituency. .

I asked Benazir: Were the JSM cadres as much angry with General Zia ul Huq for hanging Shaheed Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto as she was. She agreed with a vigorous nod of her head. Are they itching for revenge too? Yes. Very much so. What kind of revenge? She told me: Why don’t you ask them? I continued: What can they do against the mighty Pakistan Army. Her Reply: "I don’t know, I don’t want to know ". I hope they are not thinking of an outrage say for example a terrorist action. Benazir: "I have no idea. I would only like to see Zia punished for the heinous crime he committed against my father". She did not like me to pursue this point any further. I felt she was closely watching what the JSM guys were up to and felt nervous of their intentions. I left it at that.

A few years later in 1986 General Zia ul Huq, under mysterious circumstances, died in a plane crash aboard a PAF flight, which had taken off from Kharian Cantonment heading for Rawalpindi. Who killed Zia ul Huq? The puzzle has not been solved, perhaps never will be. At least it is not in public knowledge.

Those who were grieving and were aggrieved at what General Zia ul Huq had done to Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto for sending him to the gallows must have felt that retribution was done to the General for the horrible crime he had committed. It would be naïve to think that Pakistan’s ISI, like any other intelligence organisation in the wide world, did not weave conspiracy theories pointing its fingers of suspicion at likely or even unlikely candidates. Pakistan is a society where it is common to see "blood revenge, counter-revenge, revenge again" cycles playing themselves out in murders cases.

After Benazir’s assassination dark conspiracy theories were again doing the rounds. Asif Ali Zardari blamed elements in the Government for having perpetrated the crime of killing his wife Benazir. Is there any connection between the death of General Zia ul Huq and the assassination of Mohterma Benazir Bhutto ?

The sequence of events before and after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on 27th December 2007 in Pakistan is something that the world must remember, before they are forgotten in the din of charges and counter charges.

It is a tearful story of great importance. It was just after 5 pm on that fateful day 27 December 2007. As Benazir completed her address at the election rally held in the historic Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi, she stepped down from the podium. She seemed to be gratified that the attendance was to her expectations. Everybody who heard her speak either on the ground in Liaquat Bagh or on the TV channels noted, what turned out to be her life’s last mass rally, that it was an extraordinarily powerful speech filled with passion and election rhetoric. The speech was well received by the adoring masses all across Pakistan. Very happy with herself, she was seen waiving to her supporters with much gusto. There was nothing unusual when the door of the car was closed after she got in and her cavalcade started moving. The car carrying the leader had moved only a few feet when an unusual thing happened. A small crowd of people surrounding the car started shouting a very unusual slogan. It was " Jiye Benazir " or Long Live Benazir. The Sindhi-sounding slogan was out of sync with the linguistic ambience of Rawalpindi. She was in the Punjab in Liaquat Bagh, the ground where Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951. The Punjabi way of sloganising is " Benazir Zindabad " meaning the same Long Live Benazir. Miss Bhutto got curious as to Who were raising the Sindhi style slogan of Jiye Benazir in the Punjab. There was nothing wrong with a mass leader like her in an election mode to stand up sticking her head out of the sun-roof to check out who were shouting the Sindhi slogans in the Punjab. It turned to be a well organised set up for murder. Within seconds she received two hits presumably from a laser gun, which blew the crown of her head off and bore a hole in the neck. It was a devastating hit. There was no bullet used because it was supposedly a ray gun and the shots almost instantly killed her. She arrived dead at the Rawalpindi General Hospital. Local newspapers in Rawalpindi reported that the doctors attending her at the hospital were surprised that they did not find bullets in her body that was mortally wounded. The definitive assumption was that a laser gun was used to kill her. Such laser guns are not yet in the possession of the al Qaeda. They are in use by the military only. Two things happened in quick succession after the bullet-less gun shots. A man in sun glasses as shown on the TV Channels fired a shot at her but she had already received the hits before and had slouched back into her seat bleeding profusely. Apparently the bullet fired by the man in sunglasses missed her. A bomb blast near her car went off soon afterwards, killing the shooter in dark glasses instantly as also the man holding the laser gun. The well-organised assassination bid had all the ingredients of a dark conspiracy.

It was significant that after Benazir’s death, President Musharraf could not find time nor had the courtesy to send a condolence message and flowers in sympathy to the family of the departed leader. It was a pathetic omission indeed. Or are we to read in this peculiar behaviour the suggestion of a connection to a past grievance or a revenge. What stood out was the courtesy shown by General Ashfaq Kiyani, the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan Army, who sent flowers to husband Asif Ali Zardari and son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and other members of the family with a sympathy card. Kiyani had worked with Benazir as her military aide when she was second time Prime Minister of Pakistan. His gesture was widely appreciated which was befitting a professional soldier.

Mian Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) also paid a visit to Larkana to personally express sympathy with the members of Ms Bhutto’s family. Nawaz Sharif’s gesture was a service to democracy in Pakistan. .

The death of Benazir Bhutto can be described as the death of hope in Pakistan. She had grown into a shining beacon of democracy in Pakistan. As she matured in politics she had warmed up to India’s institutions of democracy. That is why India too lost a friend. The Indians mourned her passing as much as the people of Pakistan.

I should under no circumstance fail to mention NDTV Barkha Dutt’s interviews on 27 December 2007 particularly of Asma Jehangir, Chairman of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, while covering the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Asma broke down in tears at the passing of Benazir. She must be a beautiful human being to be able to pour out her grief so openly and so sincerely. Her tears spoke volumes as the voice of the women of Pakistan. In fact women in both Pakistan and India cried together with Asma Jehangir on that fateful day.

The writer is a retired Indian diplomat and the author of " India’s Security Dilemmas Pakistan and Bangladesh"

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