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Remembering Benazir Bhutto

I was in China when I heard of Benazir Bhutto’s death. I had come back late at night to my hotel, switched on television while getting ready for bed, and been jolted into wide awakeness by the awful news. I was with an English friend from University who also remembered her well, who had in a sense been responsible for her election as President of the Union, over the candidate I had favoured. It was not easy, when we met the next morning at breakfast, to register that we would not see her again, that enormously vibrant personality who had meant so much to all those she met, who was cut down when at last her promise seemed about to be fulfilled.

I wrote about her at length when I got back to Sri Lanka, and I was to think about her constantly over the year, when her party did so well in the election, when President Musharraf resigned and her husband took over, and now when the tragic events in Mumbai remind one again of the horrors that the sub-continent has undergone, springing from that initial fatal step of partition on sectarian lines. The cancer of Kashmir has been a consequence of that, but also the corrosive spillover of bitterness amongst a few Muslims in India, the even sadder need in Pakistan to ensure conformity to a particular Islamic identity, when that was not what Jinnha had intended at all, when he started on the long journey that culminated in the bloodbath of 1947.

Benazir Bhutto

Akbar, the poet who first dreamed of Pakistan, had wanted something else, had wanted what he described as a South Asian Islamic identity, which he was as distinct from an Arab one.

That was a concept I heard echoed when I was in Iran earlier this year, an immensely articulate diplomat enunciating the distinction between his civilisation and that of the Arabs. This, having experienced just the surface, but what a surface, the art of Delhi and Lahore and Istanbul and now Isfahan, was a concept I quite understood.

It was not that one or the other was superior, it was just that they were all different, and each had built, along with a commitment to their Islamic religious inspiration, a cultural heritage that was distinct, that took what was best from their pre-Islamic past too, and that was also prepared to use the input of other cultures and develop their own distinctive version that belonged to their nations as a whole.

This was what the speakers at the Indo-Lankan seminar had also stressed, in particular Sudarshan Seneviratne, in noting how the Sinhalese, not turning their backs on what was admirable in other cultures, had kept their own evolving, developing Buddhist architecture that changed over the centuries, absorbing what was admirable in the various Hindu civilisations that impinged upon it.

I was reminded then of what I had first thought of in Hangzhou when I heard of Benazir’s death, my first memory of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Foreign Minister of General Ayub Khan, known initially for this links with China.

He was an immensely cosmopolitan man, and this was what we thought of him in the years in which he was in power and we interacted with Benazir in Oxford, the sophistication and intelligence.

We knew of course that relations had not been good with India in the sixties, and had worsened after the fiasco of the West Pakistan response to the 1970 election, which had led to the creation of Bangladesh after Indian intervention. But that was all past and, with Benazir in Oxford, knowing that she had previously been at Harvard, I did not understand what had taken place in Pakistan in the seventies.

China of course was going through its own turmoil then, before the prosperous stability that Deng Zhao Peng’s reforms ushered in. Angry with the West, which he felt had let him down over the creation of Bangladesh, Bhutto had turned to the Arab countries, especially after the OPEC revolution of 1974 cemented their enormous financial power. In the process, he had introduced into Pakistan legislation that Jinnah would not have thought essential when he accomplished his dream.

But Jinnah had died, and Liaqat Ali Khan had been assassinated, and democracy had not really taken root in Pakistan. Bhutto himself may have thought he could control the forces he was prepared to unleash, but in 1977 he too fell victim to the political culture, or lack of it, that those unfortunate initial deaths in the forties had engendered.

And General Zia, much more devoted to his religion, less sensitive to cultural pluralism, finding himself initially without much international support, found himself blessed by the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and the characteristically myopic American response to it.

Traumatized by their recent experience in Iran, America put all its eggs it seems into the Taliban basket, whether propelled into this by General Zia or otherwise.

The rest is history, or perhaps film as well, as exemplified in ‘Charley Brown’s War’. Though Zia died, and democracy came back, it could not take root. Benazir found herself constrained in her first term, loomed over not only by the President (who sacked her unceremoniously soon enough) but also by Zia’s Foreign Minister who was not willing to allow the rapprochement with India that she seemed to crave. When she came back for her second term, she was not as idealistic as she had been before, and gave more attention to securing her position than the reforms the country needed.

After she was unceremoniously sacked again, this time by Leghari, the President she herself had put in place, Nawaz Sharif engaged in his own methods of securing his position, which led to yet another military coup.

I am not sure how history will judge Gen Musharraf. I believe he had a very difficult task, not made easier by the entrenchment of those forces that Gen Zia had fostered, which the Americans had empowered so indiscriminately. I believe that he did a better job than he is now given credit for, but a few blunders last year brought him more unpopularity than perhaps he deserved. What was unquestionable was that he needed to share power at least, and I believe he was getting ready for that. Despite the various ups and downs in the relationship, I believe that, with Benazir Bhutto as an elected Prime Minister, himself reduced to a figurehead President, albeit with a strong advisory role, Pakistan might have struck the balance it so sorely needs.

That was not to be. The forces that eliminated Benazir knew that she was the best hope for the inclusive stability that has eluded Pakistan for so long. She had charisma, she had determination and, with Gen Musharraf supporting her, she might have been able to move into the type of relationship with India that she had hoped for earlier, and which the subcontinent needs so desperately. Her husband, I think, would like to play that role, but he is on his own, and may not be able to assert himself. Sadly there are forces in Pakistan that distrust India completely and, though they may have reasons for their beliefs, unless they overcome them and start working towards building up trust and respect, even if both countries suffer, it will be Pakistan that suffers more.

Can Sri Lanka help? Given our present problems, we are not in a position to influence anyone, but if we overcome them we should perhaps think of contributing to the region in the way that Mrs. Bandaranaike did, at the height of our prestige. She was able to command the respect and the goodwill of all Asian powers, and even now we are unique in enjoying excellent relations with India and Pakistan, with China and Iran. Whatever questions these countries may have about their own ties, clearly in a globalized world it makes sense to cooperate as much as is possible, and to avoid any attempts to create corrosive suspicions.

Benazir, given her Iranian connections, given her father’s historic ties to China, given her own perception of the need for working together with India, would have been able to develop a pan-Asian perspective. It would be good if Sri Lanka, in its traditional non-aligned role, could do something to promote that vision.

It would certainly help the world at large, because though there are still some people in some countries who see life as a zero sum game and abhor stability elsewhere, all intelligent governments must surely see that, in the context of current threats to stability, regional cooperation must be as important as a more principled and effective world order.


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