in memoriam: Benazir Bhutto — Aitzaz Ahsan
in memoriam: Benazir Bhutto — Aitzaz Ahsan
Daily Times, January 29, 2008
“The first thing I want to do is to release all political prisoners,” she announced as our meeting on November 30, 1988 began at Dr Zafar Niazi’s house in Islamabad. In the elections held after the death of General Zia-ul Haq, the PPP, despite all efforts of the agencies, had succeeded in the elections. After failing to prop up any rival, then-President Ghulam Ishaq had finally agreed that very day to accept her as prime minister of Pakistan.
The historic meeting of PPP leadership was being held to set top priorities for Bibi’s first government. It was here as prime minister-designate that she showed her mettle. So far her life and emotions had been premised on the bitter fact that her dearest father had been deposed, imprisoned, humiliated, falsely charged, hanged and then buried without due ceremony. But she brought to that meeting only her winning smile and the undiluted optimism of a political idealist.
Zia had left behind a large number of political prisoners and convicts of military courts. Each had been denied due process. Releasing them, she said, was going to be her number one priority.
“What pledge should we make to ourselves?” she asked. “That we must ensure press freedom,” I suggested. “For anything that it may print?” she asked. “Yes, for anything. We must set a precedent,” I said. And she agreed at once, excited that it was a good idea.
Next day I was sworn in as her interior minister. In that capacity, I received countless recommendations to prosecute this or that publication. I turned down each of these even when our government was brutally and deliberately slandered.
Once a cabinet colleague complained to her that I was not prosecuting publications for false propaganda against her husband Asif Zardari. “But Malik Sahib,” she retorted, “we have pledged to allow full freedom to the media. We will have to bear with it.” Then she turned to me and asked: “Is there anything that can be done without the government getting involved?” “Yes,” I replied. “Asif should file a civil suit for damages in his personal capacity.” And so it was that Mr Asif Zardari, husband of a serving prime minister had the grace to file a private civil suit for damages as an ordinary litigant.
That is what she was: at once humane and proper. How can I recount in such a short piece, all aspects of a life lived to such fullness, particularly when I have worked so close to her during her life? Even books will fail to do justice. Presently only a few instances establishing her more prominent qualities must suffice. One was fortitude.
Between 1990 and 1993 there were as many as 18 prosecutions against her and Asif Zardari. Both were also slandered and defamed. I had publicly promised to turn these prosecutions “from the trial of Mohtarma into the trial of Ishaq Khan”. In the end, they were both acquitted in all those cases, with her husband bravely facing adversity and she standing by him like a rock. She had the fortitude to bear the designed torment aimed at her by the notorious regime of Jam Sadiq Ali in Sindh.
Never will I forget that day in 1992 when I entered the outer gate of Landhi Jail to defend Asif in a trial being conducted inside the jail itself. There she was, the former prime minister of Pakistan, carrying two young infants, Bilawal and Bakhtawar, in her arms, and sitting on a pile of bricks. I was furious and immediately went to the Jail Superintendent. But she calmed me down saying that she had learnt not to expect any decency from the jail staff. After all, she herself had remained imprisoned for five years as a young girl.
Through all her trials and tribulations, she demonstrated amazing charm and stamina. When she came to stay with us in Gujrat in December 1986, she arrived at 3 am on that freezing December night having travelled a full 10 hours from Lahore, but she sat up chatting with Bushra for another one hour with Zaynab, our youngest, in her lap. Early in the morning she was up, fresh as a flower, all ready to meet local party officials.
She kept punishing schedules and was the only politician who had toured the entire Pakistan, city by city, town by town, village by village and hamlet by hamlet at least five times. She knew the party workers by face and the towns by the streets.
And through it all she remained a model of womanhood at its most sublime. While being the most hardworking, hands-on, leading politician of the country, she was unabashedly feminine at the same time. In this intolerant and male dominated country, she refused to be uncomfortable about her womanhood. She gave birth to her first child in the middle of 1988 election campaign and another child while she was the first woman prime minister of Muslim Pakistan.
Then there was her courage. She was afraid of nothing. I was on her truck at the time of the blast of October 18. Next morning when I met her she was in her normal routine. I did not know that I was seeing her for the last time. When I sought her leave to return to Lahore for my Supreme Court Bar elections, she said, “It will be a landslide in your favour. Good luck. And thanks for being here.” When I was withdrawing from the parliamentary contest I sent word to her and she consulted me through Senator Safdar Abbasi on my choice for my substitute. She accepted the choice. But I was arrested the day after my election as president SCBA and denied permission even to attend the funeral or soyem of the one who believed in freeing political prisoners and the media, and in politics of non-violence.
As a political leader she could organise and mobilise the biggest political organisation in Pakistan, set the political agenda, make millions of ordinary people dream the greatest dreams for this land and yes, in fair elections, win elections too. She could do all that. But what she could not tackle were certain self-appointed guardians of the state, who refused to allow people the right to solve their problems themselves and who harassed, hounded, threatened and conspired against her. They did not permit her a fair shot at the democratic game because they knew that she would win, not by breaking the Constitution or at gun point but through the sheer will of ordinary people who are supposed to be sovereign. Even on the last day of her life, her foremost concern was not how to win the elections but how to prevent them from being rigged. I wonder if people understand that in this lies a tragedy, not only for Bibi, but for this nation.
Many sincere analysts questioned the integrity of her politics. They did not understand that after facing conspiracy after conspiracy, Bibi was forced to factor painful ground realities in her decision-making, always striving to achieve one day her true political ideals.
This fundamental question may indeed be addressed through another question: Why, during the 30 years from 1977, when an elected and popular prime minister was ousted at gun point to the date when Bibi lost her life to another gun, the total period for which she, the most popular political leader, was allowed to govern the country was three times less than the time that Chaudhry Shujaat’s party remained in power? The real source of this country’s problems may be revealed by the answer. In kowtowing to the civil and military bureaucracy there is a premium. He and his ilk can do it. She could not. They survive. She had to be eliminated.
One cannot help wondering why our establishment that claims to be obsessed with maintaining the federation, could not bring itself to see in Bibi that glorious human chain that kept all four provinces together, and as an asset and an ally instead of a foe.
Above all else I will remember her for three qualities: a constant urge to reach out to her people, a willingness to take on Herculean challenges, and for her ability to forgive, even embrace, her enemies. These three qualities made her superhuman. And all three took her to her tragic, yet heroic death.
All I can now say is: ‘Bibi it is an honour to have worked for you and with you. The Himalayas wept the death of your father. The world weeps for you.’
Aitzaz Ahsan is a former Interior Minister and President of the Supreme Court Bar Association