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J. Sri Raman: Anniversary of an Assassination

Anniversary of an Assassination

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

"It is impossible for even a rigged election to take place now. It will have to be postponed, and the military high command is no doubt contemplating another dose of army rule if the situation gets worse, which could easily happen."

So wrote Tariq Ali, the British historian of Pakistani origin who has never lost his close interest in his homeland. He was writing in the wake of a terrible tragedy, whose first anniversary a tense Pakistan is witnessing today.

On December 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto met her martyrdom. The explosions, which took place at a mammoth political rally just two weeks before a general election originally scheduled for January 8, 2008, put an end to more than the life of the 54-year-old leader. Tariq Ali's prognosis was shared across a wide political spectrum.

We, in these columns, recalled Benazir's return to Pakistan after years of exile and said that "within two months of her triumphant and tearful landing in her beloved Karachi, the hopes she had raised lay as shattered as the nearly 200 bodies blown to bits in the two blasts" (The Battle after Bhutto, December 28, 2007).

A sobbing Asma Jehangir spoke for many other human rights activists of Pakistan when she said: "The way forward is bloodshed." Strangely similar was the reaction from India's strategic analyst and nuclear hawk, K. Subrahmanyam, never a promoter of peace with the neighbor. He said: "Pakistan will plunge into civil war."

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The international reactions were similar, too, especially those that went beyond formal wording. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, for example, voiced the same concern when she said: "The brutal assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is a tragic setback for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Her courageous return to Pakistan this year gave hope to all those concerned by efforts to extinguish rule of law there."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated: "Benazir Bhutto may have been killed by terrorists, but the terrorists must not be allowed to kill democracy in Pakistan." Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg noted that "she was in the middle of the process when she was killed. Her death is a terrible blow on this process." Italy's Foreign Affairs Minister Massimo D'Alema condemned the "act of violence which, in striking at Pakistan just days before elections, places serious question marks against the complex and difficult path towards democracy."

The first thing that needs to be placed on record on this sad anniversary, perhaps, is that the people of Pakistan went on to prove this pessimism exaggerated in relation to the election. The Pervez Musharraf regime could put off the event, but could not halt the country's history.

As Pakistani scientist and peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy, a critic of Benazir's political record on many counts, commented perceptively: "Ms. Bhutto makes an excellent martyr. In her death, she will doubtlessly play a more positive role than when alive." She did, and the assassination assured a democratic advance.

Not only was the Musharraf regime forced to conduct the endangered election, but to accept the results as well. Speculation about a rigged election sounded ridiculous in retrospect, as the voters rejected the Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide-e-Azam) and the religious parties, while putting Benazir's Pakistan's People's Party in power with Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) as the second-largest bloc in the parliament.

The people may have won the first round, but the election results and the establishment of a representative, civilian government did not constitute their final victory. Across a wide political spectrum, again, we can espy no differences among the enemies of democracy in Pakistan - an army used to socio-political dominance and the terrorists or militants with whom sections of it have strong ties.

Tariq Ali, talking of the possibility of extended military rule, wrote: "Benazir had survived the bomb blast yesterday but was felled by bullets fired at her car. The assassins, mindful of their failure in Karachi a month ago, had taken out a double insurance this time." This referred to the explosions that disrupted a PPP procession to a rally in Karachi. She was reported to attribute the attack to "certain individuals within the government who abuse their positions to advance the cause of militants."

Hoodbhoy recalled: "In foreign policy, she played footsie with the army. It could do whatever it liked, including making nuclear weapons, sending Islamic militants into Kashmir, and organizing the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. In 2002 she regretted having signed the document authorizing funds for [...] Taliban forces for seizing Kandahar."

Asma said: "Everyone is saying that this army has killed Benazir. There is going to be more bloodshed. Will the world now finally wake up?"

With a smirk, perhaps, instead of a sob, Subrahmanyam said: "The assassination capped the Pakistani military's long appeasement of Islamist forces to use them in their proxy war against India. They have been compromising with the jehadis. The jehadis have now turned against Pakistan."

Sections in India's establishment had run their own election campaign against Benazir. Not long before her assassination, India's National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan told a television channel that Benazir's "track record is not necessarily something that would make us believe that she will follow to the letter and the spirit what she has said," obviously about mending ties with India. He also expressed doubt whether she would have a "free hand in doing all the things that she wishes to do."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not admonish his adviser for such uncalled-for, utterly undiplomatic observations. After the assassination, however, Singh said: "The manner of her going is a reminder of the common dangers that our region faces from cowardly acts of terrorism and of the need to eradicate this dangerous threat." That does not appear to the spirit of the post-Mumbai shift in the Singh government's Pakistan policy.

The new high in the India-Pakistan hostility can only help the twin forces determined to destabilize Pakistan's democracy. Particularly noteworthy, in this context, are reports about the militants' offer of a cease-fire and support to the army in the event of Mumbai leading to a war between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Meanwhile, it merits notice that investigations into the assassination are still woefully inadequate. There was virtually no taker for the Musharraf regime's version on the morrow of the tragedy that "Bhutto was killed when she tried to duck back into the vehicle, and the shock waves from the blast knocked her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull." widely viewed as a despicable attempt to deny her martyrdom (though not the attempt on her life), the "accident" theory only made the tragedy appear to more and more people as a military-militant crime.

While official inquiries into the tragedy lacked credibility, assistance from abroad has not carried the matter further, either. The Scotland Yard team which landed in Pakistan on January 4, 2008, could not demonstrate its investigative skills, with much evidence destroyed by the Pakistani police hosing down the crime scene within 90 minutes of the event.

The present government has pressed for investigations by the United Nations into the crime. The move is not expected to make much progress, particularly in the current context.

The Geo TV of Pakistan has promised "stunning revelations" on the assassination ahead of the anniversary. Until the moment of this writing, however, the revelations remain to be made. Considering the post-Mumbai jingoism aired by the media in India and Pakistan, the promise of such fare can only cause concern for the peace movements in both the countries. Sensationalism in this case can serve to strengthen the identified enemies of democracy.

Voices are being raised in the media in both countries, of course, warning against the danger. Illustrative is a piece of sane counsel from Ayaz Amir, a veteran journalist and now a member of Pakistan's parliament. In an article captioned "India is not the enemy, militancy is," Amir recounts such glorious deeds of the militants as burning down girls' schools and writes: "The eastern frontier (with India) must become a frontier of peace if we are to devote what energies we have to the threat from within. Which doesn't mean we lower our guard, only that we give up on meaningless warmongering. It is time to bury the notion, so beloved of the Nazria-e-Pakistan (idea of Pakistan) school of thought, that India is our eternal enemy. It isn't. India is not torching our schools. It is not proscribing female education. Someone else is."

Amir does not deny the fiercely inimical noises emanating from within India in post-Mumbai days, but points out: "Pakistan's response to combined American and Indian pressure in 2008 has been a whole lot more steady and sensible than Gen Musharraf's response to American pressure in 2001. Which serves to underline the distinction that the most fumbling democracy is preferable to any kind of military dictatorship." Particularly to the kind of military rule, one might add, that is so closely linked to the militancy it claims to be combating.

The anniversary of Benazir's assassination can best be observed by a renewed resolve to defeat the enemies of democracy in Pakistan and elsewhere.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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