Reviews

Remembering Benazir

BENAZIR BHUTTO — A MultidimensionalPortrait: Anna Suvorova; Oxford University Press, No. 38, Sector 15, Korangi Industrial Area, PO Box 8214, Karachi-74900.  

Benazir Bhutto would have been 62 today, which remains a ripe young age for a national leader. Her life symbolised how public life has never been easy for women. It is often thrust upon them for being wife, daughter and sister of some charismatic leader whose career is cut short by some tragic circumstances and whose legacies must be protected and maintained. Benazir was pulled into politics by the same filial feeling: first to save her father from execution; then to avenge him; and finally to save his Pakistan Peoples Party as both her brothers made a quick exit from Pakistan.

Benazir was not just the first prime minister of a Muslim country but the youngest woman to be ever elected to that office. She gave birth to her three children while campaigning against military dictators, holding the prime minister’s office, escaping multiple attempts on her life. Benazir’s assassination at the age of 54 was to immortalise the Bhutto cult and her story was to inspire several women leaders in Muslim countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey and beyond.

Anna Suvorova — Professor of Indo-Islamic Culture at Moscow’s famous Institute of Oriental Studies and author of several celebrated books on Urdu literature — sees her work on Benazir as painting an anthropological multidimensional portrait. She locates herself at the intersections of but remains uniquely distinct from works in history, politics and myth-making by scores of Pakistani and western authors. Her extensive research brings out unexpected aspects of Benazir’s behaviour and motives. Especially, her myth-busting style is intoxicating and immerses the reader till its very last lines.

Straddling two worlds

Benazir is presented as essentially rooted in the feudal traditions of Sindh. While educated at Harvard and Oxford, Benazir romantically recalled her forefathers’ tribal customs of ‘honour killing’ where a man could rightfully kill a woman to avoid shame. She evolved herself to be at home in both worlds presenting herself as a progressive Muslim. In spite of being brought up like a Shahzadi (princess) who was not expected to even pour her own cup of tea, at Oxford, Benazir drove herself around, bought her groceries and cleaned her dormitory. But the author also sees Benazir being nostalgic and twisting facts. Benazir writes in her autobiography Daughter of the East, “For my generation in Pakistan, the differences between the sects of Islam seemed insignificant.” But it is well known that while in power, her father had declared Ahmadiyya as non-Muslim, banned drinking and moved closer to Sunni nations. Benazir also recalls how in 1972 in Simla her father would sleep on the floor saying that Pakistani POWs had nothing to sleep. The author shows how Zulfikar’s passion for French cologne, antique furniture, and expensive clothing makes it difficult to believe Benazir’s story of his asceticism.

Similarly, Benazir had openly condemned the Afghan mujahideen as America’s Frankenstein monster. She connected the start of the “age of terrorism” with the second term (1997-1999) of Nawaz Sharif. She claims that bin Laden had offered ten million dollars to dethrone her. However, Christine Fair, in her Fighting to the End (2014:128) shows how Benazir’s interior minister, General Babar was the conduit for “providing logistical and other support to Taliban.”

Scholars like Tariq Ali ( The Duel, 2008: 179) or T V Paul ( The Warrior State, 2014:120) also show her government supporting Taliban, thus bringing to life Huntington’s morbid prophecies though she maintained that Huntington never understood the essence of Islam. Benazir talks of her election as President of the Oxford Union upsetting the “old boys’ club” which seems exaggerated as she was not the first woman to be elected to that office.

Familiar arrogance

The book brings out Bhutto’s family trait of overconfidence edging on arrogance. Benazir describes General Zia ul-Haq as a ‘short, nervous, ineffectual-looking man’ who ‘looked more like an English cartoon villain than an inspiring military leader.’ On July 5 1977, this ‘monkey general’ led a coup ending Zulfikar’s rule forever. Zia later sowed the seeds of Islamisation that were to germinate radical Islam of Taliban and Al Qaeda brands.

Unlike her brothers, Benazir stayed in Pakistan to carry on her peaceful struggle. Her brothers Mir Murtaza and Shah Nawaz moved abroad and launched a militant group, Al-Zulfikar (Sword of Allah), that was responsible for a plane hijack. General Zia declared Al-Zulfikar as military wing of PPP and imprisoned thousands of PPP cadres accusing their leadership of terrorism. Benazir found herself in a torrid cell buzzing with insects and with nothing but a hammock and a hole in the stone floor.

Nevertheless, on December 2 1988, less than ten-weeks after her son Bilawal was born, 35-year-old Benazir took oath as Pakistan 11th Prime Minister. Benazir made democracy and peace as her tools for avenging her incarceration and her father’s execution. India had young Rajiv Gandhi with equally ambitious peace and progress agenda. Benazir met Rajiv during 29-31 December Fourth Summit of the SAARC in Islamabad and signed their historic agreement on not attacking each other’s nuclear installations.

As legendary princess

Ending her incisive analysis, the author resurrects the legendary princess in the end. Now her prose edges on an ode, if not eulogy, to her ‘tragic heroine’ for whom she confesses her admiration: A huge white marble mausoleum stands among the red scorched fields and clay huts of the village of Garhi Khuda Baksh in Sindh. It resembles a mirage woven by the hot air of the Thar desert. Inside lie the members of Pakistan’s most famous family: the father, the mother, and three children. Among them, only Nusrat died a natural death. It is not easy to get to this site. Tough terrain is accompanied by vigil of Pakistani state and yet thousands of inhabitants from neighbouring villages regularly come here leaving flowers and sweetmeats usually brought to revered Saints.

The book leaves an impression of Benazir as a ‘victim’. Even her mother prefers to side with her son Mir Murtaza and not just supports his entry into politics but upon his arrest on return makes scathing attack on Benazir: “She tells lots of lies … this daughter of mine… She talks of democracy, but she’s become little dictator.” It must have been disheartening.

Well-known author, journalist and close friend of Benazir, Victoria Schofield, most aptly describes the book, in the foreword, as “insightful and moving account” which is what makes it so worthy of reading.

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