Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was only 24 when she had returned to Pakistan in June of 1977 after completing her studies at Harvard and Oxford, possibly with her sights on a career as diplomat. But just two weeks after her return, history took a wild turn when her father – Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – was ousted as prime minister, imprisoned in a military coup by General Zia and martial law declared. General Zia, capitalizing on public protests of the disputed parliamentary elections, found it an opportune moment to grab the power, which he did in the early hours of 5th of July 1977. As it is established as a fact already, he later conspired to execute him by framing him in a false conspiracy-to-murder charge. For Saheed Mohtarma, this was the greatest trauma beyond her imaginations. Nonetheless, brave & bold as she was, she tried to stay composed and took over the reigns of her father’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) along with her mother - Begum Nusrat Bhutto. In the meanwhile, she also struggled to gather supports from her party loyalists and other political forces in the country to force Zia to drop fallacious murder charges against her father and call elections as promised. As a result, she then had to spend eighteen months of her bashful youth in and out of house arrest and political captivity. However, all these years she stayed peaceful and never resorted to violence of any sort; in fact on several occasions violence was done upon her and her mother, instead.
Two years later on 04 April 1979 her beloved father - a great leader of the Pakistani people - was executed in what is now called a well-conspired judicial murder. This was a defining moment in Mohtarma’s life as she suddenly found herself in the mantle of her great father. And, as she later wrote in her memoir Daughter of the East, “I told him on my oath in his death cell, I would carry on his work.” She also wrote in the same book, “I didn’t choose this life; it chose me.”
Fast forward, Shaheed Mohtarma intensified her denunciations and began to mobilize her party loyalists for a political movement against General Zia. After repeated stints of house arrest, she was finally imprisoned under solitary confinement in a desert cell of Sukkur during the summer of 1981. Shaheed Mohtarma in her memoir “Daughter of the East” has narrated her days and nights in that infamous Sukkur jail and I quote, “The summer heat turned my cell into an oven. My skin split and peeled, coming off my hands in sheets. Boils erupted on my face. My hair, which had always been thick, began to come out by the handful. Insects crept into the cell like the invading armies. I tried pulling the sheet over my head at night to hide from their bites, pushing it back when it got too hot to breathe.” This was the cruel treatment meted out by a brute dictator to a young woman who was only out there on a peaceful struggle to restore democracy in the country. These pains from the jail term were nothing as compared to what was in store for her later. The greatest ones came from her shaheed father’s old associates – the so-called uncles. The sight of seeing most of them turning away from her and in fact joining hands with her father’s enemies, at the time when she needed them most, was extremely painful thing to endure. However despites all odds stacked against her, she stood peaceful at this juncture too.
Fast-forward once more, and the year is 1986. Shaheed Mohtarma made a triumphant return on 10 April 1986 in Lahore and began her peaceful movement challenging the military rule to restore democracy. Finally, Zia died on 18 Aug 1988 in a mysterious air crash. But during more than eleven years of his autocratic rule, he did all in his capacity to destroy both Benazir and her party. However, salute to her and her loyalists in the party that Zia left without accomplishing his dream-project of PPP-demolition. Then came the post-Zia 1988 elections. Mohtarma’s PPP was pitted against the Zia-protégés who had ganged up against her and were engaged in all sorts of malicious mud slinging campaigns against her person never seen in Pakistan before. Nevertheless, she remained focused and peaceful at this difficult time as well. Although her party had won the elections by securing the majority seats in the parliament, president Ghulam Ishaq Khan – representing the military establishment – tried to provoke her by delaying hand over of power to her. At that time too she demonstrated great leadership and kept the party cadre entirely peaceful. She was finally sworn in as the youngest and the first Muslim woman prime minister at the age of 35 on 02 Dec 1988. During her short stint as a prime minister (02 Dec-88 thru 06 Aug-90) she was made to do lot of compromise s with the military that included retaining some of their choice-ministers to key cabinet posts. However, despite all these bitter memories from the excesses meted out to her and her family in the past, she never went for witch-hunting against any one. On 06 Aug 1990, her government was dismissed on trumped up charges of corruption that saw arrest of her husband Asif Ali Zardari also. This was the beginning of yet another phase of a difficult time in her life but she remained peaceful.
Even so, she continued the fight and PPP returned to power with her as the prime minister for the second time on 19 Oct 1993. This time too the conspirators continued their handy work against her and she was dismissed for the second time on 05 Nov 1996. Benazir was heart-broken as this time it was her own appointed president Farooq Laghari – a party leader groomed by her shaheed father – who reportedly worked with the military to stab her in the back. The awful part was that it had followed the gruesome murder of her brother Murtaza Bhutto in Karachi, which was also believed to be a handy work of some hidden forces. These two successive tragic events had broken her back and she was in severe depression from them for days together. The painful backstabbing from her party-man Farooq Laghari did not end there. As revealed by Mohtarma in her interview with Karan Thapar (CNN program Devil’s Advocate) Farooq Laghari, at the behest of some from the military, had instituted false corruption cases against her and her husband. It is also said that the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his henchman Saif Ur Rehman were in complicity with the same. The fact of the matter is that she suffered a lot from these cases. With her husband in jail, a sick mother and small children to look after, relentless witch-hunt & harassment from the establishment had made life rather very difficult for her. And with continued persecution, she was left with no choice but to go into self-exile in 1999. She has described her days and nights in exile in Dubai-London as the most difficult time in her life. Nevertheless, she stayed peaceful all these years and despite all odds stacked against her, she continued, in utter disbelief for many, to effectively govern her party from outside. Besides that, she also continued to fight corruption charges and travel to world capitals promoting her vision of democracy and pluralism in Pakistan. All of these continued to frustrate her enemies and opponents especially General Musharraf and his cronies. Then came her role as a reconciliatory leader. With utter surprise & chagrin for many, she sat down with her erstwhile adversary – Nawaz Sharif – to work on a “Charter of Democracy” and sign the same in London on 15 May 2006 with a pledge to set aside their differences and work for restoration of civilian rule in Pakistan. Not only that, she also kept reconciliation doors open for Musharraf with larger national interest in mind. Mohtarma was able to convince Musharraf to commit to a road map of peace and broader national reconciliation. By sitting down first with her arch adversary Nawaz Sharif and later with her sworn enemy Musharraf, Mohtarma was aptly able to demonstrate to all that she was indeed a woman of peace and reconciliation. In her last memoir, “Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West", she has talked at length about the need for reconciliation between Islam and the West. She has suggested creation of a Reconciliation Corps (modeled on the Peace Corps) to restore communication, trust, and dialogue between the Muslim world and the West. She said this proposed Reconciliation Corps would be made up of Muslims from western societies who have been economically, socially, and politically integrated into the life of their host countries while maintaining their Islamic character, culture, and religion. She also added, these Muslim youths could build bridges with their countries of origin.
Finally, in the closing lines of her book per se, she has opined and I quote, “ It is time for new ideas. It is time for creativity. It is time for bold commitment. And, it is time for honesty, both among people and between people. This is what I have tried to do in these pages. There has been enough pain. It is time for reconciliation.”
By Faiz Al-Najdi The author is a Riyadh-based Columnist. Email: email@example.com