By Bashir Riaz
On the eve of December 27, 2007, the sky, the ground and the hearts of the people of Pakistan bled as the country’s beloved former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was brutally assassinated. She was a part of our family and our homes, and her loss felt personal to every single citizen, regardless of their political affiliations.
Different European countries and American institutions acknowledge Shaheed BB’s contributions towards democracy, rule of law and human rights, and pay tributes to her even after her assassination.
I still remember that during a visit to Denmark in June, 1984, two renowned newspapers wrote detailed articles on Shaheed BB and gave her titles akin to “Princess of the East” and “Iron Lady”. Such is the nature of a leader, who is respected nationally and internationally.
Shaheed BB represented the federation and was the face of unity among the provinces. Not just within Pakistan but also on international forums, she favoured dialogue and believed in conflict resolution through discussions rather than violence. She used to say that we should build bridges and stay positive. There is no doubt that the former prime minister represented the bright side and a positive image of the country.
She highlighted the Kashmir issue on various international forums. In a conference held in Morocco by the OIC, the former prime minister spoke about Kashmir and helped the All Parties Huriyat Conference to become a member organisation. She had a clear stance on the Kashmir conflict.
She believed that the people of Kashmir should have the right to decide their future. In line with the UN resolution on the subject, she suggested a “soft border” between Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Indian-occupied Kashmir to give relief to the Kashmiris. This was to allow the two sides to mingle together, discuss their problems, and eventually reach a consensus on the Kashmir issue. Similarly, she raised her voice on the issue of Palestine and stopped purchases from stores owned by supporters of oppressors of the Palestinians.
Shaheed BB loved her country and never stopped propagating a positive image of the country abroad. During her exile, she continued her struggle for democracy in Pakistan. She delivered lectures in the UK and the USA, where she met their national leaders and told them about the situation of struggle for democracy in Pakistan. These meetings were not publicized because she believed success lies in discretion.
She visited Delhi in 2003, where the then Indian Prime Minister Wajpai consulted her about visiting Pakistan. When I mentioned this in an article, she advised against commenting on a private discussion as it was against diplomatic protocols. Her meetings played a significant role in building a narrative outside Pakistan that during those precarious circumstances when Pakistan was fighting terrorism, it was imperative that the people of Pakistan were onboard. The only way to achieve that was through supporting democracy in the country. As part of these efforts, Shaheed BB had to return to Pakistan, a country where her party had support across the nation.
In 2005, the US assistant secretary visited Dubai for a conference and expressed her wish to meet Shaheed BB. She was later invited to a dinner by Shaheed BB, where they held interesting conversation. She practically told her that the then President Gen Pervez Musharraf is going to rule the country for the next ten years and you would have reached the age of sixty by then. Therefore, you should consider leaving politics and become a chairperson of human rights commission.
Benazir responded: “I have not struggled for so many years only to become some representative of the United Nations. I will return to Pakistan, which is my first and last priority. I will stand by my people who suffered in jails and persevered through a lot of challenges. I will never abandon my people”. Upon hearing this categorical response, the subject was changed and not brought up again.
Shaheed BB was well aware of the potential threat to her life at that time. General Musharraf had refused to provide an adequate security detail to Benazir and was adamant that she should not return to Pakistan. Such measures, or lack thereof, did not deter Shaheed BB from returning to her homeland. She knew PPP had to fight and win elections to be able to bring a real democratic change in the country.
In 2002, the election results were such that the government could not be formed by a single party and it had to be a coalition with the PPPP. In those circumstances, some representatives elected on PPPP’s tickets joined Pervez Musharraf, which was a great set-back for the party.
In 2008, Shaheed BB realized that her presence in the country amongst her people was vital to avoid a repetition of 2002. In this way, she chose to protect her party’s ideology and vision and returned to Pakistan where forces, threatened by her democratic ideals, extinguished her life. But just like they were unable to extinguish the love of former Prime Minister Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto from the hearts of the people, similarly, they only cemented further her love in her death.
All the expectations are now linked with the torchbearers of her legacy, that is currently being carried forward by Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The Bhutto family has never chosen a path that was simply easy or that was in their personal interest. This is such a family in the history of Pakistan that has made immense personal sacrifices for the sake of the country. As a result, they continue to rule the hearts of the common people.
The writer is the former press secretary of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto and advisor to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari