Published in Daily Times on Monday December 26, 2011 as weekly column BAAGHI
“Is she okay?” I was screaming at the top of my voice on the phone with my husband while madly driving towards General Hospital, Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. “It is over, Marvi,” my husband cried and the line disconnected. Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan, had paid the highest price anyone could ever pay for continuing to engage with people and carrying on with the democratic process.
It has been four years since BB, as she was commonly called, has left us but there has not been a single moment in the crisis-ridden politics of Pakistan that she was not missed. Without going into the achievements and failures of her governments, I just want to remember her as she was — a strong leader with a political vision not paralleled by any living politician. The struggle that she chose for herself when she was just 23 years of age was not an ordinary one. At a broader level it entailed dealing with an all-powerful military dictator, being imprisoned and later exiled, losing family, organising the most popular political party of the country during the worst times of persecution, etc.
At a personal level it posed many additional challenges to a young Pinky. Her being a woman never hindered her; so much so that when the forces opposing her tried to use her biology against her, she turned it around. When she was expecting Bilawal, they announced elections around the dates they thought she would be in maternity. I cannot forget her coming to the political rallies with her intravenous drip in her hands. She later wrote in her book, Daughter of the East: An Autobiography, that Begum Nusrat Bhutto, her mother, had advised her to never let her physiological issues come in her way. When she was expecting Bakhtawar during her premiership, the crisis was once again carefully chosen to coincide with the dates of her delivery. She did not make herself absent from her office for more than 48 hours.
All through her political life, she struggled against the hegemony of the oppressive deep state that used every jape that they could, and from right-wing rhetoric that was nauseatingly misogynist and anti-people. From scandalous attacks on her character, assaulting family, facilitating all odd political characters of the country that had only one common thread among them — hatred of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Bhuttos — the establishment put to use every antic. What they could not do was separate BB and the people. When I was growing up, I did not understand the love people had for her. I was in high school when BB came to power for the first time. I did not even pass my higher secondary when her government was dismissed on charges of corruption. Like every youngster, I hated corruption but was amazed to see people from the lowest of the lower strata who were crazy for BB and her PPP. In an industrial exhibition in Lahore, I met an artisan woman selling her handmade fans. She had woven BB’s picture on one of the hand-fans. She broke into tears while telling me how every cruel oppressor in this country has joined hands to bring BB down.
At the Lok Virsa last year, I met a family from southern Punjab who had brought their snakes and were showing snake tricks to earn meagre money. One of their children was wearing a locket bearing BB’s picture. The woman of the family was swearing against Musharraf, the army, feudals and extremists who had snatched their beloved leader. The anger in her voice was so intense that I for once thought she must be a blood relative of BB. She was not.
I recall women of my own family when BB took oath as the prime minister in 1988. My family, being a landholding Punjabi orthodox religious family, has been strongly against a progressive and socialist Bhutto. The men in our family frequently borrowed right-wing arguments against a woman head of the government being un-Islamic, while equally conservative and religious women including my grandmother vociferously confronted the argument. It was amazing to see these women drawing power from a woman prime minister with whose political views they did not even agree. Our village women, very conservative in religious and cultural views and who were made to believe that the PPP was an anti-religion party, could not help loving BB. Women, I can still remember, got new dreams of playing a powerful role in society.
Her struggle did not end when her party came to office in 1988. Seeking office was incomplete without power, which still rested with the all-powerful establishment that had delayed nominating her as prime minister despite her party’s clear majority. They did never rest after that. One wonders what potent challenge she posed to them that they had to invest all their might, money and resources to gather all the opposing political parties on one platform against BB’s PPP. Her clear-headed vision that led the country throughout the years of crisis distinguished her from the rest of the lot who started appearing pygmies in front of her.
My last meeting with her was in November 2007 when she calmly heard our criticism on various recent decisions that we thought would give a lease of life to a dictator. How patiently she heard, how diligently she took notes and how sagaciously she responded to every single concern of ours. When she arrived in October 2007, she had changed in many ways. One could see the strength of her resolve seeing a sea of people ready to sacrifice their lives for her. Despite strict security warnings, she would not stop from going to the hospital to visit the survivors of the October 18 terrorist attack on her rally.
Prior to that, she was the only leader among the entire bunch of expedient politicians of Pakistan who spoke openly against terrorists and their apologists. She was the only leader who tried to lead people’s opinion against the militants who had forced the tragedy of Laal Masjid (Red Mosque), instead of criticising the military action against the militants or terming the Laal Masjid militants as ‘innocent students’ like almost every politician did.
The unusual courage she displayed was not without a vision of possible consequences. She knew the price she might have to pay. Nothing deterred her. She went on and lived up to every challenge. And boy, what a life she lived! Salutes to a leader par excellence, to a woman with unfathomable courage and resolve, to a politician of exemplary vision, to a committed democrat who never failed the test of pragmatic and inclusive politics. Rest in peace BB. Pakistan misses you.