Wilson, Bhutto & the deification of flawed men

Personality cult of BB and deification of similar figures is an insult to intelligence of Pakistanis in my generation


Mohammad Zia Adnan April 13, 2016
The writer is based in Princeton, New Jersey. He tweets @mziaadnan

This past week, Pakistan marked the 37th death anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. On the very same day, Princeton University reached a decision on how it should recognise the legacy of its former president, Woodrow Wilson, who later went on to become the 28th president of the US. Wilson’s legacy is complicated, to say the least. Lauded on one hand for his efforts to establish the League of Nations after the First World War, his policies as president of the University and eventually, the US, reflected his racist attitude towards black students and African-Americans. Despite this, there is no dearth of public buildings, libraries and schools named after him in the US. Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs was the point of contention for the Black Justice League in November of last year, when the student group staged peaceful protests in order to highlight the former president’s controversial views. It was in this context that the University decided to convene a trustee committee in an effort to recognise both Wilson’s achievements and shortcomings.

The debate on Wilson’s legacy here on campus got me thinking. As a Pakistani who grew up in the diaspora, thoroughly weaned on the private television channels that emerged post-1999 and General (retd) Musharraf’s takeover, I cannot recall a single April 4th when the story of Bhutto’s execution hasn’t been retold time and again by ‘eyewitnesses’ and close associates. Recycled stock footage galore of the former prime minister, and Benazir’s tearful recollection of her father’s last night at Central Jail Rawalpindi are ingrained in my mind as annual fixtures of April 4 ‘commemorative’ programming.

However, it isn’t just the media that is solely responsible for the constant glorification of the Bhuttos. As in the case of Wilson, there is no shortage of public spaces named after the former prime minister and his daughter. Although the trustee committee at Princeton has decided to be “honest and forthcoming about its history” and will recognise “Wilson’s failings and shortcomings” it will not rename the Woodrow Wilson School or the residential college on campus named after him. While their decision will continue to be debated, the baby step that the University has taken to acknowledge the darker part of Wilson’s legacy is a step in the right direction.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, it seems almost seditious to talk about ZAB or Benazir’s shortcomings. At a talk here on campus last semester, Mohammed Hanif told the audience that he would never write a satire about Benazir Bhutto like he wrote A Case of Exploding Mangoes. He said something along the lines of, “It’s too raw and painful,” referring to the former prime minister’s 2007 assassination. He is, instead, writing a libretto with composer Mohammed Fairouz, presumably an ode to the slain father-daughter duo.

The personality cult of ZAB and the deification of similar figures is an insult to the intelligence of Pakistanis in my generation, indoctrinated by the extremely subjective print journalism in the country, and infiltrated by the countless spaces named after Mr Bhutto and his daughter. While I am not proposing that SZABIST or the airport in Islamabad be renamed just yet, a commitment to being more transparent and objective about the controversial and damaging legacies of the figures that these spaces are named after is essential. Mindless veneration, or even vehement rejection for that matter, will not solve the problems that Pakistan faces as it struggles to craft a coherent historical narrative, so often rendered incoherent by the competing agendas of the military, and the aggressive PR campaigns mounted by dynastic heirs seeking votes for the next general election.

The fundamental lesson of the debate over Wilson’s legacy here at Princeton is that we can’t paint history, or historical figures, in monochrome colours; there is no black or white, good or evil. But, men like Woodrow Wilson and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, surely, are a very dark shade of grey.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th,  2016.

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COMMENTS (31)

Taimur Malik | 5 years ago | Reply Many (but not thankfully all) comments point out just how messed up Pakistanis are, unable to see the shades of grey and the nuances. The world is NOT black and white nor Manichean. Zia-ul-Haq may have been horrendous, but that doesn't mean Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto couldn't have been horrendous for the country either. They may have both been terrible in their own ways, but the author's point against mindless deification stands. In fact if Islam is to be saved in this country, then it is precisely this nuanced viewpoint (of religion, and its earlier history and development) which will carry the day. Frankly, I'm aghast at the ad hominem assault meted out on the author (Mr. Adnan). This speaks of how low the calibre of intellectual debate in Pakistan is 9even amongst so-called liberals. If anything, many of the commentators above, personify the dark legacy of Bhutto and Zia (who both stymied the voices of people in different ways, despite one being democratically elected and the other being a dictatorial usurper of power)... If Pakistanis do not learn the value of nuanced debate, the nation cannot progress one bit. No man carries the burden of his deceased grandfather, let alone his father. Abraham's father was after all Azar. For goodness sake people, take a hard look in your souls and apologize to Mr. Adnan!!
Ali | 5 years ago | Reply Oh Yea! here comes the grandson of the Great-godfather of "Takfiri & Talibani" school of thought. The man who plunged Pakistan into darkness. The man who did not another option but to execute his political rivals. The man who would bow to his Takfiri masters after each meal. Minority rights, civil rights, freedom of speech, freedom of expression was all taken away by this mans Grand-dad. Little Adnan SHYLOCK Zia, the darkness and evil your grand-daddy spread will haunt you forever the way it haunts us in Pakistan each very day. The pain we endure, the bodies we see of men, women & children blown up for no reason by religious fundamentalists created and brought up by Zia lead us to nowhere but to helplessly curse him and his progeny for the mess we are in. And you have the spine to pick up the pen and write about the victim of your grand father who was executed on purely political enmity by your Grandfather Zia.
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