The mythological life and death of Benazir Bhutto

Published: September 19, 2015


 PHOTO: EXPRESS The writer is affiliated with the Express group and is consulting editor at The Friday Times

Nearly eight years after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the incident still remains a mystery, with trial proceedings that resemble magical realism. Except that it concerns a twice-elected prime minister. Even Benazir’s own party, the PPP, could not prosecute all the accused. It had to ask for an unprecedented UN commission to probe into her assassination. The findings of the UN commission, headed by Chile’s Heraldo Munoz, remained inconclusive. Some of its discoveries were explosive; and soon the PPP government had to distance itself from it. Recently, a retired police official who headed the FIA at that time wrote about the murder probe, rather amusingly called “Operation Trojan Horse”. Tariq Khosa mentioned that the FIA investigation led to a resident of Malakand; however, he was later killed in an aerial strike in Khyber agency. Another suspect, a key leader of al Qaeda, Mustafa Abu Zaid, was killed in CIA drone strike in the tribal areas in 2010. Yet another important witness, Khalid Shahenshah, involved in security arrangements made by the PPP, was also killed in 2010. In 2013, allegedly al Qaeda killed the chief prosecutor. State officials have refused to testify and former president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf may just be acquitted in the case.

All of this sounds like an ancient mythological tale. Benazir’s life and death resemble that and have been explored as such by Anna Suvorova, who heads the department of Asian Literature at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. Suvorova is no stranger to Pakistan and has years of research to her credit. Originally published in Russian, her book, Benazir Bhutto: A Multidimensional Portrait, has been translated and printed by Oxford University Press, Pakistan. As an anthropological study, Suvorova places Benazir in the wider cultural context and takes the reader through the maze of not just the Bhutto family and its roots, but also the norms with respect to women. Prevalent practices, such as honour killings, acid attacks, rape, and so on, dot the milieu within which Benazir, an otherwise privileged woman, emerged and fought as a democratic leader.

Benazir Bhutto’s persona was multi-faceted and paradoxical: from her elite, dynastic status, to that of being at the receiving end of a repressive post-colonial state. This was complicated further by her ‘Western’ side and the imperatives of a dupatta-clad Sindhi woman negotiating democracy, secular ideals and the embedded religiosity of Pakistani society. Her legacy, therefore, is as mixed as the complexity that she had to straddle in her public life. Suvorova’s study is not a conventional biography and in her own words is an “image of Benazir Bhutto that emerges at the intersection of history, culture and myth-making”. While being an inheritor of her father’s bravado-laden politics, Benazir displayed far more flexibility and accommodation. She was also criticised for that. Conversely, her brothers chose a more radical path by setting up al-Zulfiqar, a militant organisation that was also accused of hijacking a Pakistani aircraft; and became an excuse for the Zia regime to persecute thousands of PPP workers.

In an exclusive chapter, Suvorova brings together the polarised debates on the Bhutto siblings. We have the Benazir loyalists’ versions, and Fatima Bhutto’s heartfelt Songs of Blood and Sword that challenges all of that. Suvorova looks at the tension between the Bhutto siblings (Benazir-Murtaza) by invoking the work of eminent psychologist Alfred Adler (1870-1937). Suvorova struggles to remain balanced in her account and succeeds to a great extent. Adler’s framework of sibling positions also helps us understand Mir Murtaza’s dislike for Asif Ali Zardari, though there were solid political reasons for the disagreements as well. Murtaza’s murder, ‘rumoured’ as the handiwork of Benazir’s controversial husband Zardari (who later became her defacto successor and remains so), is a recent urban legend. Even though a high-level judicial commission exonerated both, the popular perception remains unchanged. This is where mythology intersects the murkiness of political assassinations in Pakistan. Years later, there were also accusations against the ex-president of having his wife murdered and the folklore to this effect refuses to disappear even when religious extremists accepted the responsibility of Benazir’ assassination.

Nusrat Bhutto, another heart-wrenching leaf from the Bhutto family legend, also remained divided. Her love for the son Murtaza was well known and the book even mentions a quote from a newspaper interview after Murtaza’s arrest (Benazir was in power then) where Nusrat Bhutto complains how her daughter had “become a little dictator” and “paranoiac about her brother”.

The last chapter, “The Story Ends; Begins the Legend” is an apt reminder of the metamorphosis of Benazir’s legacy and persona. For her detractors, she was “corrupt”, one who squandered “opportunities” for change and promoted her controversial husband. For her large number of loyalists, she is viewed as the brave heroine who was a victim of Pakistan’s oppressive state institutions. Suvorova’s own assessment is charitable as she mentions how Benazir struggled against “the prejudices of patriarchal society” and the “predominant male sexism in religion and politics … and Islamic extremism and fanaticism”.

Ironically, Benazir’s legacy is little known among the Pakistani youth. They have learnt their history from dubious textbooks and media sources. For instance, Benazir’s welfare interventions still employ more than 100,000 women as health workers at the community level. Their work comprises a silent revolution of sorts. Similarly, the entry of more women in public spaces can be traced to her courage that even her worst enemies acknowledge. Today, nearly half the student body in Pakistan’s public-sector universities is female. Many have to negotiate with patriarchal norms and conservatism, but they are marching on. Even at the global level, in the current contestations between Islam and Western public opinion, Benazir’s book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West (2008), provides a critical voice and ideas for a way forward. Yet, her willingness to play along with the Taliban policy of the deep state or ignore stories of corruption leaves indelible question marks. Suvorova has traced the evolution and splintering of the Benazir ‘legend’. Her murder was predictable. It is getting clearer that until there is a structural change within the Pakistani state, trial[s] of her murder may not deliver “justice”. Suvorova opens many windows for future writers and historians. While the translation could have been better, for the richness of its material and hybrid style, the book is a valuable reference for contemporary Pakistani cultural studies.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • Baba Jee
    Sep 20, 2015 - 3:53AM

    Whatever you want to say about BB, there is no denying that she was corrupt. And thats unfortunate reality. She, like Nawaz, got opportunities and could have done a lot for poor masses, but alas, like Nawaz, she chose not to.

    Whats even more unfortunate is that her legacy is overshadowed by Zardari. Need I say more?Recommend

  • Arifq
    Sep 20, 2015 - 9:34AM

    Raza Rumi Sahib, nicely written but if a tree falls in the enchanted forest of desires does anyone notice? Keep writing, you mean well.Recommend

  • Dastagir Fikri
    Sep 20, 2015 - 9:46AM

    I keep wondering as to why Zardari sent BB alone, while he sat abroad. Even after the blast that killed hundreds in Karachi, he dare not accompany his wife. Why? Why should he not have been together with her during her political campaign? Since he did, as per his claim, get Benazir to sign a will assigning the party leadership to himself and Bilawal, was he acutely aware that she could be assassinated? If so, why did he risk her life?Recommend

  • Bilal
    Sep 20, 2015 - 9:58AM

    She left behind spineless excuses for leaders. She started off as Bhutto’s daughter but became a legend on to herself. Fearless and always fighting in the face of everything the establishment threw at her. Of course she had flaws, all great leaders do, but her loss left behind a void no one can fill. RIP BB.Recommend

  • Shalom
    Sep 20, 2015 - 12:15PM

    @Baba Jee: The article is about who killed her and why the investigations have not progressed. It is has nothing to do with corruption. What surprises many is that her father was also hanged, her two brothers were murdered and we are still in the dark. You do not have to like any of them to demand justice and find the murderers.
    Those who hate and do not forgive are in a majority. No wonder things do not move in the right direction in Pakistan. Recommend

  • Salman - SK
    Sep 20, 2015 - 1:00PM

    A hotch-potch mish-mash of a monologue which keeps the reader wondering until the end if Raza Rumi has an opinion on the subject himself that he could have enlightened us with. But, no such luck. Or, maybe it was just a review of Anna Suvorova’s book. Benazir could have been a great character in our history, at par with Malala of Maiwand, but nothing destroys a person as the image of being corrupt does. It will be difficult to shake off that legacy of Benazir Bhutto. May she rest in peace.Recommend

  • JusticeHunter
    Sep 20, 2015 - 1:24PM

    Whatever rhetoric is spread and published to try connect her and the family to democracy, the real life is a picture typical wadera mind. It’s ironic that the real picture of such personalities is normally not well published. This fake publicizing of Mr. ZAB to be a man of people was a deliberate sham. Like Hassan Nisar said; “if you put a label of Aaab-e-zamzam on a bottle of sewer water, it cannot be that”. Like others likes, they were land lords made by British Empire for serving their interests in the region. It’s good that the effect is fading by time and by the help of their smart son in law, the dynasty is almost gone, unless they get another corpse for sympathy vote, not sure there. Recommend

  • Asad Shairani
    Sep 20, 2015 - 1:32PM

    Only in Pakistan will you see so-called liberals celebrate corrupt, dynastic politicians like they were the people’s messiahs. Recommend

  • Parvez
    Sep 20, 2015 - 3:01PM

    @Baba Jee: That was an excellent………..and very perceptive comment.Recommend

  • Mohni
    Sep 20, 2015 - 3:26PM

    I salute Benazir for her courage. She was torch bearer for women’s greater participation in public domain. She was role model for me.Recommend

  • Aam Admi Bechara
    Sep 20, 2015 - 4:40PM

    Nothing mythological about her.

    Throughout her life she chased power and pelf and stooped down

    to ugly corruption agreements like NRO with military dictator.

    She died whole on her way to power and pelf.

    And left behind Zardari who destroyed this country with

    relentless unmatched corruption and crimes. Recommend

  • Blister
    Sep 20, 2015 - 4:46PM

    The list of Pakistani politicians (I hesitate to call them that!) who came , had the opportunity and squandered due to personal interests and weaknesses is endless, ever growing and starts from the beginning of Pakistan. The whole Bhutto family is unfortunately nothing but hot air if you remove the hot words of the first Bhutto. Most people do not get another chance to correct their mistakes but this family continued to get chances and steal chances where none were available to them and despite the opportunities, fair or unfair, they squandered them all. In return they have helped breed generations of individuals who are opportunist and maligned to the core. They do not know any other way. A similar example is Mssrs. MQM. They had the opportunity to take there message all over the country but they lost the opportunity again and again. Interestingly Mssrs Shareef and co. have played a strange game. They have raised and bred generation of corrupt people who are experts at portraying and looking clean. Where they do not have opportunities of corruption they invest their own money in the country to create a unique opportunity for corruption. People keep thinking that Shareefs have done the nation a favour and behind the scenes the take home goodies for them are stupendously higher then the initial investment. As a result people say things like this “Atleast they invest in their own country and provide jobs even if it is corrupt!!” There are more people to test now with PTI coming up. My hopes as a Pakistani are sub-optimal for there success. So far what is more visible is rhetoric, no further deterioration and very little but relatively visible evidence of change.Recommend

  • Anticorruption
    Sep 20, 2015 - 5:18PM

    It’s tragic that BB’s life was cut short. She also faced a lot of mysoginy and to her credit, the lady health worker program was a good initiative. However, none of this can take away the fact that she was corrupt to the core and showed very little interest in governance. And that destroyed her reputation so badly that no matter how much apologists try to put a positive spin on her, it will be very difficult to make that go away. Some people say that when she was returning in 2007, she wanted to shake off the image of being corrupt and was planning to be different this time. Unfortunately, we will never find out if this was for real or not. But what we saw of her in the 1990s was not good, and her return was also tainted by the NRO. That said, her death remains a tragedy, and it seems like we will never really find out which people were involved in her killing. May she rest in peace.Recommend

  • JusticeHunter
    Sep 20, 2015 - 5:27PM

    Better those voids left unfilled, for gods sake and and should be more like this one.Recommend

  • JusticeHunter
    Sep 20, 2015 - 5:29PM

    You don’t really know her well enough.Recommend

  • Zia Syed
    Sep 20, 2015 - 7:48PM

    She is dead and her family has no interest in finding out why. Spare us with details of dead one.Recommend

  • Baba Jee
    Sep 20, 2015 - 8:10PM

    @Shalom: I am all for bringing her killers to be punished in accordance with the law. And also Murtaza’s killers who was killed during her tenure.

    What did PPP in its five years do to find her killers? Recommend

  • Yul47
    Sep 21, 2015 - 9:27AM

    The killings of BB and the brutality employed in her term in office makes one beneficiary but no one in Pakistan is brave enough to hold the bull by the horn. The telephone call made from Dubai to raise her head above the bullet proof environment be investigated. The two Blackberry mobiles were not produced before the international community but after the usual mandatory period of 3 years to archive records, the Blackberry mobiles suddenly were seen to be with domestic workers. Unless Pakistan is able to dramatically improve the image of Police and the Court, events like killing of BB shall continue to stay a mystery. The present set up with a Parliamentary majority has an opportunity to reverse it. Recommend

  • JusticeHunter
    Sep 21, 2015 - 2:24PM

    @Baba Jee:
    Not doubt, the killers should be caught and punished but I think, they deserve a BIG THANK YOU from the whole nation before they get hanged, for a job done very well. Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Sep 22, 2015 - 2:32PM

    A thought provoking article about the Bibi who was forcefully separated lke her father from those who admired and loved this great lady of the subcontinent. From his own experience Raza Rumi should know that as long as the military is in charge, the transparency about the country’s past and future will not be reflected in its democratic order.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rex Minor
    Sep 22, 2015 - 4:24PM

    @Baba Jee:

    Both of you act like the devils advocate? Are you tryng to imply that the corrupt politicions should be violently killed.? If so then you must have the list of next to be targets from the incumbent democraticaly elected ministers.

    Rex Minor Recommend

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