Murder in Rawalpindi

From Rawalpindi comes shocking news that Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated. Many details remain uncertain, but the horrific basics are clear enough:

Benazir Bhutto was killed at a PPP rally in Rawalpindi [along with at least 30 others]. . . . The election rally, with “foolproof security”, was held at Liaqut Bagh - a site which had already seen the assassination of another Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaqut Ali Khan.

There were earlier reports of security threats on her rally - similar reports were issued before the suicide attack on her in October. [link]

Sadly, the South Asian subcontinent has been down this road before. More than once, in fact -- but one moment stands out as eerily reminiscent:

[An] heir to a miraculous name, disappeared in a fiendish conjurer's trick: amid the theatrics of an electioneering stop, and in the puff of smoke from a bomb... Apart from the egregious act of violence that killed [the former Prime Minister], the bloody shirt of extremism and communal vengeance has been threatening to supersede all norms of democracy in the nation. [link]

So wrote Time in 1991, when another former prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi, in India) was killed on the campaign trail by a suicide bomber. During the late 1980s, Gandhi and Bhutto together were regarded by many in India and Pakistan with a fair bit of hope. Youthful and energetic, the two "got along famously" in their first summit meeting and were seen by many as ushering in generational change, a new set of leaders capable, together, of moving the subcontinent in different directions. The days of such extreme optimism passed long ago. But tragically, both of them now are linked with each other in death as well.

When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, some observers fretted over the "uncertainty" and the "leadership vacuum" that his death may have created within the Congress Party, much as they fret today over the future of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and democratic leadership in Pakistan more generally. The circumstances are by no means identical, but certainly one need not lose all hope that democratic leaders can and will emerge in Pakistan in the aftermath of this tragedy, that the prospects for democracy in Pakistan did not rest on Benazir Bhutto's shoulders alone. Indeed, the lawyers' movement and the vigorous resistance of Pakistan's civil society to Musharraf's Emergency demonstrate that many such leaders already are present -- that the mainstream, democratic instincts and aspirations in Pakistan may well be durable enough to survive the assassination of one charismatic and pioneering leader. If, that is, those instincts and aspirations are given space to flourish, rather than simply to grasp for dear life. One can only hope that going forward the United States will belatedly recognize this fact, nurturing and supporting the democratic processes and civil society institutions that have been producing those leaders, rather than simply propping up particular personalities, out of perceived expediency, even as they tear the institutions of democracy and civil society asunder.

For now, I leave you with the remembrances of Benazir Bhutto offered by Adil Najam:

[A]ll of these [questions] are paled by thoughts about Benazir as a person. The woman. The wife. The mother. The human being. What about her?

I have not always agreed with her politically but there was always a respect for her political courage. I had met her many times, first as a journalist covering her when she had just returned to Pakistan in the Zia era and before she became Prime Minister. Later a number of times in her two stints as Prime Minister and then a few times during her exile. In that last period she toll to referring to me as “Professor sahib” and some of our exchanges were more candid (at least on my part) than they had been earlier.

At a human level this is a tragedy like no other. Only a few days ago I was mentioning to someone that the single most tragic person in all of Pakistan - maybe all the world - is Nusrat Bhutto. Benazir’s mother. Think about it. Her husband, killed. One son poisoned. Another son assasinated. One daughter dead possibly of drug overdose. Another daughter rises to be Prime Minister twice, but jailed, exiled, and finally gunned down.

and by Manan Ahmed:

In the nation whose history is dotted by military coups, assassinations and hangings of public figures, this is surely the bloodiest stain. She titled her autobiography, the Daughter of Destiny - but surely she deserved a fate other than the destiny of her father and Liaqut Ali Khan. It is truly a tragedy and a revelation of the chaos gripping the nation.

And finally, with the hope that the political violence emerging in response to Bhutto's assassination -- all too common in the subcontinent -- will soon subside.

Posted by Anil Kalhan