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December 23, 2017

Benazir – a decade on


December 23, 2017

Ten years have passed since the day she died. In life and in death, Benazir Bhutto remains a contentious figure. The collective wisdom of courts, UN commissions and fact-finding missions have not offered her constituents the one answer they seek: Who killed Benazir?

Our courts sentenced two policemen to 17 years in prison for wiping clean the crime scene. But we don’t know who ordered the cleaning of the crime scene, the pulling of the trigger or the blast killing those surrounding her vehicle.

Even as mystery shrouds her assassination, her legacy inspires debate. Is it the PPP? Is it what remains of her governance initiatives – women’s police stations, liberalised media institutions, socially conscious liberalisation and deregulation? I argue here that her legacy extends beyond what bureaucracies and inept institutions have bungled, implemented and bungled again.

Benazir’s legacy lives independent of governments, officials and their self-interested wrangling over power and money: In collective memory and peoples’ discourses – women’s stories of hope and struggle against the status-quo – the subversive Benazir, threatening to bring down military dictatorships from her prison cell, lives now as she did yesterday and will tomorrow.

In wider academic and political debates about Benazir’s legacy, we miss out on the everyday power of what she represents. In June 2006, while volunteering for the Indus Resource Centre (IRC), I was negotiating with parents in Muhammad Hussain village, UC Sagyoon, Khairpur Mirs District. They were refusing to send their girls to school, citing their traditions and local political factors. I pointed to a fading poster of Benazir at a nearby shop, just about half visible from the window. “You don’t want your daughters to be like her? She went to school and Harvard and Oxford universities.” I heard no further objections. Attendance at the girls’ school rose from 19 per day to reach closer to 200, in line with the IRC’s target.

That then, is the discursive power of Benazir – dead or alive.

While campaigning door-to-door for Benazir’s PPP in 2007, I came upon a door-less hut with a thatched roof. A mother and three children greeted us inside. Recognising us as the PPP campaign team, the mother asked if I wanted to see what she was cooking for her children. Curious, I agreed. She showed me a pot of boiling water. Her children thought she was cooking food for the next day, but there was none. She set a pot of water to boil so that her children could go to bed in hope of food the next morning. Fighting back her tears, she said that a campaign team from another political party offered her Rs500 for her vote earlier that day. She refused their offer. She was going to vote for Benazir, hoping for a better, more empowered future that only Benazir could promise her. She wanted that hope more than she wanted the Rs500.

In the elections following Benazir’s assassination, I was a political agent in the electoral camp outside Superior Science College, UC Burghury, Khairpur Mirs. A pregnant woman lined up to vote at 9am. At around noon, she was still in line. Concerned, I asked if she wanted a chair or if I could speak to someone to get her through line. She refused my help, saying that she owed her vote to Benazir and would wait as long as it took – “heh vote amanat ahey.” “Why?” I asked. “She is one of us” (assan jee ahey), she replied. She waited until 2pm to cast her vote, and stayed until after I collected polling results.

For these women, for myself, and for many others I know, Benazir has come to represent political hope for all that is and can be and the courage to fight for it. Hope isn’t a strategy. It is by no means enough, but it is what the oppressors can’t steal from the oppressed. It is both liberating and powerful.

My aunt Nafisa thinks that Benazir’s assassination may have politicised my generation the way Bhutto’s judicial murder politicised hers, and she is right, but in life and death Benazir also did much more: she inspired and provoked us.

There will always be those who will criticise her times in office and her political decisions. While we acknowledge her shortcomings in office, we need not mince words on what she did do for many of us. Not too many Pakistani women have survived political prison cells, watched their family members die, dealt with internal and external threats and risen to top office. Let us not belittle Benazir’s struggle and what it inspires. Our responses, stories and discourses – hopes, dreams and the things we make of them – are Benazir’s lasting impact.

The writer is a faculty member at IBA Karachi. Twitter: @MoruShah

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