Killing cycle claimed Bhutto

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Canada — Born amid the mass killings of partition in 1947, Pakistan has never escaped the cycle of violence, volatility and bloodshed. Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) is the latest casualty of that murderous cycle.

Many features of her life and death are common to South Asia: birth into a famous political dynasty; political triumphs punctuated with personal failings and assassinations of family members; the weight of carrying the hopes and aspirations of millions of followers against the temptations of turning the institutions and treasury of the state into personal fiefdoms; and political parties that are vehicles to personal and family political and financial advancement instead of repositories of competing visions and instruments of national development.

The murderers of 9/11 came out of the mountainous caves of Afghanistan where the Taliban regime — a monstrous creation of the U.S.- and Saudi-backed mujahedin against the Soviet-installed regime and of Pakistan’s search for strategic depth against archenemy India — had nurtured them as a potent weapon against all infidels.

For years India had warned that the epicenter of international terrorism had shifted from the Middle East to Southwest Asia. Like the warnings that Pakistan had become the center of nuclear proliferation, they were dismissed as the self-interested rants of the regional hegemon.

The Bhutto family saga is strongly reminiscent of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty in India in the peaks of political triumph and personal tragedies. Before Iraq, the biggest practitioners of suicide terrorism were the largely Hindu Tamils of Sri Lanka who had found sympathy, support and most likely funds and training grounds in India.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide terrorist in the middle of a general election campaign in 1991. Indira Gandhi had manipulated Sikh religious extremists to discredit political opponents in the Indian state of Punjab; she was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984 in the aftermath of the assault on the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Across the border, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was drawn into the passion and turmoil of politics and died because of it when hanged by the military dictator who overthrew him.

Where in India the assassinated mother was followed by her son throwing himself into the rough and tumble of subcontinental politics and being felled by an assassin, in Pakistan the father was followed by his daughter who too has now been felled by a suicide terrorist.

Where one military dictator hanged the father, another failed to provide adequate security for the daughter. That Ms. Bhutto was killed in the garrison town of Rawalpindi underscores the chaos and security vacuum in contemporary Pakistan.

Where Sanjay Gandhi died in an air accident, Murtaza Bhutto was killed by police in 1996 while his sister was prime minister, and the other brother, Shahnawaz, was found dead in his apartment on the French Riviera in 1985.

Bhutto family members are politically estranged just as Maneka Gandhi fell out with her mother-in-law and then parted company with the Congress Party as well.

Like Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Ms. Bhutto did not lack courage and accepted the risks to personal life as the necessary price of the political cause to which she was devoted. As in India, different groups in Pakistan have tried to harness religious sentiment to their own cause.

Unlike in India, where the principles and institutions of democratic contestation have absorbed and buried the violence, dictators in Pakistan have pitted religious groups against popular political parties. This was done by Zia ul-Haq and has been repeated by Pervez Musharraf, a pathology common to most military rulers.

Pakistan is a volatile, unstable and dangerous place at serious risk of an outright civil war as the people move from shock and grief to mass violence and the authorities reply in kind. Pakistan as a failed state is not in anyone’s interest.

Musharraf has betrayed his people and failed to deliver because success against the terrorists would have ended his utility to the West. A New York Times article Dec. 24 asserted that much of the money given to him to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida has been siphoned off to buy weapons systems for use against India.

The starting point for Pakistan’s recovery has to be an early exit for Musharraf. The planned elections were a sham from the start and should be postponed in the first instance and then rescheduled under genuinely free and fair conditions.

Yet the army must guarantee the crucial stability and underwrite law and order for a transitional period. It is the symbol and protector of national unity. At the same time there is no future for Pakistan unless the army begins to withdraw from politics and stays resolutely out of the political arena. Pakistan has a large, educated, capable and worldly wise elite that must form the core of the country’s revival and regeneration.

All South Asian countries must move away from viewing, nurturing, financing and arming “the other’s” secessionists and dissidents as allies.

In the present state of enmity and distrust, it might be too much to expect active cooperation among security, law enforcement and border control agencies. But at some stage hopefully even the most reality-challenged and obstinate leaders will recognize that supping with the devils of terrorism has consumed far too many of them already.

India offers the nearest example of Islam not being inherently incompatible with democracy; Malaysia and Indonesia nearby are good models of “moderate” Islam coexisting with democratic practices; and Turkey is the best example of secularism in a Muslim majority country.

Bhutto’s assassination provides another tragic reminder that, although South Asians cannot change their geography, they can escape the trap of stoking cross-border extremist violence in order to shape a common destiny.

Ramesh Thakur is a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.