Benazir's Assassination: A Tragedy Foretold

The assassination of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto by snipers and suicide bombers Dec 27 in Rawalpindi has left the world shell shocked. One could see it coming, though, as a predictable outcome of the tailspin into which Pakistan's polity and society have hurtled through incessant militarization. Beyond the semantics about derailment of democracy, Benazir's violent end brings into sharp relief the inseparability of Pakistan's governance and social life from Kalashnikov and jehad culture. 

Since a major political figure has been killed on the cusp of elections, the obvious blame for the grisly event will fall on General Pervez Musharraf's regime. From security lapses to connivance of the military-intelligence establishment, a number of theories are likely to be discussed for years to come about who were responsible for this historic tragedy. 

When Benazir's homecoming convoy in Karachi was rocked by a massive suicide attack in October, killing some 150 people, informed journalist Amir Mir commented that the act "had the approval of some jehadi-minded high and mighty in the Pakistani intelligence establishment". The main executor of that attack, Abdul Rehman Sindhi of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was mysteriously released from custody by the authorities just before Benazir's return from exile. How this maulvi managed to pierce the security cover provided to Benazir without being frisked and why none of the Intelligence Bureau officials died in the attack are smoking guns. The entire episode had the telltale signs of an act of state outsourced to religiously motivated hirelings. 

One should be least surprised if the modus operandi of Benazir's assassination was a replay of the October attacks. There will be another lengthy "investigation" into the matter that whitewashes the culpability of the army and the intelligence. The big difference between October and now is, of course, that Benazir was not as lucky the second time around. Tremendous pressure will be exerted by the international community and public opinion in Pakistan to find out the truth. What works in Musharraf's favour is that, in Pakistan's history, the truth can be kept under wraps even if the casualty is a national leader. Who or what caused General Zia-ul-Haq's plane crash in 1988 is still an open question. 

Given the intertwinement of Pakistan's ruling establishment and its jehad infrastructure, one can expect a complete mockery of justice in Benazir's assassination case as well. Musharraf has kept Daniel Pearl's killer, Sheikh Omar Saeed, on death row for more than five years without a final judicial verdict, thanks to the latter's closeness to the Inter Services Intelligence. A conspiracy involving the military and its offshoots in society has been reduced with typical obscurantism to an ordinary criminal act by one figurehead. 

A convenient excuse that has time and again come to Musharraf's rescue when faced with spiraling violence and disorder is to blame 'extremists' and 'terrorists'. In all certainty, Benazir's assassination will also be attributed to some individuals belonging to a jehadi outfit without touching the real culprits who are the holders of power. 

Confusion prevails over pinpointing the true causers of the mess also because of the excessive splitting of hairs about 'factions' within the Pakistan Army. Musharraf's private alibi before his American benefactors is always that there are 'pro-Islam' rogues in the establishment who are going berserk. What is interesting is that the Pakistani president vigorously prosecutes 'rogue' soldiers involved in assassination plots against him but not those who mastermind attacks on other political personalities. 

A serious lacuna in understanding Pakistan's turmoil lies in placing the entire onus for the chaos on the government's doorstep. What is the polity if not a reflection of the society? Why should politics be bifurcated from the social forces that it represents, as if they are two neatly distinct categories? Benazir's niece, Fatima Bhutto, wrote recently in The News that civilians make up the largest group of gun owners in Pakistan, far outnumbering the small arms possessed by the military, the police and terrorist groups. Decrying "our Kalashnikov culture", she noted that "guns have a special place in Pakistan's social mythology". 

Whether for sectarian crusades, feudal family feuds or wedding celebrations, displaying of weapons and firing them at will has been spreading perniciously in all provinces of Pakistan. The International Action Network on Small Arms estimates that Pakistani society has approximately 20 million firearms with one of the highest citizen-to-weapon ratios in the world. Added to this is Pakistan's extraordinary position as an entrepot for heroin, a combustible mix that has thoroughly weaponries society. While most developing countries have pockets where such nexuses of 'drugs and thugs' flourish, Pakistan is a leader of the pack where these tendencies have overflowed. 

Even sincere 'de-weaponization' drives of several Pakistani governments have been grounded due to the stubborn resistance of entrenched social forces that aver that the campaigns are "un-Islamic" infringements. Whenever there are calls for demilitarizing Pakistan's domestic or foreign policies, a howl of protests erupts in the name of Islam. It is naïve to keep parroting that a 'silent majority' of peace-loving Pakistanis disapprove of the descent into senseless jehad and suicide bombings. When one out of eight Pakistanis owns a booming weapon, the overused phrase, 'silent majority', defies logic. 

Benazir Bhutto's assassination was a tragedy waiting for its moment. It is writing on the wall for a country whose polity and society have internalized orchestrated violence and compulsory jehad.    


More by :  Sreeram Chaulia

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