At the premiere for ‘Bhutto’ at London’s Frontline Club on Friday, I swivel around from my back-row seat and squint to try and make out the Pakistanis who have turned up. The room is dark but at the slightly ajar entrance doorway, half illuminated, stands a man in a light linen suit. He removes his glasses as if to wipe them clean but then reaches with the back of his hand to dismiss some tears. I realise I am looking at none other than Benazir Bhutto’s close friend Mark Siegel. He had the email in which she named her killers.
You cannot be a Pakistani without having a relationship with the Bhuttos and their legacy. You may hate them for their alleged corruption or love them for introducing democracy to the poorest of villages. You may be too young to have ever seen them in a rally or you may be old enough to have gone to jail for them. As with all things Pakistani, there is only fluidity and liminality – nothing is fixed, permanent or explicable. But no matter who you are, the Bhuttos are such an overwhelming part of our historical fabric, that they will inexorably be a part of us.
As the movie plays I am reminded of the three major events that my team and I were drawn in to as journalists in our small Daily Times newsroom in 2007. As I watch footage of the twin bomb attacks on her homecoming rally and the Rawalpindi gun-and-bomb assault, I marvel at how easily I forget how close I have been. But unlike Mark Siegel, I do not weep at the part where we know she is dead.
My eyes fill with tears when they show the crowds. The thousands and thousands of people who turned up for her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s (ZAB) rallies and later to receive her in 2007 when she returned home to campaign for the elections that General Musharraf agreed to. When I was growing up in Pakistan (1984 onwards) it was the time of General Zia-ul Haq, the military dictator with the Pakistani version of Hitler’s moustache. Television used to just be the state-run PTV and then STN, that fed us a soft diet of The Fresh Prince of Belair – if you were growing up then, you would have not had any idea of how much the Bhuttos were loved because none of that footage would have ever made it on air. Even when I was at college, the political scene was quiet as Benazir was in self-imposed exile. But when I became metropolitan or city editor at Daily Times in Karachi, that is when I received my first lesson in Bhutto mania.
Karachi city is no stranger to political rallies – it is almost as if people crave them so they can get out and have a good time. But by God, I had never seen such a sea of humanity before this one. For weeks people were arriving in Karachi from all over the country to receive her. We did story after story of these people. I had dispatched nearly the entire team to hit the streets on October 18 when her plane touched down. I kept wondering, what is it about the Bhuttos?
When she was killed in the Punjabi city of Rawalpindi during another rally a few months later, my province Sindh, down south, shut down. I had decided to go into work late that day, around 7pm. And as I hit the gridlock downtown towards my office on II Chundrigar Road, I realised something was wrong. A friend texted me the news. People in cars next to mine, were weeping. Maddened political activists ran screaming through the street. I left my car in the jam and ran to work. By the time our team tried to go home together in a van, buildings were on fire. To this day, I regret we didn’t stop and put out a small one we saw in the ATM booth of a corner bank in Clifton near Dellawalla’s mall. The next day, as I drove to work I saw that it had burned down. There were at least 15 apartments on the top floors.
The rioting and arson continued for days after, by which time people were trying to get to Larkana, her hometown, for the burial. Gas had run out in the city and the Pathans, who owned a lot of the petrol pumps, closed down because people were burning everything in sight. I took two reporters, Shahzad Shah Jillani and Qazi Asif, and we hit the highway in my dad’s old blue Nissan. Close to the toll plaza was a petrol pump where in order to persuade them to let us fill the tank, I had to pretend to be a UK party secretariat worker of the Pakistan Peoples Party (scarf on head, heavy sunglasses to hide puffy eyes). We stuck a PPP flag on the bonnet and headed for Naudero, six hours away. We counted nearly 200 oil tankers, trucks and goods carriers on fire along the way.
In Naudero, Larkana, I saw how people loved her. Not the politicians and their hangers-on who were trying to chum it up with Zardari as the political vacuum expanded and contracted. This was the people on the street, the old women who just sat there and prayed rosary bead upon rosary bead for her. We met a young man who had once been a student wing body guard for her. His grief was indescribable.
And so, at the screening, when I saw the crowds again in the footage, my eyes filled. I felt an ache for them – the Pakistani millions. They had such faith in these people. And yet, at the end of the day, no one has been able to address even the most basic of their needs. They have always been gyped. I do not know what to even call this phenomenon, the blind love for Shaheed Rani (the martyred princess) as they call her, that devotion to these Bhuttos that is for the most part unrequited.
When I asked my father, who is a Sindhi like the Bhuttos, what exactly is this thing, he gave me one explanation that I try to use to fill the gap of incomprehension. Before Bhutto came with his slogan of Roti, Kapra aur Makan (Food, clothing and shelter), none of the rulers of Pakistan (mostly military) had ever told its people that they had rights – the right to vote, the right to elect a government and hold it accountable. That is what Bhutto gave them.
During the question-answer session afterwards, I asked the filmmakers, and especially Siegel, how he felt that Zardari had fared as president so far. Indeed, if he completes his five years in office, he will have been the first civilian to have done so in the history of Pakistan (since 1947). Siegel reminded me that he had, in a historic act, repealed the laws that allowed a president to dissolve parliament. Indeed, this was important as military dictators had summarily dismissed Benazir’s and other democratically elected governments using these laws.
As we walked out of the club, I started humming ‘Dila Teer Bijan’, which is the signature election or party song for Benazir’s PPP. Jeay, jeay, jeay Bhutto Benazir, sang Shazia Noshi. Long live, Benazir.
Benazir. Be Nazeer. As in, without comparison. Incomparable. She was just that.