The Ghost of Benazir: Confronting the Legacy of Pakistan’s “Princess”
Babar Awan’s face flashed on television screens across Pakistan and around the world. Drenched in sweat and surrounded by masses of whimpering bodies, he looked straight at the camera and began to speak. Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, had been rushed to the Rawalpindi General Hospital after a shooting and bombing at a campaign rally.
Awan had just spoken to Benazir’s doctor on the phone. His voice broke as he stumbled to finish his words, further upsetting the shell-shocked masses. Sirens sounded in the background, and paramedics tended to the injured amid the bodies of 24 people killed by the explosion.
“Mauterma Benazir shaheed ho gayi hain,” Awan declared.
She has been martyred.
Benazir Bhutto was assassinated that day, on December 27, 2007. Ten years later, the question of her legacy and the mystery of her murder both loom large in Pakistan.
After spending eight years in self-imposed exile, Benazir—who served as Pakistan’s first female prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s—returned to her homeland just in time for the 2008 national elections. She had struck a deal with the incumbent president, strongman General Pervez Musharraf: With corruption charges against her dropped, she was allowed to re-enter the political arena. The U.S. and United Kingdom had previously backed Musharraf, considering him a key ally in the War on Terror. But after mass protests against his rule in early 2007 threatened to destabilize Pakistan, they pressured him into accepting Benazir’s return. To the general’s annoyance, she arrived in the country triumphant, intent on gripping the moment of political uncertainty to displace Musharraf from power and make herself prime minister once again.
Benazir was the first woman democratically elected to lead a Muslim nation. She rose to prominence after the execution of her father, ex-prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, at the hands of the brutal military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. As an ardent opponent of Zia’s regime who was herself imprisoned and exiled, Benazir was lionized as an emblem of Pakistan’s democratic struggle.
Perhaps for this reason, she and her supporters painted her 2007 return as a key step toward restoring normalcy in a nation facing what they called the “critical threat” of Islamic extremism. Benazir’s anti-fundamentalist positioning infuriated the Taliban. She landed in Karachi wearing what appeared to be a bulletproof vest; she now had both the country’s leader and largest terrorist group set against her.
Surrounded by cheering crowds and armed police, Benazir made her way from the airport toward the location of a scheduled rally. She never got there. Two bombs exploded in the vicinity of her motorcade, and more than 180 people died. Benazir herself was left unscathed.
Soon afterward, Indian journalist Barkha Dutt asked Benazir in a television interview whether the Taliban’s threats on her life had scared her.
“I believe that life and death are in God’s hands,” Benazir replied, “and I believe that nobody can be killed until their time is up.”
On December 27, she held another mass rally in Rawalpindi National Bagh. The roaring chants of her supporters, “Jeay jeay Bhutto!” (Long live Bhutto!), continued as she exited the arena in her bulletproof white Land Cruiser.
A few minutes later, she opened the vehicle’s roof hatch and stood up in the car to wave at the crowds. As she greeted supporters gathered around her, a man within three meters of Benazir shot at her three times and then detonated his suicide vest. Her time was up.
On August 31, 2017, Pakistan’s anti-terrorism court announced its judgement on Benazir’s murder. Five key suspects linked to the Pakistani Taliban were freed due to lack of evidence. Two police officers were sentenced to seven years in prison for negligence. And most notably, General Musharraf, who lost power soon after the assassination and eventually fled to London and later Dubai, was declared a fugitive in the case, although it appears unlikely that he can be forced to return to Pakistan to face trial.
Few were convinced that justice had been served.
“One gets the distinctly deflated feeling that despite years of legal proceedings, we are left with more questions than answers,” Asad Ladha, a High Court Advocate based in Islamabad, told The Politic. “However, given that the judge in the case was changed eight times and the special prosecutor in the case was killed in 2013, it is surprising that the proceedings have reached even this stage.”
As early as October 2007, Benazir herself had suspicions that people in high places wanted her dead.
She wrote to her friend, American journalist Mark Siegel: “Nothing will, God willing, happen. Just wanted u [sic] to know that if it does in addition to the names in my letter to Musharraf of Oct 16th, I wld [sic] hold Musharraf responsible.”
As news of Benazir’s assassination spread, riots and public mourning erupted in streets all over Pakistan. Within hours, hundreds of cars were burnt and shops were looted.
When the elections Benazir had hoped to contest were finally held, Musharraf’s party suffered a humiliating defeat. Benazir’s supporters, who won the election, forced Musharraf to resign within months. One day after ceding power, the disgraced general left for London to start his period of exile.
On September 22, 2017, Musharraf finally responded to allegations of his involvement in Benazir’s assassination. In a public video, he argued that it was in fact Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir’s husband, who was responsible for her death.
Musharraf contended not only that Zardari had the capability to execute the assassinations but also that he had the most to gain. Prior to the murder, Zardari was often referred to as “Mr. Ten Percent” and had spent eight years in jail on corruption and murder charges. Widely viewed as a criminal, he probably could never have become president in 2008—had he not been widowed.
Ladha speculated, “One is left wondering whether the multiple failures on the part of the authorities perhaps reveals a more sinister and high stakes cover up.”
As Pakistan follows the trials in this murder case and, in two months time, marks the tenth anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s untimely death, its people are forced to confront the murky legacy of a woman who undoubtedly changed the landscape of their country’s politics.
To her supporters, Benazir was a powerful symbol of feminine resistance and resilience. Appointed chairperson of her father’s party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), upon the elder Bhutto’s execution in 1979, she immediately captured the nation’s sympathies.
She could be seen on television describing her last moments with her father. “I said that I’d like to hug my father goodbye…they wouldn’t even open the cell doors for me to kiss him goodbye.”
When she won the 1988 elections to succeed General Zia, an Islamist responsible for importing Saudi-style Wahhabism to Pakistan, Benazir represented an abrupt shift in the country’s image that was patently felt and remembered.
Her legacy is narrated with the language of democracy; she often fought against political norms. As a Sindhi, Shia woman—someone who would have been a second-class citizen in Zia’s Pakistan—her prominence in a political sphere dominated by Punjabi, Sunni men was notable in and of itself.
Hasan Hanif ‘18, a Pakistani student at Yale, told The Politic that Benazir’s most enduring quality was her nationwide appeal.
“She was the last national leader that we had in the country,” Hanif said. “She managed to win elections from all over the country; a person who was appreciated in some capacity in every province.”
But many critics bristle at the common characterization of Benazir as a democracy-loving feminist. Jemima Khan, a British-Pakistani journalist, famously argued that Benazir was a “kleptocrat in a Hermès scarf” who lacked authentic relevance. To Khan, Benazir—intelligent, beautiful, impeccably dressed, and equipped with a smooth English accent—was sent off from Oxford and Harvard, thinking she was carrying the torch of Western enlightenment to Pakistan.
Brooke Allen, who wrote Benazir’s biography Favored Daughter, described to The Politic how the legacy of Benazir in the West has been rose-tinted.
“They don’t remember her flaws,” Allen said. “They remember this attractive educated woman leader of Pakistan.”
To her opponents, Benazir’s status as an emblem of democracy and feminism existed mainly in the imaginations of the British and Americans. Her reality for Pakistanis was perhaps more simple—she was the daughter of a beloved, popular ex-prime minister.
Hanif told The Politic, “The whole fascination there is with South Asia is that we seem to have adapted into a twentieth century notion of democratic rule, but the language and imagery used is still that of dynastic power. We use a colonial, imperial rhetoric to advance a twentieth century idea of democratic politics.”
Khan has also accused Benazir of using her gender to manipulate her public persona, stating sarcastically, “I loved her answer to David Frost when he asked how many millions she had in her Swiss bank account. [Benazir said,] ‘David, I think that’s a very sexist question.’”
Finally, Benazir’s legacy is defined by the family that she left behind. While her daughters have become involved in apolitical charity work, her son Bilawal is now the chairperson of the PPP. A student at Oxford at the time of Benazir’s death, he was given three years to complete his degree prior to assuming the party leadership.
Bilawal has had a mixed welcome into Pakistani politics. To some extent, the Bhuttos’ tradition of dynastic politics has become institutionalized: The PPP’s rhetoric has become, as Hanif noted, that “they are a party that has constantly given their lives for the sake of the common man.”
Thus, for many, Bilawal’s political involvement is commendable given the tragic history of his family. But Bilawal—who does not speak Urdu fluently—embodies and accentuates the “elitist” critique that was often directed at his mother, sullying Benazir’s public image.
It is a curious thing that a woman admired in life as a strong female leader now finds her legacy largely in the hands of men. It is men who decide whether her murderers will face justice, just as it is her husband and her son, not her daughters, who are defining Pakistan’s understanding of what the “Bhutto” name means.
Allen recalled how one of Benazir’s peers at Oxford refused to read Favored Daughter.
“She didn’t want to read my book,” Allen told The Politic. “She loved Benazir, and she knew that she was flawed, and she knew that she hadn’t been a good political figure in the end of her career—but she still retained that image of [Benazir] being someone who was extremely lovable.”
To examine Benazir’s life is to acknowledge that she was neither a hero nor a villain. And as Pakistan strives for democracy, her story is also a reminder that democracy is embedded not in an individual or a family name, but in the collective consciousness of a people.