Pakistan After Benazir Bhutto

Local resident Matloub Husayn Ali Khan gives his view of the former Prime-Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, after the recent assasination on 27th December 2007…

I grew up in the Burngreave area of Sheffield and was born in Azad Kashmir. During my early teens around late 1971, I showed an avid interest in world affairs and my homeland of Pakistan/Kashmir. My role-model and hero at the time, was the new emerging leader of Pakistan: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. After the 1971 war with India and Bhutto’s role in the release of around 80,000 Pakistani Prisoners of war and his famous speech and walkout at the United Nations Security Council is still talked about by Pakistanis, Kashmiris and other Muslims across the world. This was the international stature and calibre of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Prime-Minister of Pakistan 1971-1977).

Hence his eldest child Benazir was his natural successor with slightly different brand of leftist politics. I never met Benazir apart seeing her at a meeting in Bradford in 1994. She was a modern Muslim and as everyone knows – went to Oxford University.

I remember the time I went on a pioneering overland trip to Pakistan entitled: “Project Roots 85” (1st August 1985 to 11th October). The local press Photographer from the Sheffield Telegraph and Star Newspaper covered the departure scene of me and other 8 participants with the Minibus and the Coleridge Centre in the Background.

One of the intriguing highlights of the trip was when we reached Pakistan and when we visited Ghuda Baksh near Larkana, Southern Pakistan, the burial place of Z. A. Bhutto (Prime Minister of Pakistan) and his grave being a place of pilgrimage. The Bhutto family home was locked and had been left unoccupied for some considerable time – which fits in with Benazir’s release from prison and exile in Britain around 1984-85. The fresh grave and flower garlands on the grave of Bhutto’s son Shahnawaz were clearly visible. Shahnawaz had mysteriously died from poisoning earlier that year. On 28th December, 2007, Benazir was buried next to her father: Z.A. Bhutto.

To me, this period in history around the mid 1980s within Britain and Pakistan/Kashmir was a watershed in world history. Within Britain, the Miners Strike, Riots in London, Birmingham and Northern Ireland (Hunger Strikes). In the Asian Sub-continent: India. The Golden Temple was stormed killing Prominent Sikh leaders killed and later the assassination of Indira Gandhi and much later her son Rajiv’s Assassination. In Kashmir, the imprisoned Kashmiri leader Maqbool Butt (Journalist) was hanged by Indira Gandhi after an Indian diplomat was kidnapped and killed in Birmingham by a group claiming to be the Kashmiri Liberation Army.

During the Roots 85 overland trip through Pakistan, I was able to see first hand; the beginnings of the winds of change in Pakistan in 1985 – when ordinary people were quietly saying no to the military dictatorship of General Zia.

Benazir Bhutto had been released from prison in 1984 and went into exile in Britain until 1986. Also, 1988 heralded a triumphant period for many Pakistanis and Kashmiris – the start of a return to democracy after the death of General Zia-Ul-Haq in a plane crash. Benazir’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the election and she was elected Prime Minister – the first woman to hold the office in any Islamic modern state!

Pakistan and Kashmir has always been relevant to my family’s life. Both of my parents were born in and grew up there coming to Britain in 1960s and 1970s, respectively. I was born in Azad Kashmir, in an area that is flooded with water to construct Mangla Dam in Mirpur. But my family is always aware of what is happening in Pakistan and Kashmir their homeland.

My family, are in regular contact with relatives in Pakistan and Azad Kashmir. My late father and uncle would read the Daily Jang, Pakistan’s Urdu/English Newspapers as well as English Newspapers including the Sheffield Star!

Most people from the Pakistani/Kashmiri communities have always got one ear listening to what is going on in Pakistan and one ear on the British Political scene. A vast majority of people from Pakistan came to Britain after 1966-67 – were actually from Azad Kashmir when Mangla Dam was completed and their land was re-alloted in Pakistan. My late father until his death in 2004 managed our family’s re-alloted land near Faisalabad city on the outskirts of Jhang town. During my second visit to Pakistan, in 1989, I remember my late father asking to write to Benazir Bhutto (Prime Minister) and MLA for the Jhang area Begum Abida – another powerful woman in Pakistan at that time.

I still have relatives in Kashmir and Pakistan. My Brother-in-Law (Shahnawaz) was in Liagat-Bagh, Rawalpindi almost 100 yards, from where Benazir was killed on 27th December, 2007. Majority of our family are pro-PPP and were lucky to be unhurt when the suicide bomb went off. Within seconds of the news breaking – everyone was worried for our relatives and the future of Pakistan. The initial reaction was – a great sense of shock and disbelief. For many including me, this was the start of dark days for Pakistan. My wife – who is usually in constant contact with Pakistan/Kashmir – rang me from Meadowhall to break the news. I rang some my old friends and I was in shock. In my family, women members were in turmoil – my wife, her close-friends, said: they have killed her –because the religious political leaders don’t like a Muslim woman to lead the country.

In my late twenties, I remember that my parents were not happy about my youngest sister decision to study at University – due to the view held by Muslim religious leaders of Muslim women & mixing of sexes etc. We said, “Yes, they do look at people like Benazir Bhutto”. She became a role-model and it is amazing to have this person showing people in Britain those women in Pakistan were like. She stood for modernity and as a post-graduate student, I studied Modernity and Islam – to me she was the outstanding icon and a powerful symbol of Pakistan’s recent growth and development as a modern state whether or not you agreed with her ideology. From within the Pakistani/Kashmiri communities we are all kept updated on the happening within the Bhutto family and this recent tragedy. Many commentators talk of the political dynasties of Bhuttos, Ghandis and Kennedys etc. We knew her father had been hanged, and two of her brothers shot and poisoned. Everyone was well aware of what dangers Benazir faced, and yet none can believe she is dead. We are led to believe that people like Benazir are invincible. And we believe that no one would be able to kill her, that she was to well-protected and too important. Pakistan was in such a strategic position; we felt that she would be protected. As a Journalist, I think that there have to be questions asked about how a suicide bomber was allowed to get so close to her.

The tragic events of 27th December 2007, was another chapter of Pakistan’s historical upheavals since the late 1950s, 1965 war, 1971 war (break-up of East Pakistan & creation of Bangla-Desh). The assassination of Benazir is the darkest day of recent times in Pakistan’s history.

I travelled through Pakistan in 1985 and stayed at Larkana (Benazir’s home town) and visited the Bhutto family mausoleum at Khuda Baksh. We listened to many people and to their stories of Bhutto family’s popularity and their Shia background. The main thing that emerged from this discussion was the need for a return to democracy. These people were not religious zealots or Islamic fundamentalists. They wanted Roti (bread), Kappra (Cothing), and Makkan (Shelter). The slogan of the PPP party led by her late father. In summer of 1989, I travelled through Pakistan alone and was told by friends that it was too dangerous – due to bomb blasts within many Pakistani major cities.

The current fear amongst women in Pakistan is that since Benazir’s assassination that their basic rights and freedoms will be further eroded by the fact this tragedy might stop Muslim women from entering politics. This would play into the hands of extremists and give them the upper hand in continuing the oppression of women in Pakistan.

Former Labour party Deputy Leader & Guardian Newspaper Columnist: Roy Hattersley reminicised on his first meeting with Benazir Bhutto:

“I first met Benazir Bhutto when she was in her last year at Oxford. Wearing a tweed suit and silk headscarf, she looked perfect Sloane Ranger. When I last saw her she was the Prime Minister in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. She still wore a headscarf, but the suit had been replaced by a Salwar Kameez. The change of style seemed symbolic. Between our first and last meeting, I came to the conclusion that – whatever the truth of the allegations that her enemies have made against her – she represents Pakistan’s best hope of taking its place among the democratic nations of the free world. I think that still. Someone has to build a bridge between Islam and what its most devout adherents regard as the degenerate universe outside its theological boundaries. Bhutto has always been willing to attempt that daunting task’’.

Benazir’s tragic death is not a personal loss to the millions of Pakistanis who loved and admired her – when they turned out to greet her on her return to Pakistan in October, 2007, and the vacuum left by Benazir exposes the Pakistani state's vulnerability, and the urgency to deal with current facing Pakistan.

This is a holy time of the year Hajj and Eid has just finished. The Islamic New Year (Muharram) based on the receding lunar calendar this will reach the 10th day of its New Year (1429AH) with its solar based counterpart on 19th January 2008. This period also is the anniversary of 10th October, 680 AD (10th Muharram – 58AH), when the 4th Caliph Ali’s son: Husayn including 72 others (17 were from his own family) laid down their lives as Martyrs in Karbala, present day Iraq. This event is re-enacted annually by the Shia Muslims across the world, including Sheffield. Also, this was the beginnings of the highly misunderstood schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims – that has led atrocities on both sides – especially in Iraq.

The last time I went to Pakistan was during this Muharram period in March/April 2004 when my father died in Jhang, Faisalabad. For a British Asian, it was a culture shock. It is a liberal Muslim country (I was dubbed a liberal Muslim in the Everyman Programme covering the Satanic Verses/Rushdie Controversy – 1990). As a male, I realized that Muslim women are still denied basic rights allowed to Muslim men. She (Benazir) inspired Muslim women across the world to speak out and her death has set back democracy for another 20 years and women’s right for another 50 years. The loss of Benazir is a greater loss to the progressive forces in Pakistan. Benazir was a symbol of Muslim women.

This for me, made Benazir’s return to Pakistan in October 2007 so important and crucial to Pakistan’s future. But the extremists always saw Benazir as a threat and her Shia background has always made her family the target for the Sunni Mullah’s to fuel the majority Sunni population against the Bhutto’s.

As a second generation Asian living in Britain, my third generation Muslim counterparts are turning around and saying we’ re not going to put up with this continued oppression of Muslim women. In the 1980s, women in Pakistan risked their lives daily standing up for their rights during Zia’s Islamisation process.

In fact, majority of moderate Muslims have had enough of the entire current establishment ruling Pakistan and its panderings to the extremists’ elements. There is an active Pakistani/Kashmiri Diaspora in Britain, and I think people are beginning to challenge the Pakistani establishment by asserting their financial and political clout to sway public opinion – towards modernity and not towards extremism – which is alien to Pakistani society.

Benazir’s legacy of her commitment to a moderate form of Islam and her resolve to bring about true democracy in Pakistan – that cares for its people and allow them to vote and elect leaders in fair elections. The war against terrorism, she asserted cannot be won without mobilizing and unifying the people of Pakistan against extremism and dictatorial rule.


(Free-lance Journalist, Sheffield) © MCPR

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