Thursday, December 27, 2007

What Benazir's Assassination Means

To understand why Benazir Bhutto’s death is so important – not just tragic, but of grave consequence – you must first ask yourself the question: which fissures in society are the most highly politicized? In Pakistan the answers are: religion and ethnicity. Class is not much of an issue in Pakistani politics – most serious left of center parties as well any semblance of a Marxist-Lite movement were wiped out by the establishment by the 1970s. Only the PPP is a truly viable left of center party today, and it isn’t significantly left of center either. No party is said to cater exclusively or even primarily the poor and most if not all parties are run be elites.

No, in Pakistan the true lightning rods have been ethnicity (historically) and religion (recently). These issues have driven the agenda in the political landscape since the country’s inception and continue to do so today. Ethnic politics manifests itself in center-provincial and provincial-provincial relations because most of Pakistan’s ethnicities are neatly encapsulated by separate provinces (the Bengalis lived in East Pakistan until 1971, the Pukhtoons live in NWFP, the Balochis in Balochistan, the Punjabis in Punjab, and the Sindhis and Mohajirs share Sindh), with only the megacities – Islamabad/Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Karachi – displaying any degree of metropolitan-ness. The issues which are usually used to assert positions in these battles are things like language policy, water issues, military recruitment, and taxes and spending. Religious politics, meanwhile, have become more overt in the last twenty years. It’s not just NY Times-front-page-type stuff like terrorism or militancy where religious politics plays itself out but also on issues such as rape laws and passports. Both issues have the power to inflame passions and result in significant violence – though only ethnic issues have the potential to result in widespread violence.


Already two explanations are being forwarded insofar as the culprits of the assassination are concerned. The first is that the Taliban or some other Islamic militant organization targeted Benazir for her promising to tackle extremism and militancy. They saw her as a threat and killed her just like they tried to kill Musharraf or Shaukat Aziz or Sherpao. The second explanation is more of a conspiracy theory. It says that our military agencies in consort with the senior leadership of the PML-Q took Benazir out because she was a threat to their hold on power. They point to the fact that another strong party – the PML-N – was targeted earlier in the day. They also point, somewhat more credibly, to Benazir’s letter to Musharraf before she returned to Pakistan where she pointed out some names that might wish her harm. Included in those names was Ijaz Shah, the head honcho of one of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, and, according to rumors, the Chaudhries of Gujarat: Pervez Elahi and Chaudhry Shujaat.

The second explanation holds significantly more potential for violence. The Chaudhries are from Punjab and have essentially ruled the province these last five years. The Pakistan military and intelligence agencies are also seen to be Punjabi entities. The Bhutto family, on the other hand, is about as Sindhi as Sindhi can get. The point to note is that it doesn’t even matter if the Punjabi-establishment explanation is true. What matters is if people believe it is true. And by people, I mean really pissed off PPP workers.

As I type this, reports of violence in the urban areas of Sindh are coming through on television. In Karachi, riots and tire-burning started almost immediately after news of Benazir’s death was confirmed. A hospital was set on fire and a jail (Gulistan-e-Jauhar for the Karachiites out there) was attacked. Five people have been killed so far in firing in the city. This much, I think, was expected. The danger, of course, is that, in the Sindhi PPP worker’s mind, this is about Sindh and Punjab, and that today’s almost spontaneous violence becomes tomorrow’s more calculated and narrowly aimed. In other words, if the court of public opinion privileges the second explanation – the Punjabi establishment one – over the first – the Taliban/militant one – then we could be on the cusp on the breakout of Pakistan’s first brush with mass, widespread violence since 1971.


There is a very good reason a number of analysts on television have already shone a light on calming Sindhi sentiments. There is a very good reason Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi leader of a large national but largely Punjabi party for non-Pakistani readers, said in his press conference a little over a half hour ago that “in their time of grief, I want Sindh to know that the PML-N is with them…that Nawaz Sharif is with them.” Center-province relations have been fraught at the best of times but this type of incident has Archduke Ferdinand-type power. Almost everyone – student organizations, political parties, religious organizations – is armed at the neighborhood or district level, and those that are not armed can become so fairly quickly (in Pakistan, only hash is as easy to procure as a weapon). It does not take a great deal of imagination to picture a Pakistan where a widespread conflict erupts between Punjabis and Sindhis, especially if the Army becomes involved in trying to maintain order (which it most likely will). In short, Newsweek’s infamous cover proclaiming Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world could conceivably become a reality. A large ethnic conflict, coupled with militant violence in the NWFP and a nationalist movement in Balochistan (already happening), in addition to rampant inflation and socioeconomic pressures (already happening) in an unstable country with an unstable leader and, oh yeah, nuclear weapons? Yup, I think that would about cover it.

Even if that worst-cast scenario does not materialize, there is bound to be certain level of street violence in the coming days. Riots and strikes should be the norm and I anticipate extremely high levels of tension. I think we can also safely say goodbye to the prospect of elections in January. The idea of elections does not just seem implausible to me at this point but also somewhat inappropriate. At the very least they should be postponed four weeks to give everyone time to grieve (and take a deep breath). What sort of elections would we see under the current circumstances anyway?


Readers, if you are not in Pakistan, there is simply no way I can convey the sense of shock pervasive here. It gets more surreal hour by hour. A significant part of me simply cannot believe that she is dead. Over the last two years or so, I grew to admire and respect Benazir, despite her many faults. As regulars will know, I loudly supported her and her party. But today cannot be about politics. Even those who hated Benazir, and hated her positions, cannot be anything but immensely grieved and deeply disturbed by today’s events. It is, without a doubt, one of the saddest days in Pakistan’s history and a true national tragedy. Our thoughts are with her family, and may her soul rest in peace.


afrasiyab said...

I must admit that I did not agree with her politics and positions. I especially disliked her handling of the Judicial crisis recently.
However, I must also express the sadness I feel at this event.
This is a watershed moment in Pakistan's history. We need to forget all differences. Forget about elections as well for now. There is a need to properly mourn her death. She was the leader of millions of Pakistanis. There is no denying that. Aside from the political aspect one must also consider the toll this must have taken on her family. Nusrat Bhutto has literally lost everything. I feel extremely sad for her loss. As human beings, as Muslims, as Pakistanis, we must come together to mourn someone who played an integral role in Pakistan Politics. May Allah bless her soul. My prayers go out to her kids and family. It must be an awfully difficult time for them. I cannot imagine what they must be going through.

asfand said...

Any idea about that? I saw it quite a while ago, but since no one has picked it up i'm guessing either its bollocks or the mighty ones are struggling to get reputable sources to confirm it?

Either way, I think your remarkably insightful blogpost in this, as you stated, surreal state is spot on.

I could never really understand the attachment people have to political figures. My mother, a Sindhi, cried today and is quite distraught, despite that fact that she thought Benazir was 'scum' for her pandering and all that.

alas, to be a Bhutto; this is life.

leesavee said...

Thank you for giving the world a different perspective of what's going on in Pakistan right now. I saw your site briefly on CNN -- and I'm very grateful I did.

I join the people of Pakistan in mourning Benazir Bhutto.

Reza said...

So sad...

Corey H. said...

Benazir Bhutto was truly an amazing person and was a pro-democracy icon all over the world. Her death will no doubt have repercussions all over the world and I pray that Musharraf can calm the aweful situation brewing in Pakistan right now. How someone could commit such a heinous act is beyond me, but then again, look at all of the hideous attacks carried out this eyar in Pakistan that have claimed so many lives. Benazir is in our thoughts and prayers...

Anonymous said...

Dear, people in punjab are in as much grief as people from sindth are. Time for so-called politicians from gujrat is simply over. Even right now they cant win majority seats in Gujarat. They are going to be noboday in coming days in our country. Yes there will be strong sentiments against Punjab but since it is clear to people that BB and infact Pakistan has been a target of international conspiracy and the reach-out by leaders like Nawaz Sharif, Strong PPP leaders from punjab and a next government formed by PPP even in punjab will help in reducing such sentiments.

Moreover, it seems to be an american kiss of death. they wanted it this way and they are getting it. It is all chaos theory working. We need to build consensus to change the pattern of chaos. And people like you must play a positive role rather than making it look like dooms day senario.

Anonymous said...

BB was a criminal who lived abroad as a fugitive from Pakistani justice.

She came back as an American agent to support Mushy (hence the stay-out-of-jail card known as Nat. Recon. Order!) --- she was a despicable character, as was her father.

May she rot in hell!