Her death came too sudden and unexpected. The whole party was shaken. Who could have thought that her departure would come so soon? We were jolted to our roots. The larger than life size leader of the poor, the down-trodden and the marginalized left for the eternal abode too soon. I always thought that nothing would happen to her. She will remain safe. No harm will be inflicted on her. Even the day and the time when the news came that she is injured, it did not cross my mind that any fatal harm could be done to her. We always saw her hail and hearty, fighting and surviving.
And what a survivor she was! She knew how to fight back. No one could deter her from reaching where fate has destined her to reach. No one could match her resolution, her determination. She was unstoppable. Her radiating energy, her charismatic personality and her astute intelligence brought many a foe on their knees. She knew how to outsmart her adversaries. It was no ordinary task to put her opponents on the defensive. For eleven long years she fought for her honor. She fought for her lost respect. For eleven long years she was the subject of a malicious campaign. Not a day would pass by when a “cock and bull” story would not adorn the front page of a newspaper.
She would make a good story. A beautiful picture and slanderous story of her, would easily sell. One did not need to do any research or investigation. Corruption is the easiest way to malign a person. Without much mental exercise and concrete evidences, stories can be churned out one after another. She was accused of everything. Many a times those stories would not make any sense. They could not even be tested on simple human wisdom. But they were there. A deliberate perception was created about her.
Who can forget BBC s “Princess and the Playboy”? Who can forget the story of “marmalade and jam eating horses” in the PM House? Who can forget the cheap looking diamond-ruby set allegedly bought by her from a Swiss jewellery shop from ill-gotten money? How did they know that she has bought that set, she was never known for her love for jewellery? How did they establish that the money was ill-gotten? Once in a meeting (April 2003) a lady activist asked her why she did not return home? She said that “don’t you think I am better off here. At least I don’t have to go through the ordeal of reading slanderous and malicious material against my integrity.” I still remember how much pain I felt on this answer.
I remember the days when her husband was in jail and her old ailing father-in-law was also imprisoned. How she was hounded by the authorities in the name of accountability and the many fictitious cases against her. How she was dragged in one court or the other. They did not even spare her on foreign soils. News of her case in the Swiss court would be splashed on all international newspapers. Every day of the week she would visit one court of the country or another. The memories are still afresh of the day when she was sentenced for seven years imprisonment by the Ehtesab Court, Rawalpindi Bench, April 1999. It used to be the “in thing” by the columnists to criticize her and declare her as a write-off case. When every other person would swear that “he himself is witness to her and her husband’s corruption”.
Yes those were bad days. But they could not break her. She remained undeterred. She fought back. And what a valiant fight she put up. By sheer determination, conviction and tenacity, along a few loyalists, including me, she picked up all the threads and took them on, one by one. She fought for her husband and for her party. In her eleven years long war, she fought single-handedly with a small brigade of loyalists, as a back-up support. Contrary to one was forced to believe, through a vicious media campaign her means of income were her foreign lectures only. She would prepare her lectures, write articles, give interviews, looked into the party affairs on a daily basis, ably assisted by Naheed Khan and campaigned vigorously for her husband’s release. This was no ordinary task.
The most amazing part of this period was that her absence from the country could not influence her contacts with her party workers. Throughout her exile she remained connected with them. Using modern means of communications, she kept in touch with them through the net. No email would go unnoticed by her. She would always respond. Usually the response would always be precise. But acknowledge, she would. Even a one sentence response would be enough to elate the self-esteem of an activist. He would proudly display her email to his people. She would know them by name and would patiently listen to their problems. She understood their mindset, their characteristics and their idiosyncrasies. She could not be fooled. She was the all-knowing leader.
In the twenty four hours of the day she would work for twenty hours. During the campaign for the release of her beloved husband I had the honour of working very close with her. Her emails were sent at odd hours when ordinary souls would rather sleep than work. At times I used to feel guilty for the kind of hard work she would put in. Initially I was reluctant to defend the now co-chairperson.
To convince me she would send the whole file of the cases and would ask me to study them. She knew that without conviction no war could be fought. Hence, I read the cases very carefully. At times their reading looked more like peeling an onion. The more I read, the more I found the cases nothing but pack of lies.
It would ignite in me anger and frustration against those who had prepared them and those who believed them. Flimsy and baseless, they carried no technical evidence and substance. But the media would religiously trumpet the establishment’s line so forcefully that the perception created had become a reality. Defending her and Asif Zardari would be looked at as a sin, particularly among the urban based educated and well-to-do people. They would look with disbelieve at you. Unfortunately, it was this class that the Establishment believed in. For them the PPP was finished.
PPP’s victory in 2002 election was the biggest upset. The winning of eighty one seats in hostile environments and the highest number of votes came as a big shock to them. Though they could succeed in luring some of our legislators, they could not break the PPP as a party. People’s Party emerged as a formidable force in the politics of Pakistan. A force that our enemies could no longer deny. After that, the fight for the release of Senator Asif Ali Zardari became easy. She was able to put her adversaries on the defensive. Finally in 2004, he was released after eight years of imprisonment.
When Benazir Bhutto was descending the stairs of her aircraft, with tears in her eyes she looked up to the sky and raised her hands to thank the Almighty. A scene so original, so perfect and so phenomenal, that future generation will never forget it. I could understand the tears. They were not hers alone. Our eyes were as moist as hers. I knew the ordeal and agony she had to go through. But as she was descending, she stood tall and vindicated in the eyes of the public that loved her. The rousing welcome on her arrival after eight years of exile was a vindication of all what she fought for and stood for. The presence of millions of people, their rejoicing, their jubilation to the homecoming of their beloved leader was a defeat for all those who were involved and believed in the vilification campaign against her.
Today she is no longer with us, but her absence will always be missed forever. History will remember her as a great leader and as the only Muslim woman leader, who stood the tests of time, who never betrayed the trust of the people and who accepted every challenge that life threw at her. Bibi we will miss you.
The writer is a former Member of National Assembly and currently holds the position of Central Coordinator of the Human Rights Cell of the Pakistan Peoples Party.