December 27th will bring late Benazir Bhutto’s fourth death anniversary.
Benazir was a vital figure for my generation of college students. In the 1980s she was to us what her father had been to the youth in the late 1960s.
Our romance with Benazir reached a peak when she arrived in Lahore in April 1986 from London where she had been forced into exile by the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship after it failed to implicate her in the 1981 plane hijacking case undertaken on the behest of her renegade brothers, Mir Murtaza and Shanawaz.
The controversial hijacking of the PIA plane, pulled off in the name of Al-Zulfikar, involved some of the most emotional and militant youth belonging to the PPP’s student-wing, the Peoples Students Federation (PSF).
As a reaction, between 1984 and 1986, a number of PSF members and PPP labour leaders – all of them belonging to poor, downtrodden families from Karachi, interior Sindh and the Punjab – were hanged to death by the dictatorship.
Some of the most prominent young men implicated for undertaking Al-Zulfikar activities and hanged were Nasir Baloch (from Karachi’s slum area, Lyari), Razzaq Jharna (from a working class family of Lahore) Ayaz Sammu (a Sindhi residing in Karachi) and Usman Ghani, Idris Toti and Idris Baig (all from working class families of the Punjab).
It is interesting to note that today in Pakistan scores of major sectarian terrorists and violent extremists have been captured but released by the Lahore High Court (due to ‘lack of evidence’), but in the 1980s, student and labour leaders were implicated for terrorism at the drop of a hat, arrested, tortured and hanged after half-baked trials.
What’s more, the oldest among those hanged was 25 years old, and the youngest was said to be no more than 16!
Hundreds of PSF cadres and youth belonging to other progressive student groups were hauled and kept in jails, severely tortured and humiliated.
I am an eyewitness to a spat of disappearances from the college where I studied between 1984 and 1987 (Saint Patrick’s Government College, Karachi), and from where I too was picked up (in May 1984) because I was a member of the PSF and had taken part in various anti-Zia rallies at the college.
I was taken to the then notorious CIA (Crime Investigation Agency) office in Karachi’s Saddar area, also called the “555 thana,” grabbed by my unruly ‘revolutionary’ hair, kicked and punched and taken on a tour of the thana’s “special rooms” where I saw a man, stripped stark naked and made to lie on a slab of ice and whipped (with a leather stick) by a cop.
I almost broke down when a couple of slaps, punches and abuses later, two cops showed me the sight of a college comrade hanging upside down from the roof and bleeding from the nose.
“See,” shouted a cop. “This is what we do to anti-Pakistan agents and communist Russia funded dogs such as you!”
My ordeal lasted almost ten hours before I was finally released. The very next day I went straight back to continue being ‘communist Russia funded dog!’
So when in 1986 Benazir arrived to the thunderous cheers of the mammoth gathering of Lahoris, I too travelled by train with a dozen students from my college to welcome the spectacle.
It was a scene legends are made of, as we struggled in the thronging milieu of simple, emotional, working class Pakistanis, to catch a glimpse of a frail young woman shouting out rhetorical challenges at the dictator and his army of Maududi-quoting officers and people-bashing “mujahids.”Her father’s populism and oratory had bagged him his share of what are called “jeeyalas” – and/or highly emotional men and women, mostly from subjugated classes, to whom the PPP was almost like a religion. Many jeeyalas had even went to the extent of setting themselves on fire in Rawalpindi in 1979 to mourn and protest Z A. Bhutto’s farcical trial and hanging.
Similarly, that immense April 1986 rally saw the birth of Benazir’s jeeyalas, and I have no qualms in confessing that as a volatile intermediate college lad I became one as well – especially after the day of the rally when PPP activists came together in the streets of Lahore and four young PSF members were shot dead by the cops. Our group was chased all the way to the Lahore Railway Station, and we had to literally jump inside a moving Karachi-bound train from the train’s windows to escape the uniformed brutes!
At the inauguration of the first Benazir Bhutto government in 1988, we saw (on TV) scenes of young men (and some women), appearing from jails, looking twice their age and both physically and psychologically damaged. Director Saira Kazmi’s PTV serial ‘Tapish’ (1989) brilliantly captures the ordeals of such men and women and the culture of student resistance in Pakistan during the Zia regime.
Most of them had been kept in torture chambers for more than six years! So much so, that their parents had given up on them as dead. I remember, two of my college colleagues who were picked up in 1984 with me, were not seen again until December 1988. One of them was from Karachi’s Burns Road area (who later joined the MQM) and one was from the Sindhi city of Moro. Their mothers kept coming to the college for three years pleading the college administration to please find out what became of their sons.
Many of us carried these memories well in to the 1990s, when we joined different fields as young adults. During the tumultuous “decade of democracy” in which Benazir’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N became tools in the hands of the official desk-top jihadis (such as former ISI big-wigs), background military maneuvers and their religious and industrialist lackeys, my generation of Benazir sympathizers became awkward PPP apologists.
But never once did we doubt the astute political and intellectual acumen and the promise Benazir was made of.
This brings me to this slain promise’s first death anniversary (in December 2008). I decided to follow it on the main TV news channels. The moving programs once again brought a tear in my eye just as her assassination had done in late 2007. But the tear this time was not of sadness alone. It was also of a resigned hope and a bit of anger.
As the channels paid glowing tributes to Benazir, and anchormen and even politicians from the right-wing uttered long speeches about how she is being so dearly missed, I couldn’t help but let out a cynical chuckle. Because I know, had the woman been alive today, the same media would have been maligning her to the extreme.
I remember how awfully she was treated by the print media in the 1990s, but I also remember the pathetic reactionary and snide remarks by anchormen about her when she returned to Pakistan in 2007 (from a self-imposed exile).
What a miserable hypocritical lot we are. Thinking this I boycotted the viewing of television for the day, and instead read Benazir’s, “Daughter of the East” for the second time since 1989.
After all, hers was a legend (no matter how controversial) born in the struggle, passion and love of the common man on the streets, and not in the seasonal studios of television talk shows and Facebook pages.
anyone who has gone through such life, should understand why bitterness !! surely its hard to be the odd one in the land of pure.