A revenger's tragedy

The intelligence services and religious extremists were behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto,

Pakistan has a new political leader barely out of nappies. Bila wal Bhutto, 19, has become the new chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), after the assassination of his mother, Benazir Bhutto. The teenager, who has hardly spent any time in Pakistan and speaks virtually no Urdu, will share the responsibility of leading the most powerful political party in Pakistan with his widower father, Asif Ali Zardari, who has become co-chair of the PPP. This is what Benazir has bequeathed to the party and the nation.

Despite all the rhetoric about democracy, the PPP did not even consider holding an election to find a new leader. There are devoted PPP politicians who could have assumed the mantle of leadership - from Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who managed the party during Ms Bhutto's exile, to Aitzaz Ahsan, the brilliant lawyer who led the agitation against President Pervez Musharraf yet was marginalised by her because of his immense popularity. But quite simply, at no time during its existence has the PPP actually practised democracy.

Though she was seen as liberal and west-leaning, Bhutto based her political power on the feudal tenants of her ancestral lands in Sindh. For all that she proclaimed the need for democracy, the PPP, of which Bhutto appointed herself "chairperson for life", is another autocratic fiefdom. It is a family, dynastic business; a Bhutto can only be succeeded by another Bhutto - even if he has to return to Oxford to finish his studies. Ms Bhutto was fully aware of her husband's reputation for authoritarianism and corruption. During her two terms as prime minister, he was known as "Mr Ten Per Cent". Still she appointed him as successor in her will.

"Democracy is the best revenge," Bilawal quoted his mother as saying at his first press conference. In Pakistan, however, this mantra is not as positive as it appears. Politics has become a revenger's tragedy in its regular oscillation between civilian and military rule. Each painful transition creates an agenda of animosity and scores to be settled. When politics begins with the unfinished business of old wrongs, genuine development takes a back seat. The groundwork for another round is evident in the bizarre argument about how Bhutto actually met her death. Did she die from an assassin's bullet, as the Bhutto camp claims? Or from a skull fracture after hitting her head on the lever of her car's sunroof, as the government suggests? Then comes the question of who instigated the murder.

The government claims Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was behind the assassination. It produced in evidence a telephone transcript in which Mehsud, speaking in Pashto, congratulates a lieutenant on the operation. Yet Mehsud has denied any involvement. "It is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman," his spokesman declared. "This is a conspiracy of the government, army and intelligence agencies." The Bhutto camp endorses this view.

Bhutto herself pointed the finger at Musharraf. "I have been made to feel insecure by his minions," she wrote in an email to her friend and confidant in Washington Mark Siegel. "There is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him." People's Party stalwarts also believe that "remnants" from the period of President Zia ul-Haq, who executed Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, intended to kill her. She talked of a state within a state, of around 400 people attached to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who saw her as a threat and would stop at nothing to remove her.

Quite what motivation Musharraf's government would have for assassinating Bhutto, it is hard to discern. He expected her to provide legitimacy for his presidency. Indeed, the very fact that she was eager to participate in the elections put a democratic sheen on his clinging to power. Her death not only weakens Musharraf's position further, but may actually write the final chapter of his rule.

Security experts in Pakistan have little doubt who is behind the assassination. "I am convinced that the intelligence services were involved," says Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the highly acclaimed book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy. Only through the collusion of the security services could both a gunman and a suicide bomber have got so close to Bhutto, she says. Other analysts agree. There seems to be a general consensus that renegade current and former members of the ISI are working with religious extremists to spread a reign of terror.

Benazir Bhutto is the highest-value victim so far, but it is not just the PPP that is being targeted. Almost all Pakistani politicians are under threat. Hours before Bhutto's assassination, an election rally organised by the Muslim League, the party of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was attacked by unknown gunmen. Four party workers were killed. The Muslim League blames a pro-Musharraf party, the PML(Q), for the incident. But Musharraf allies are themselves under attack.

On 21 December, the day of the festival of Eid ul-Adha, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Charsadda District, near Pesha war, during Friday prayers. The intended victim, the former interior minister Aftab Sherpao, escaped unhurt but the blast killed more than 50 people. Even religious politicians, such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders), who has close ties with the Taliban, have received death threats. "The truth is that anyone can be bumped off in Pakistan," says Imran Khan, the former cricketer and leader of the Movement for Justice Party, and it can simply be "blamed on al-Qaeda".

The real function of these threats, attacks and assassinations is to strengthen the hand of the religious extremists and undermine all vestiges of the political process in Pakistan. The intelligence services want to ensure that power remains not just with the military, but with its hardcore religious faction. "Anyone or any institution that can possibly undermine this goal is seen by them as a threat," says Siddiqa. Bhutto was targeted because she was capable of uniting the country against the military as well as the religious extremists. Indeed, most of her criticisms during the campaign were directed towards the extremists and the security services.

Paradoxically, it was Bhutto herself who unleashed these forces. It was under her second administration that the Taliban came into existence with the aid and comfort of the ISI. While she was the first woman to lead a Muslim nation and was seen as secular, moderate and imbued with the liberalism and western approach of her Harvard and Oxford education, Bhutto fostered the politics of elective feudalism in Pakistan.

Under her leadership, the PPP became a vehicle for righting the wrongs of the past - specifically the overthrow and execution of Benazir's beloved father - rather than an institution generating policy and debate about the changing needs of Pakistani society and maturing a new generation of political leaders. Her brother Murtaza Bhutto was killed when he challenged her leadership of the party. His whole family, including Benazir's mother, believes she was behind the murder. Her terms in office were characterised not just by corruption and nepotism, but also by revenge and human rights abuses. She had the largest cabinet in the history of Pakistan; she even made her unelected husband minister for investment, which was generally seen as an open invitation to corruption. A common joke during her second term was that the infant Bilawal had been awarded the portfolio of minister for children.

Musharraf in the balance

These democratic deficits stop the PPP from becoming anything other than a dynastic, feudal institution. Yet such deficits are common throughout the political scene. Most politicians in the country, including the spotless Imran Khan, are feudal landowners. Increasingly, Pakistani politics has become sectional, sectarian and regional, tending to spin the country apart rather than offer a vision of a united and hopeful future. Politicians appeal to tribal, regional loyalties and to their feudal "vote banks". Few, if any, escape being tarnished in the eyes of much of the population.

As a consequence, Pakistani politics and governance have totally failed to resolve the basic dilemmas the country has faced since its creation: what is Pakistan as a nation, as an idea? In Pakistan religion has always been a factor. But is that all there is to Pakistan? How should religion find expression in the life of the nation? There must be more to Pakistanis and their deep attachment to Islam than being swept along on the tide of jihadi ideology and the violence and terrorism it breeds. But how can Pakistan develop an alternative vision of itself as a viable state? When can such a vision become the bedrock of public life? These questions cannot be asked, let alone explored, in the current political climate.

The assassination also leaves the future of President Musharraf in the balance. The former general must be seen as a figure of declining utility to western interests. The armed forces, now one of the most hated institutions in Pakistan, are no longer a monolith. They display the same fissiparous tendencies as Pakistani society as a whole. Pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathies have taken root within the army, the only agency Musharraf supposedly controlled and could use to combat terrorism. His room for manoeuvre was always limited. After Benazir Bhutto's murder, his chances of delivering on any of the hoped-for initiatives in the "war on terror" have evaporated. The last vestiges of US strategy have been destroyed by the gunman and the suicide bomber.

As long as Musharraf remains in power, Pakistan will be unstable, continually teetering on the edge of chaos. Further US or British manipulation of the country's politics will only make matters worse. Even those who would never support religious extremism and are determined to oppose the growth of terrorist sympathies have an intense dislike for US involvement in Pakistani politics. Opposition to the course of US foreign policy since the 11 September 2001 attacks has hardened antipathy and made countering the rise of religious extremism ever more difficult.

Civil society

A great deal of hope is being pinned on the coming elections. Bhutto's death has brought the opposition parties together. All political parties will now participate in the elections, including the Muslim League, the second major party, which had decided to boycott them after the assassination. However, it would be wrong to assume that a PPP victory, based on a sympathy vote, would greatly reduce the underlying, simmering tensions. The extremists and their supporters in the ISI are not through with Pakistan quite yet. The polls will undoubtedly be rigged in favour of Musharraf's party. If his supporters lose power, the scene would be set for further, and open, confrontation between the president and the newly elected government. Far from resolving anything, the elections, which were expected to be delayed until next month, may actually perpetuate the crisis.

The only sign of hope lies in the diverse character of Pakistani society, in which comment, opinion, ideas and debate are vibrant and thriving, powered not least by the emergence of satellite and cable television stations. A civil society exists, which stands apart from politics and the military. Neglected, yet robust, that civil society is the unexplored pole of all the sectional interests in Pakistan. It was elements from this sector - the judiciary, lawyers, human rights groups, news media, non-governmental organisations, students and minor parties - whom Musharraf had to restrict and destabilise to ensure his survival. They offer the prospect of a fresh departure from which a healthier, more sustainable and enduring politics might emerge.

Although the agencies of civil society are themselves still in disarray, they may yet rescue Pakistan from the motley crew of Musharraf, the military, feudal politicians and religious fanatics. Bringing a country where the political process becomes ever more discredited and hostage to violence back to sanity will not be easy, painless or swift: Pakistan is poised to endure a great deal of pain and suffering for the foreseeable future.

the Bhuttos by numbers

4 suffered unnatural deaths (Zulfikar, Shahnawaz, Murtaza, Benazir)

5 studied at Oxford (Zulfikar, Benazir, Murtaza, Shahnawaz and now Bilawal)

$8.6m fine imposed in 1999 on Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, over corruption charges (later overturned)

$1.5bn estimated profits from kickbacks made by Bhutto family and associates, according to 1996 investigation

0 pieces of major legislation passed by Benazir in first term as prime minister

10 per cent Zardari's nickname, on account of dubious business dealings

Research by Alyssa McDonald

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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