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Wednesday 16 January 2008, by NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN

Terror announces its arrival in Lahore, a city that has remained insulated so far from jehadi shootings and bombings.

THERE is a dark cloud of gloom over Pakistan as its multiple crises converge and escalate relentlessly. Barely had the country grasped the enormity of the December 27 assassination of one of its biggest political leaders in a gun-and-suicide attack when terror struck again, this time in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, the country’s political nerve centre and a vibrant city that had seemed an island of peace in the midst of the waves of terror that had gripped the rest of the country.

The January 10 attack in Lahore showed the deep roots of militancy, once watered and nurtured by the state, and the hydra-headed monster that it has grown into, its spread extending over all of Pakistan. Add to this a resurgent Sindhi militancy in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s killing, the ham-handed manner in which the government has been investigating the assassination, the uncertainty about the general elections which were postponed from January 8 to February 18, talk of unilateral American action in the north-western tribal areas, and you get a nation full of people asking: “Where is Pakistan heading?”

The misgivings had been around for some time, but the credibility of the Musharraf regime has suddenly sunk to a new low. There is a widespread impression, even among those who did not particularly care about Benazir Bhutto, that the government failed to provide the two-time Prime Minister adequate security and is somehow complicit in her killing. The contradictory versions put out by the government, including the controversial theory that she died of a skull fracture after hitting her head on the lever of the sunroof of her armoured vehicle when she ducked the suicide attack on her, have only strengthened the belief that the government has something to hide.

“Henceforth there should be no ambiguity that [Benazir Bhutto] died of a bullet, pellet or splinters,” said Brigadier (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema, spokesman of the Interior Ministry, as he set out the car lever theory. Famous last words. Within 24 hours, new evidence surfaced from the site of the blast that exposed the government as being clueless at best. At worst, it was lying.

Most people in Pakistan instinctively believe the second, especially after Dawn News television showed amateur video footage from the scene of the killing, exposing the government badly. The footage showed Benazir slumping back into the car – seconds before the explosion – after a short-haired man in the crowd around her car wearing a light brown sports jacket and dark glasses fires at her with a pistol from a distance of about two metres.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came out of mourning for its leader to slam the government, and those in the party who had seen Benazir’s body, including Sherry Rehman, who heads the party’s “information secretariat” and helped prepare the body for burial, said they had seen more than one bullet wound in the head and the neck area. The PPP demanded an international inquiry into the killing along the lines of the United Nations-sponsored investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon.

In an attempt at damage control, President Pervez Musharraf called in Scotland Yard, but it did little to increase the confidence of either the PPP or the man in the street that the government is interested in getting to the bottom of a killing that shook the country to its very core and sent shock waves around the world.

The PPP wants an investigation into the “conspiracy” behind the killing. Benazir’s husband, Asif Zardari, who has taken effective charge of the party, demanded that her letter to CNN (Cable News Network) anchor Wolf Blitzer, through an American friend Mark Siegel, be treated as her “dying declaration”. In the letter, Benazir wrote about the inadequacy of the security provided to her and said that if anything happened to her, Musharraf should be held responsible.

Zardari and the PPP want this letter to be read with an earlier letter, from Benazir to Musharraf before she returned to Pakistan in October 2007, pointing to four people in his regime as conspirators in a plot to kill her. Pervaiz Elahi, the former Chief Minister of Punjab and a cousin of Shujat Hussain, president of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), or PML(Q), a Musharraf ally, is one of the persons she named. The serving Director-General of the Intelligence Bureau is another.

Although Musharraf felt enough pressure to invite British detectives, he made it clear that they would not be going on a “wild goose chase”, and described Benazir’s allegations as “wild” and “baseless”. The detectives, he said, would only offer their expertise in analysing forensic evidence.

But that left everyone asking what the Scotland Yard team, which arrived within eight days of the killing, would investigate. Fire engines of the Rawalpindi Municipality washed the scene of the blast within hours, an act that Musharraf was forced to criticise as a “mistake” but one that he also blithely explained away as a result of “inefficiency” rather than a deliberate design by the government to hide something.

The doctors at Rawalpindi General Hospital did not carry out a post-mortem on Benazir. The very nature of her wounds are in doubt, and there are suspicions that the doctors’ reports were themselves “doctored”. But Zardari, who did not consent to the post-mortem to begin with, is unlikely to permit an exhumation of Benazir’s body for a proper examination. Under the circumstances, Scotland Yard’s assistance is mainly confined to examining the available video footage.

Despite the government’s insistence that it had given Benazir top-grade security, questions persist about its adequacy. The government’s response, and that of Musharraf, has been to shift the responsibility to Benazir. “Who is to blame” for her coming out of the sunroof of her car when she could have ridden safely from the scene of the attack unhurt, like the others in the vehicle, Musharraf asked at a press conference. It is a valid question. Benazir took a risk by succumbing to the temptation of putting her head through the sunroof. But why did the police not stop people from collecting around the VIP exit gate of Liaquat Bagh as Benazir was leaving after addressing a rally at the venue? And how did a sharpshooter and a suicide bomber – if they were two separate people – get so close to her?

An important consequence of the Benazir killing was the postponement of the January 8 elections. The Election Commission of Pakistan, hardly seen as an independently functioning authority, announced a 40-day postponement to February 18. As reasons for the deferment, it cited the outbreak of violence in the Sindh province, which it claimed had destroyed election material, including ballot boxes in as many as nine areas, and disrupted the printing of ballot papers. But political pundits saw the postponement as a reaction to a possible sympathy wave for the PPP to the detriment of the PML(Q) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, another Musharraf ally, and the hope that this would abate by the second half of February.

There are also concerns that the regime may resort to unfair means in order to check the PPP and the Nawaz Sharif-headed Pakistan Muslim League (N). Sharif has held out the prospect of “cooperation” between the two parties in a post-election scenario, which holds a range of possibilities, from formation of a coalition government to acting together against Musharraf, and if the required numbers are available in Parliament, even coming together to move for an impeachment. But rigging would break the last straw on the camel’s back and could bring the people out on the streets in large numbers, especially in Sindh, which is seething with anger against Punjab at the killing of Benazir.

Political circles are abuzz with speculation that given the circumstances, the elections may not be held at all and that the government may find one pretext or another to postpone them. The levels of sectarian violence during the Moharram month, which began on January 11, and which usually sees an escalation in Sunni-Shia tensions, should be one indicator.

Fears for the election were strengthened with the Lahore bombing that killed 20 policemen and three others, exactly two weeks after Benazir’s assassination. The shock in Pakistan was palpable. The city, which is regarded as the cultural and political capital of the country, has thus far remained insulated from the terror wave sweeping across other parts of the country.

It is well known, however, that banned Islamist militant outfits that once provided the fodder for the jehadi cause in Afghanistan and Kashmir with active assistance from the state are still active in many parts of Punjab. For instance, a retired major with reported links with Al Qaeda was arrested in Lahore in December 2007 for planning the suicide attack on a Pakistan Air Force bus in Sargodha the previous month that killed eight airmen and left 40 wounded. His arrest led to the arrest of seven others, suspected to be members of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or the Jaish-e-Mohammed, both banned groups, and offshoots of what Daily Times called the “mother jihadi outfit”, the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba. The bombing in Lahore once again raised difficult questions about the effectiveness of Pakistan’s role in the “war on terror”.

Such is the mood in the country that even commentators who rooted for Musharraf’s continuance as the best bet for Pakistan a few months ago now say that it would be better if he made a dignified exit before the situation gets any worse. But coming face to face with Musharraf, one would hardly guess that he is burdened by his unpopularity. At an interaction with foreign correspondents, he appeared relaxed, confident and even jovial, in the mood to take as many tough questions as the equally battle-hardened journalists could serve up.

He flinched only when he was asked whether he had “the blood of Benazir Bhutto” on his hands but recovered quickly to come back with the strong retort that he came from “a civilised and educated family”, which did not believe in killings and assassinations as tribal or feudal families might.

He spoke about how carefully he had planned his three-stage transition to democracy but winged over a question on why he thinks it necessary to keep the ousted Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhary, and his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, under detention. He told the journalists that they knew nothing about Pakistan and that all their reportage was “wrong” and based on their interaction with “30 per cent” of the people, who led modern lives in the cities.

In the villages, where 70 per cent of Pakistan lived, Musharraf said, he was still popular. From a leader who has touted education and “moderate enlightenment” as the answer to the country’s manifold problems, it sounded breathtakingly self-serving to put down Pakistan’s educated class in one go. It also showed the extent to which he is in denial.

Published in FrontLine Magazine

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