A dinner of Burnes Road Gola Kababs the night before had kept me home from work on a particular day a little over thirty years ago. Feeling better towards late afternoon, I made myself comfortable on the lounge sofa, where my little daughter brought the classwork project on which she wanted help. The TV was on and it displayed the snarling face and hooded eyes of the dictator-of-the-day, as it only too frequently did. I turned it off and, through that evening, cut off from communication with the outside world thanks to an out-of-order telephone, my wife and I concentrated on our little girl’s project.
Thus it was that we were unaware of the huge events of that day until I went to the gate for my newspaper the next morning. As I carried in the still rolled up pages, my eyes caught a sentence, “World leaders shocked”. I wondered what they were shocked about as I opened the paper and was stunned by the front page – the thick black border and the headline that told me General Zia-ul-Haq had been killed in an air crash. The long reign of the dictator was over. Possibilities – and hopes – could come alive again.
However, there was a big question: Who had killed Zia? Which assassin’s hand or hands were behind this deed? And why? We did not know. And we still do not know.
Perhaps, as some say, we do not even want to know because, if we did, we would have to convict the perpetrators for a crime that many regarded as deliverance. Well, that is a judgment that could have been deliberated by a trial court, had we known who the assassins were. But we do not know, perhaps never will know.
Three months after Zia’s cremation, Benazir Bhutto led her Party to success in the elections that followed, igniting rays of hope in the hearts of the people. The symbolism of her assumption of office after the nightmare of the black Zia years was irresistible, although her actual performance in office can best be described as disappointing. However, that particular discussion is not my purpose today.
The next episode in this piece occurs nearly two decades, a new century, and several governments later and also concerns Ms Bhutto. We in this country are desperately short of heroines or, indeed, heroes of any gender. Whatever reservations may exist regarding here executive abilities, Benazir Bhutto possessed both charisma and personal courage in extraordinary measure and she very quickly regained her status as the People’s Princess. Again making what this writer considers an entirely gratuitous set of “deals”, she returned to Pakistan in 2007. To huge popular acclamation and adulation. To bombs. And bullets. And death.
Look at each of those names, and at any others you can think of. These were all well known, influential, even powerful persons, all with followers or successors or families who would be pressing strongly for the cases to be investigated and the assassins and their co-conspirators to be identified and punished
My family and I, as it happens, were visiting relatives in Lahore and were due to return to Karachi the night the assassination tragedy occurred. Our flight was cancelled. For the next three days, we watched on TV the violence in Karachi and other places, noting that while Lahore had become a grief-stricken ghost town of closed shops, no traffic and patrolling police, it had escaped the extreme violence occurring in the south.
When, three nights later, we did return to Karachi, our long drive from Jinnah Airport to the upper end of Karsaz Road (to drop a friend, whose car and driver we were sharing) and from there all the way along Drigh Road to the FTC flyover, Kala Pul and eventually Defence Society, was very tense indeed.
Karachi seemed a city after an air-raid, with general silence and darkness, shattered shop fronts, broken glass on the roads all along the way and the remnants of burning tyres, some of them still smouldering. Near the FTC Building, we saw a car and a scooter still burning. Ms Bhutto’s death had been most dramatically mourned.
In the wake of this immense event, the petty-minded functionaries of a ruling clique ignorant of the grand, unforgiving sweep of history mouthed inanities. One particular “spokesman” continued to insist, in an extraordinarily tasteless and obtuse manner, that her death had been somehow brought about by poor safety standards on the part of the Toyota Motor Company!!??! Still more tastelessly, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf implied that it was her own fault for “sticking her neck out” of the sunroof. Well, yes, sticking her neck out was indeed what she had been doing, perhaps quixotically, taking risks with enormous courage. However flawed her legacy, she will be remembered in our history books, even when Musharraf’s hypocritical regime is forgotten or – if remembered at all, bringing only a grimace of disgust.
The point of this piece remains: Her assassin has not been brought to trial because, yet again, although 22 years have passed, no assassin has been accused or even identified.
Assassins operate from behind palace curtains, striking invisibly. With dark plots being hatched in closed circles, the actual assassins may not be the ones who actually do the killing, the latter being merely cat’s paws of the former.
Consider. In the same Liaquat Bagh of Rawalpindi where Ms Bhutto was targeted (known at that time as “Company Bagh”), the country’s first prime minister – regarded as one of our major founding figures – was gunned down in full public view. In this case, the identity of the assailant, Said Akbar Khan, is known, but not why he did it or who else was behind it. The crowds held Said Akbar Khan but he was shot dead on the spot by police sergeant Mohammad Shah on the shouted command of Superintendent of Police Najaf Khan, who had been standing directly behind the Prime Minister and who also fired two shots, presumably into the air. Well, Najaf Khan went on to complete a lengthy police career. But whose were the minds behind the assassination itself? Who had instigated the assassin, and cold-bloodedly planned the entire crime? These facts have never come to light.
Thus, the country’s longest ruling dictator, its immensely popular first woman prime minister, and its first prime minister, have all fallen to the assassin’s hand. And in every case, despite the extraordinary eminence of the victims and the enormity of the crimes committed, the assassins and their motives have remained unidentified.
The same holds true for the various other political assassinations that have left their bloody smears on this country’s tragic history. Dr Khan Sahib, Shaheed Surrawardy, Hayat Sherpao, Shahnawaz Bhutto, Ghulam Haider Wyne, Murtaza Bhutto, Hakim Saeed, Azam Tariq, Akbar Bugti, Imran Farouq: The list is far from exhaustive. And (since the case against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is generally regarded as false), then who was it who actually murdered Nawab Mohammed Ahmed Khan? And why?
It is not the point of this piece to speculate about the possible identities of the various killers of the above. It is to highlight precisely the fact that the assassins, and those behind them, remain unidentified. Look at each of those names, and at any others you can think of. These were all well known, influential, even powerful persons, all with followers or successors or families who would be pressing strongly for the cases to be investigated and the assassins and their co-conspirators to be identified and punished.
But this has not happened, does not happen. These killings are surrounded by silence, conspiracies of silence.
Consider also the startling number of these assassinations and the fact that this list is far from exhaustive. So many assassinations over a span of a mere 72 years. What kind of bloodthirsty land do we live in?