Remembering Benazir

From Shyam Bhatia

London, December 29, 2020

Politicians and journalists don’t always stay good friends and even if they do get close, those ties rarely last. Of course there are exceptions.The late Kuldip Nayar remained a firm friend of Inder Gujral before, during and after he became Prime Minister of India. Deceased British journalist James Cameron was a lifelong pal of British Labour Party leader Michael Foot.

My most treasured pictures of Benazir Bhutto are from when she flew back to Lahore in 1986 following two years of self imposed exile. They are a reminder of another personal friendship between journalist and politician that survived  over the years and had its roots in our student years at university in Oxford.

 In 1986, reporter’s notebook in hand, I stood next to Benazir in the lead lorry that transported her from Lahore airport to Iqbal Park where she asked a rapturous crowd what they thought of the country’s military dictator General Zia Ul Haq. “Zia avey,avey”, she inquired ? “Ya Zia javey, javey ?” Some in the crowd shouted, “Zia kutta hai”, but most responded more politely, “Zia javey, javey.”

It was impossible not to be caught up in the excitement, not least because I was an Indian standing only yards away from the soon-to-be Prime Minister of Pakistan. Close by sat Mazhar Ali Khan, father of famous Pakistani writer Tariq Ali, plus a host of other VIPs and personal friends. Among them was another Oxford chum who spontaneously yanked me into the lorry soon after her plane landed.

Benazir wore a smart, designer jacket, her head was covered in a white dupatta and her rapturous, million strong supporters were a riot of colour. Some waved the green and white flag of Pakistan, others embraced the red, black and green flag of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that she headed. Everyone that day agreed how she displayed qualities of great dignity, grace and courage, ready to defy the military authorities of the time. None of us anticipated she would be killed 21 years later on the streets of Karachi when she attempted another similar comeback to her own country.

We first got to know each other in unusual circumstances when she was an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, lobbying for her father, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to be given an honorary degree. I was a student at Wadham College and participated in a student movement opposed to the idea. We argued that he should not be rewarded with any honorary degree because of his alleged role in the atrocities committed against Bengalis in East Pakistan.

One afternoon at Wadham there was a commotion outside my room as Benazir – “Pinky Bhutto” to her friends – stormed up the stairs to shout at me,”How dare you block my father’s honorary degree.” I told her to mind her manners and slammed the door in her face.

Six months passed, we barely spoke, then out of the blue  I received an invitation to a party she was co-hosting with Peter Galbraith, later to be US ambassador to Croatia. “Have you forgiven me”, she asked as soon as I arrived. I mumbled something about how it was impossible not to forgive a Shahzadi and we from then on remained firm friends.

Years later when she was under house arrest in Karachi, and before she went into exile, I happened to be visiting Pakistan and managed to smuggle her a hand written note of support, telling her how she was missed by her many friends in the UK. The note was conveyed by a mutual friend who played Bridge with Benazir’s aunt living in the exclusive Karachi suburb of Clifton.

Meanwhile there were significant interactions with other members of the Bhutto family as well. Benazir’s brother Murtaza was also a student at Oxford. We often bumped into each other, if only because we shared the same tutor in the late Sir Michael Howard. Murtaza was researching Pakistan’s nuclear programme, my thesis was about the history of India’s nuclear bomb.

Then, when Benazir had been Prime Minister of Pakistan for barely a year, I ran into Murtaza at the bar of the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus in 1988. Elegantly turned out in black trousers and a red waistcoat, he was living in exile in Syria at the time, a guest of President Hafez El Assad, and I was visiting Damascus to report the plight of Western hostages taken prisoner in neighbouring Lebanon.

Highly suspicious and easily angered, he whipped out a pistol and pointed it at me when I asked, “Murtaza, is that you ?” A few minutes later he calmed down and later that same evening volunteered an on-the-record interview that lasted most of the night as we drank steadily through a large bottle of Scotch. Throughout the evening he kept returning to the theme of how his sister, a woman (expletive deleted), had cheated him out of the Prime Minister’s job which was rightfully his as the eldest son and heir of his father.

More critical comments followed that were not included in an article published the following week end. Murtaza’s instant response was to take personal legal action and demand £10 million damages for a story that he claimed was a complete fabrication. Days later the case was withdrawn because I was able to provide witnesses who corroborated the substance of the interview. Some years later when we met again in London, I asked Murtza to justify his behaviour, he replied, “Come on Shyam, can’t you take a joke.”

Although Murtaza did not stay in touch, Benazir remained in contact. One 1993 afternoon in Jerusalem, where l was based as a Middle East correspondent and Benazir was serving her second term as Prime Minister, the telephone in my office rang with a woman’s voice at the other end.

“Shyam, this is Benazir”, the voice said. At first I thought it was afriend playing a joke, but Benazir persisted with a request. “Can you help facilitate a meeting with Yasser Arafat”, she asked ? “He lives in Gaza, which is controlled by Israel,  and to get to him now, I would first have to travel to Israel. The problem is that Pakistan has no diplomatic ties with Israel. Can you tell Arafat I am ready to travel from Egypt to meet him at the Gaza border ?”

It was an unusual request, but, sensing a possible story, I duly passed on her message to the Palestinian leader. His response was sharp.”You are a reporter, not a diplomat. Any request she has can be conveyed through the Palestine embassy in Islamabad.”

This Palestine initiative of 1993 was one of many diplomatic challenges that year in which Benazir immersed herself. This was the same year in which she also travelled to North Korea, personally handing over key details of uranium enrichment technology to Pyongyang. In exchange the North Koreans handed over the Nodong missile craved at the time by Pakistan’s generals.

Details of that exchange were revealed to me a decade later when a demoralised Benazir was once again in exile, flitting between London and Dubai, remembering her murdered brother Murtaza and desperately trying to get her husband Asif Ali Zardari released from prison.

The earlier context was a private dinner in London in 2003, when Benazir asked, “My brother Murtaza said some things about me when he was alive. Can you now tell me what they were ?” I hummed and hawed, then eventually agreed, provided she in return granted a no-holds-barred interview about anything I chose to ask. “Come to Dubai”, she told me. “There I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

A few months later I flew to Dubai, recording a four hour long interview, including her off-the-record revelations about North Korea. She also talked about other sensitive issues that were likewise recorded and remain confidential to this day. What can be revealed is what she said when asked if Pakistan had ever considered a nuclear strike against India.

This was her still preserved response from 2003. “For God’s sake. Never for a moment have I ever woken up with such a thought. Because I know that even if I was mad enough to think that, I would end up nukeing my own people. I don’t understand how this is a deterrent because neither India can use the nuke, nor can Pakistan. Because whichever country is throwing that nuke knows there is not enough time/space and is going to get it back.”

We subsequently remained in touch, always meeting in London, although she subsequently resisted my efforts to talk more in detail about North Korea.

One day before she left the UK for the last time to return to Pakistan, I received an invitation to a farewell function at a PPP supporter’s flat located close to London’s Marble Arch.

“Don’t go back”, I pleaded with her. “The army fears your popularity and they’ll be waiting for you.” Ever the optimist and always courageous, she looked me straight in the eyes before replying. “You may not understand, but I have to return”.


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