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Lady Bhutto

I saw a happy and confident Lady Bhutto on TV, at the end of 2007, handshaking the admi­re­rs and supporters crowded at a rally in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, to then step into the car in which she was gunned down. It was a shocking moment for the entire world. I can think of no better way to respect her memory, than to recount the days when I met her and the circumstances under which I met her father, Ali Zulfikar Bhutto, the hanged Premier. These pages from the memory book are, to me, fragments from a Greek tragedy.

New York, autumn 1965

I’m at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, assisting Foreign Minister Corneliu Mănescu. It was the tenth General Assembly meeting I was taking part in, and most topics were rather routine to me. Few speeches said anything new, whether they tackled recurrent crises or the four key themes — development, disar­mament, de-colonisation and human rights. This is why I was not surprised when Aziz Ahmed came looking for me. We had met back in the ‘50s, when we were both advisers with our respective permanent missions. Now he was the secretary of Pakistan’s Foreign Mi­nis­ter, Ali Bhutto. He wanted to schedule a meeting of the two ministers, one of the dozens of contacts established during the session. It’s probably about the main item on the agenda, the Kashmir conflict, I said to myself, and he must be seeking a favourable vote on the resolution. The protracted conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir was in the agenda in 1948, and we had listen to Krishna Menon, the Indian Minister famous for his rhetoric record at a Security Council meeting, in which he spoke for 7 hours in a row on the topic, and eventually fainted. I wasn’t wrong. When the two ministers and the two deputies met at the beautiful and elegant Romanian mission headquarters, located bet­ween Park Avenue and Madison, in Manhattan, it was Kashmir that Ali Bhutto wanted to talk about. The war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir had broken out in September.  But the actual talks went much beyond my forecast. Bhutto went as far as to propose Mănescu to mediate a truce between the conflicting parties. Never had Romania been offered such an important role, although I was aware that a number of elements helped Romania stand out in the Eastern bloc, as the Socialist camp controlled by the Soviet Union was called: a different attitude than the rest of the bloc, expressed in certain ballots, on initiatives such as the 1965 Resolution on European cooperation; the close ties with developing countries; non-involvement in the disputes of the time (e.g. China-USSR, the Arab world – Israel). I thought Bucharest would agree. I was disappointed when Ro­mania politely declined the proposal. I was later to understand why this offer of short-lived glory was turned down. Only two years later, again in New York, did I. Gh. Maurer explain to me why Roma­nia was never involved in media­tion, but was working, in its own way, on the reconciliation of parties in various conflicts. This was also when I understood why Bhutto had chosen us. The international configuration was undergoing changes: conflicts had emer­ged, such as the Soviet-Chinese one, the Chinese-Indian one, the frozen conflict over control in Afghanistan, the US-Vietnamese conflict, all of them regarding Asia.
After Romania declines, Pakistan turns to the Soviet Union, which agrees to mediate. It yields fruit; truce is achieved in January 1966, through the Tashkent Agreement.
But the ceasefire is unpopular in Pakistan, and seen as favouring India. General Ayub Khan’s regime is shat­tered. Ali Zulfikar Bhutto resigns. He establishes a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and focuses on building and extending its influence. In 1969 Ayub Khan steps down, elections are held in 1970, PPP wins and Bhutto serves as president between 1971 and 1973, and as prime minister until 1977. The splintering of Western Pakistan (to­day’s Bangladesh) and the Indian-Pakis­tani war mark the beginning of his term in office. When his war minister Zia-ul-Haq stages a military coup, in 1977, Bhutto is tried for alle­ged corruption and executed by hanging in 1979.
He had been the first political lea­der elected through direct, free voting in the history of Pakistan. An act that had stuck with the people’s minds. The one to take over and carry on his mission, dedicating her entire life to Zul­fikar Ali Bhutto’s political progra­m­me, was his daughter Benazir Bhutto. She is the one who kept the party alive under the burden of dictatorships and the persecution of other regimes; she is the one who struggled for demo­cra­tic elections and the liberation of the society, without a moment’s rest, whether in the country or in exile, whe­ther free, behind bars or under house ar­rest, in a lifetime in which achie­ve­ments and crimes followed each other as if under some strange law of cyclicity. Only a person of firm beliefs and outstanding stamina can cross this troubled valley of the Indus.
Islamabad, autumn 1995

We are invited to a Congress of intellectuals in the Pakistani capital. There are four participants from Ro­mania: president of the Academy, Virgiliu N. Constantinescu, Academy member Răzvan Teodorescu, the well-known Christian-Democratic leader Ion Raţiu and myself. I was holding the president in high esteem, we had both been members of the Romanian delegation in a 1970 European Con­fe­rence in Prague, chaired by Mitterand and Havel. Just like then, invitations were nominal and issued by top-level officials, in this case by Mrs. Bhutto as host of the meeting. I knew and appreciated Răzvan Theodorescu for his research in the history of culture, while my relationship with Ion Raţiu was to be quite cordial, partly because, just like him, I had been born in Transyl­vania and both our fathers had been present in Alba Iulia in 1918. I say that because we were to go through the same night-flight trials, and then, at the conference itself, to be all subject to the same strict, though not brutal surveillance regime: we stayed in different comfortable hotels, each with a guardian angel who never lost sight of us. Our escorts were nice, educated lady students, who told us that they were watching over us for our safety, and that going out was not exactly recommended. They were fluent in foreign languages and did their duty with some discretion.
Conference participants were a very motley crowd: many Muslim states, Middle Easterners, Asians, Europeans of all complexions. The solemn opening and the president’s address indicate that she wishes to encourage the dialogue of her country’s intellectuals with the rest of the world. Coming from the hall, an elderly lady goes uninvited and takes a seat on the dais. She is Lady Bhutto’s mother. Dl. Constantinescu tells me his student whispered to him there were clashes between mother and daughter.
Local and regional delegates share an utterly anti-Western sentiment. It reaches an unthinkable peak when a Lebanese delegate mentions the need to tackle and eradicate Christianity. I ask the French-speaking Lebanese colleagues whether this is a general opinion or some personal rebellion. It is by no means a Lebanese idea, they say, we are Christians and Muslims. But as you know the situation in Leba­non has been delicate since the civil war. There are all sorts of extremists and impostors. Don’t pay attention to him, please. The mostly critical tone as regards Western values annoys Mr. Raţiu, who, to my surprise, requests a right of reply, and harshly retorts to those who don’t realise that it is this West which invented the freedom of speech that they now benefit from; which taught people about those rights which they now disregard; which fos­ters cooperation, while others pro­mote hatred and deepen conflicts. The firmness of this elegant, polite and smiling little old man left many in the audience speechless, while I admired the surprising strength of a true des­cendant of a 1918 Unification fighter.
At Mrs. Bhutto’s cocktail party, I took the opportunity to remind her of the meeting with her father at the UN and of Romanians’ respect for him. She looked impressed, voiced her friendly feelings for our country and asked the president of the Pakistani Academy whether our delegation was suitably taken care of.
Then came the trip. Peshawar was suggested, which we knew as the weapon supply centre for the Afgha­nistan fighters; at the market­place there you can buy not only rifles and machine guns, but also cannons. We declined. The second option was closer on our side of the Indus River: Taxila, where Alexander the Great stopped. We accepted, enthusiastically. So here I was, in the yard of a motel, at a table. I invited my student, who was talking with several colleagues. I wanted to find out as much as possible about the Macedonian. I carefully approached the topic: you can never know, with this xenophobic nation. To my surprise, the student answered, “I love Alexander, if I had a boy I would name him Iska­nder”. He came to Taxila with friendly intentions, offered gifts to everybody. I was interested in what had happened over 23 centuries ago. What had brought this hero, who professed his divine ancestry and his destiny as a world leader, to the feet of the Himalaya and the mythical Indus River? He also thought of himself as Darius’s heir, and wanted to visit all the latter’s kingdom. What next? Exhaus­ted after the thousands of km he had travelled in today’s Middle East, Meso­potamia, Persia, and after reckless abuses, and mortified with having killed his best friend in a drinking party, with having sown fear and terror, with having wiped out cities and popu­la­tions, Alexander wondered here, in this stopover at Taxila, which road to take next: across the Himalaya to China, or downwards to India. It’s been six years since the defeat of the Persians. He makes for India, for Hydaspes, where he fails in 326 B.C. Three years later, at the age of 33, he died, leaving behind him new cities, Alexandria included. But he didn’t found Taxila, he just developed it. He found Greeks here, for­mer mercenaries for the Persians, who feared Alexander would punish them. Local Greeks persuaded Alexan­der that Taxila, just like the neigh­bouring sub-mountain Murrea, were created by the Greek god Diony­sus, so loved by Alexander, and brought him vine from the region, as proof, so his sym­pathy extended on these places.
I leave the past, to return to the present. I approach the political scien­ces that my companion studies. She does not shy from harsh criticism. “What are you planning on doing?” “Youth here have no future. Rich kids seize all scholarships. They are born Oxfordians. Military coups alternate with civilian regimes. Both are corrupt. No hope.” “But when you look around, what country do you have confidence in?” “Iran.” “Don’t you mind the veil, wo­­men’s status, the dictatorship of the mullahs?” “I see no obstacles to wo­men building a career. As for the rest, I admire the peace.” (I understand that two formulas, the military dictatorship and the corrupt democracy, have failed the expectations of this generation which seeks another solution, more pro­mising, in their view. This is com­mon across many Third World countries.) “What about Mrs. Bhutto?” “She has no future. She may survive for another two year.” I note this, and when Mrs. Bhutto is ousted in 1997, replaced by another politician, Nawaz Sharif, I will remember that memorable talk in the shadow of the Great Macedonian.
There’s one unasked question that troubles me. How can the diplomatic disguise hide such a substantial amount of discontent and protest, as openly voiced by my companion and the other interpreters of the Romanian delegates? What institutions are relevant here? Didn’t Pakistan, just like the US, in a move to ensure the anti-Soviet victory in Afghanistan, fall into the historic snare of training and equipping forces which then turned against them—the Taliban—which took control of regions as underground, unknown powers, set in motion by the mechanisms of conspiracy, subversion and brutal force? Didn’t they become as strong as the very military/civilian succession no longer matters in the political spectrum where they compete for primacy?
Post Scriptum
Mrs. Bhutto had returned from exile in 2007, to run in the upcoming elections, with the same platform of the same party. She meant to publicly present her faith, her credo and her ideas. She wrote a book, too. She devoted it to the concept of recon­cilia­tion, mentioned in the sub-heading. Its content is announced from the very beginning: Islam, Democracy and the West.
Most of the book looks at Islam through the ideas of the Quran, of authoritative interpretations. The reli­gion she belongs to is one of constant consultation, reconciliation, peaceful methods. To bring it up for terrorist purposes is to undermine and forge it, a theft. The Quran prohibits the killing of the innocent or of harming a fellow believer. Respect for related mono­theist religions is affirmed everywhere in the Quran, Moses and Christ are recognised as prophets of the same one God recognised by the Muslim. Two conclusions can be reached; this religion is favourable, not contrary to democracy, and is a possible source of global reconciliation. Its view on demo­cracy is quite realistic: it is not trans­planted, but fostered through local institutions. Education is essential, and wellbeing requires effort in rela­tion to the world, and not against it.
This is a noble and articulate message. The personality, who stood out through unremitting effort, has clear, substantiated, advanced thoughts. After graduating from a nun school in Murrea, the Dionysian locality visited by Alexander the Great, where the 1965 war found her, she furthered her education in Oxford and Harvard. She is up to date with the literature of our time, and to my delight, she does not hesitate to disagree with Huntington, author of “The clash of Civilisations.” I will not comment on Mrs. Bhutto’s book, “Reconciliation,” which I have read with much interest. I would only mention a thing, related to the Latin saying that “books have their own fate.” “Reconciliation” is indeed a legacy. Mrs. Bhutto sent the last corrections to the publishers on the eve of her death. It is not only a book dedicated to reconciliation, but also a token of solidarity with a world searching for new directions.


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