First published at Jahane Rumi
The UN Report is a historic document for it brings forth a set of findings and actions that should become the cornerstone for democratic mobilisation in Pakistani politics
The UN fact finding report on Benazir Bhutto’s murder is a scathing indictment of the Pakistani state and its dysfunctional institutions. However, sections of the media have seized it as a glorious opportunity to target the PPP itself by squarely apportioning the blame on Rahman Malik and Babar Awan – the two characters who are now punching-bags of the right wing. Not that Malik or Awan are spotless revolutionaries, but they are no different from the other political actors. After all, Pakistani politics is a nefarious web of patronage, sycophancy and shady deals, often involving the state and its agencies. The reason for targetting these two individuals is simple: they are close associates of President Zardari who, according to the Punjabi urban legends, is the alleged killer of Mohatarma.
Now that the UN report has exonerated Zardari of the crime, a few TV anchors and several writers in the vernacular press are hell-bent on proving that the real reason for Bhutto’s murder was the whisking away of a backup vehicle. Such a narrative ignores the gritty and ugly realities of our polity. The reason is quite clear: public discourse must be shaped in a manner that minimizes the embedded, historical role of the praetorian state, intolerant and suspicious as it is of alternative sources of power. In this case, it would be the popular legitimacy which Benazir Bhutto enjoys even in the grave.
The UN report has attempted at a loose definition of what constitutes the Pakistani establishment, and places its intelligence agencies at the core of such a power-centre. In recent days, this has been derided by the usual suspects. First, the Urdu columnists whose careers have been shaped and enriched by invisible hands. Second, the TV anchors whose shows have lost all credibility. And lastly, the audience they cater to: the conservative mindset which cannot forgive the Bhuttos for being pro-poor, Sindhi and secular.
There is little doubt that the UN Commission has identified the intricate web of the establishment and its networks having a clear role in the events leading to BB’s murder and the immediate actions or negligence shown by the state functionaries. It would be pointless to single out individuals as is being done in the uni-dimensional debates in the popular media. Mr. Saud Aziz, the Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) of the Rawalpindi district was not an individual actor: he had clear lines of reporting, such as the Inspector General of Police of the province, and therefore, prosecuting him alone would serve little purpose. It is about the systemic failure (or engineering to that effect) which is of major concern. It seems that the colonial governance apparatus comprising the police, the local and greater spies is still alive and works in an integrated manner.
Why do certain quarters take the interim conclusions drawn by the UN report as such an affront? It appears that we are still in denial about the inherent contradictions of our mammoth state and its workings not to mention its questionable relationship with jihadi outfits. There is a tendency to blame the United States of America for Benazir’s murder and this is another popular pastime in the media. In fact, BB’s murder is construed as a “conspiracy” to destabilize Pakistan by its enemies. The same media and agencies also hold Baitullah Mehsud responsible for orchestrating a rather sophisticated, fool-proof and well-coordinated assassination strategy. The question is: what did the US, or for that matter India or Israel (the commonly perceived enemies of Pakistan) achieve by doing this? Wasn’t Benazir Bhutto an “American agent” the day before she was brutally shot dead on the streets of Rawalpindi? Perhaps there is amnesia about her branding as a “security risk” by the state for decades.
The UN report clearly and with some convincing pieces of evidence, challenges this discourse and puts the conspiracy theorists to complete shame, as the monumental follies of Pakistani institutions have been highlighted in no uncertain terms by the UN Commission.
Reforming the state?
While the UN Commission had a limited mandate, it did come up with some useful insights into the way the Pakistani laws are selectively enforced and more often than not, flouted. We had heard for months that Zardari did not let an autopsy take place. The UN Report clearly states that prior to the arrival of Zardari from Dubai, BB’s dead body had reached the Chaklala air-base, wrapped in a coffin and that the doctors have testified before the Commission that their intent to undertake an autopsy was obstructed by none other than the police functionaries. Assuming that Zardari had actually disallowed an autopsy, as the UN Report rightly states, it was imperative that the autopsy of this high-profile murder should have been carried out as per the legal requirements. This was no ordinary victim.
In terms of gathering evidence from the crime scene, “thousands” of pieces of evidence were washed away by an extra-legal order from somewhere. The Report alludes to the alleged “order”, but for obvious reasons including that of the deponents wanting to remain anonymous, failed to pinpoint responsibility. However, there is credible circumstantial evidence to suggest that the unbecoming conduct of the police was neither an accident nor a mistake.
General Musharraf tried to introduce Police reforms in 2002 through the enactment of the Police Order that year. One of the key features of this reform was the separation of policing and investigative functions to improve the capacity of the police to conduct timely and effective investigations, so that the pending cases in courts could be fast-tracked. Separation of these two functions was implemented across the country but overtime the local vested interests typified by Station House Officers (SHOs) of the police prevailed over policy-makers. And thus, we are back to square one.
It is of primary importance that the investigative capabilities of the police are enhanced as they are primitive, compared to the times we live in. Similarly, the rationalization of political wings within the intelligence agencies is a long-standing reform that has yet to be introduced, let alone implemented. This is, of course, asking for the moon, given the recent experience of the PPP government in introducing an awkward measure through a notification which was hastily withdrawn last year. Such a withdrawal came after intense pressure by concerned quarters and of course a belligerent media who thought that a security-risk Party was about to sell Pakistan’s strategic assets by undertaking a puny reform measure.
One cannot be oblivious to the fact that we are victims of history and our peculiar geography. It is even more naïve to assume that India has never been a threat to Pakistan’s existence. Sadly, 1971 lives in our collective subconscious. However, whether such a fear should override everything else is a question to be addressed. This is where the Pakistani intelligentsia has failed to inform or shape public opinion. Such is the power of the national security discourse that it seems to have enveloped even the best of our minds. The detractors of the UN Commission and its findings also include this creed. It has been said that the UN Commission was too expensive, inconclusive and even useless by stalwarts including those who espouse progressive causes.
The previous experience of the judicial Commission which investigated Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s murder was not all too satisfactory. This judicial Commission, while undoing the popular myths (Zardari’s and BB’s culpability in Murtaza’s murder for example), concluded that there was a high-level conspiracy in action. It is very difficult for Pakistanis to use the kind of language and candour that was employed by the UN Report. Even more impossible is to mention the unmentionable institutions of the state that we all know but are afraid to name. The UN Report is free of such limitations that Pakistan’s culture of power imposes.
Many analysts have opined that nothing will come out of any subsequent investigations. Maybe. What, then, is the alternative? Should we be resigned to our collective fate and accept the fact that the state will remain callous and act with impunity? Are we condemned to a culture of complete lack of institutional accountability? In this context, the UN Report is a historic document for it brings forth a set of findings and actions that should become the cornerstone for democratic mobilization in Pakistani politics. Such a political discourse needs to adopt a single point agenda: civilian supremacy and ascendancy of the elected over the unelected. This is an incremental process and will require patience, fortitude and above all foresight on the part of the politicians. Contrary to the isolated, nihilistic voices, the remedy is not to affect the legitimate operations of the security apparatus and the latter’s role in guarding our geographical frontiers but to ensure that there are rules of the game for all public institutions.
The Pakistani citizenry has a right to know and live in a rule-based, just society where political assassinations are not the norm. If the political elites make the UN Report another area of political contest and vilification of the PPP, we are bound to lose the game. Perhaps forever.