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Erasing Benazir Bhutto’s Name Is Tantamount To Erasing Democracy

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Anaya Khan writes about removal of former PM Benazir Bhutto’s name from the Benazir Income Support Programme and argues that erasure of Benazir means erasure of democracy.

Everyone in Pakistan has their own version of Benazir Bhutto. Some remember her as a frail young girl who valiantly took on a tyrant the likes of which Pakistan had never witnessed before and has not seen to this day.

For many women all across Pakistan, young and old, Benazir Bhutto’s mere existence was a slap in the face of patriarchy and the patriarchal norms of society that held them back, because just the visual of a woman occupying the important civilian space, that of the Prime Minister, was enough to silence the misogynists. It was a befitting answer to those who questioned the fact that women could be just as good as men in not just everyday roles, but even in leadership roles.

Whenever Benazir Bhutto’s name is uttered, one cannot help but reminisce of the struggle a lone woman had to put up to fight off everything. From dictatorships to anti-democratic forces, from her imprisonments to her husband’s imprisonments on politically motivated charges, from the murder of her father to the murders of her brothers, from her mother getting baton-charged to herself getting tear-gassed while being pregnant, one thinks of a woman in exile who left her three kids, two of whom happened to be minors, to return to Pakistan after years of exile to fight for democracy despite threats, a fight that ended in her embracing martyrdom.

One thinks of the absolute patriotism it must have taken for Benazir Bhutto to fight through it all just to try to bring democracy back to Pakistan over and over, for her to be ready to risk and sacrifice it all – from family to the many chances at a position of power through backroom deals, just for democracy.

For more than three decades, Benazir Bhutto’s name has been synonymous with one word; democracy, so there is little wonder in why the erasure of Benazir Bhutto, in all forms, has become a necessity and a priority to a government that is bent on erasing all forms of freedoms, be it freedom of assembly, be it freedom of speech and any semblance of democratic norms from the country.

For a government marred with a consistently bad economic performance, constant in-fighting, a regular fear of allies jumping ship, sky-rocketing inflation, with Indian Occupied Kashmir still under lockdown, it seems no other issue is as big a priority or quite pressing as is that the removal of the name and/or the image of Benazir Bhutto from everything bears her name and image.

They started with the airport in the capital and have now come after Benazir Income Support Program, a social safety net program for underprivileged women started during the PPP era to honor the legacy of Benazir Bhutto.

It is pertinent to note that the name of BISP remained untouched even during Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, even though Nawaz Sharif had once been Benazir Bhutto’s strongest political rival. The erasure of the name of Benazir Bhutto is such a priority and goes to such an extent that the ministers of this government including the Prime Minister himself are often heard referring to Benazir Bhutto’s son as Bilawal Zardari as opposed to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari because even accepting the fact that her name lives on is a threat to the existence of the very structure this government stands upon.

The erasure of Benazir Bhutto has been a primary issue to those who are at the highest ranks of power because it seems until her name is alive in the hearts and minds of the ordinary people of Pakistan, erasing democracy and all democratic norms isn’t a task as easy as it seems.

For many in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto’s name is still a powerful reminder of and symbol of the fight Pakistan, its democratic leaders, and its ordinary citizens have had to put up for democracy. Benazir Bhutto’s name reminds people of the days when a staunchly democratic woman’s mere presence in politics would send shivers down dictators’ spines. Benazir Bhutto’s legacy lives on every time someone in this country talks about parliamentary supremacy. It lives on every time a little girl dreams of becoming Prime Minister.

It lives on every time a child is vaccinated against polio. It lives on every time a young woman takes on the task of becoming a polio health worker. It lives on every time people go out to vote and no amount of erasure by this government can put an end to that legacy.

The people who occupy the highest offices of this regime can try all they want, but even in the hearts of Benazir Bhutto’s worst foes, the image of a valiant woman taking on every anti-democratic force in the country will always live on, whether this government wants it to or not.

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Naya Daur