A Powerful Woman Leading The Struggle For A Freer Pakistan Is An Argument Against Obscurantism
For some Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s bold press conference in which she aggressively attached the military establishment is a moment where history repeats itself—like Benazir Bhutto she is a daughter of a popular and yet convicted former Prime Minister, like Benazir Bhutto, Maryam Nawaz sharif has been at the receiving end of establishment’s machinations, both the ladies refused to bow before the powers that be after their fathers were shunted out from politics. Like Benazir Bhutto, Maryam Nawaz Sharif has an impressive personality—well articulate and graceful. Benazir Bhutto inherited a well entrenched tradition of left oriented radical politics from her father—an advantage not available to Maryam Nawaz, though she is discernibly drifting in that direction with her occasional outbursts against military establishment, something her conservative party men are not comfortable with.
The Bhutto family was facing the wrath of the then military regime in the 1970s and early 1980s—all the coercive machinery of the state turned against them and in this situation Benazir Bhutto emerged as a new political star of Bhutto clan. Courts, intelligence agencies, police and other investigation agencies were unleashed on the Bhutto Family by the military dictator. Benazir Bhutto had to undergo frequent arrests and solitary confinement from 1979 till 1984, when she was allowed by General Zia to proceed to London under American pressure. Similarly, Sharif family started to face the wrath of the establishment and all the coercive machinery of the state was unleashed on them. All the prominent male members of Sharif family are either in exile or behind bars, just like Bhuttos in the 1970s. Thus the path to glory, though in patently unfortunate environments, has been cleared for Maryam Nawaz Sharif.
Similarities between the situation faced by Benazir Bhutto in 1970s and Maryan Nawaz Sharif in 2020 may be uncanny or may be simply an outcome of similar nature of the political conflict that led to the rise of two ladies in Pakistani politics—Confrontation with the military establishment is common between the rise of Benazir Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz Sharif. The basic nature of treatment meted out to two families is quite similar. The military junta of Zia wanted to eliminate Bhutto and for him only possibility of that happening was to murder him and in the process used judiciary quite shamelessly. More or less the same story was repeated in 2020, with the only difference that Sharif never faced the threat of physical elimination.
But similarities stop there. Besides, it was similarity of circumstances only and not the resemblance of character or toughness between the two ladies. Benazir Bhutto spent almost five years in the jail of Military Government most of this time was spent in solitary confinement and what terrible times it was. Some would argue that Maryam Nawaz Sharif had also spent several months in jail. She has been hounded by state machinery even when living a free life out of jail. But comparing the 1970s and early 1980s with the situation in 2020 will be a gross mistake. Maryam Nawaz Sharif is in a much more comfortable situation. It is not that Pakistani state has become less oppressive in this intervening period.
In fact Pakistani state has retained its repressive and oppressive character amidst changing social and political conditions in the society. Now we have a much more developed society and much more social and political space for anyone challenging the authority or dominance of the state machinery. Looking at the situation in which Benazir Bhutto challenged the establishment one cannot start to fathom the psychology of oppressive environment that she faced—physical isolation of the confinement cell in the jail is coupled with the psychological isolation that was forced on her by the military government and by the socially and political backward environment that existed in those days. There was no social media. Conventional media was restricted to few newspapers and television operated under the strict supervision of military bosses. Benazir Bhutto spent the period from 1977 till 1984 in solitary confinement cells in the jail or under house arrest at his ancestral residence in Karachi. She was allowed no newspapers, no television, no telephone and no interaction with the sympathizers. In such an environment of physical and psychological isolation it was no less than a miracle for a young lady in her early 30s to remain steadfast and continue to speak the language of resistance. It is humanly and psychologically not possible for us to reconstruct the tale of her experience in those years and she is no longer alive to tell the tale.
While making this comparison I am not at all trying to belittle the ordeal that Maryam Nawaz Sharif is passing through. Just like Benazir Bhutto—she lost her brother—Maryam Nawaz Sharif also lost her mother in these testing times. But the social and political environment in which Maryam Nawaz Sharif operates is dramatically different and better from the 1970s and early 1980s. Political oppression and forcible suppression of dissenting voices was a norm in the 1970s and early 1980s. Now things have changed and there are hundreds of political works, journalists, intellectuals, artists and writers to name a few who openly criticize the treatment meted out to Sharif family. And this intellectual elite of Pakistani society has the vehicle to make their voice heard all around the world through Twitter, Facebook, whatsapp and Instagram. True there was an intellectual elite supporting Benazir Bhutto and her struggle in early 1980s but Benazir Bhutto could not have heard or felt their presence, as the newspaper (the only mechanism through which public opinion was expressed) was widely censored. Maryam Nawaz Sharif should be thankful to hundreds of intellectuals, journalists, writers, artists and thinkers who are virtually participating in her struggle through social media activism. She should also spare some time to think about those people who were struggling for a free society in much worse conditions in the 1970s.
History has brought Maryam Nawaz Sharif to a point where she will have to lead the struggle for a freer Pakistan. What she can learn from Benazir Bhutto—her predecessor in this struggle? Two things—rightly or wrongly Benazir Bhutto’s unblemished image as a popular leader was tainted in the later years of her struggle with allegations of corruption. This critically damaged her reputation as an upright champion of people’s rights. There is a lesson for Maryam Nawaz, which she could ignore at her peril. Secondly Benazir Bhutto made a calculated and well considered decision to shun violence in her political career. After her father’s hanging, her brothers turned towards violence. But she remained steadfastly opposed to use of violence as a political tool. This is a second lesson Maryam Nawaz should learn from Bhutto. Image of a female political leader leading a religiously and politically conservative society like Pakistan is a powerful image—and should be used as an argument against obscurantism.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.