We South Asians like our leaders dead

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto reminds us that in this region the allure of sacrifice runs deep.

Topics: Pakistan

In death Benazir Bhutto might have managed to do what eluded her in the last years of her life. Dogged by rumors of corruption, accused of a coy dance of veils and on-again, off-again backroom deals with President Musharraf, derided as Washington’s choice of a dictator with a pretty face, even previous assassination attempts on her were dismissed by cynics as publicity stunts. But in death, Bhutto showed the world that democracy in her part of the world can be deadly business. In life she was a politician. In death she became a martyr.

South Asians like their martyrs. My great-grandfather allegedly brought home a vial of some of the ashes of a teenage revolutionary hanged by the British. Khudiram had thrown a bomb at a British magistrate and gone to the gallows with a smile. Ironically, my great-grandfather worked for the British, in their police service. But he was so awed by young Khudiram’s sacrifice, he used his official connections to get that vial, which he kept in his bedroom.

Benazir was no 15-year-old tilting at windmills in some foolhardy act of defiance. She was South Asian royalty. “Benazir is killed. I’m stunned,” a friend texted me from a cafe in Calcutta. “I really am.” As my friend says, in our feudal societies, much as we might pretend otherwise, we have a royalist streak. And when a royal goes down in a hail of bullets, it sends a collective shiver down our spines.

Macabre as it may be, this notion of sacrifice is something that thrills us, even if few of us want to really practice it anymore. It is deeply romantic. Every history book we read was all about glorious sacrifice. Stirring stories of fresh-faced young men and women who bravely went to their death, sometimes almost a foolhardy act of resistance that had little real political impact, became immortalized in innumerable cheesy films and patriotic songs.

The Raj is gone. Now the enemy is harder to identify — it does not wear a pith helmet and come from London. Yet the allure of sacrifice, almost the expectation of sacrifice in public life, runs strong. Politics is dirty business, we are constantly told, but through assassination and execution, tainted politicians can manage an extreme makeover, redeeming not just themselves but the process itself. A real political dynasty, South Asians seem to believe, measures its worth in blood. The night before she was assassinated Indira Gandhi said, “I don’t mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die today every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.”

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That was the extreme makeover of Benazir Bhutto, as it has been for many of her subcontinent predecessors. India’s Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Sri Lanka’s Solomon Bandaranaike, Bangladesh’s Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, Benazir’s own father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, back to Mahatma Gandhi himself — many of South Asia’s leaders have come to a fiery end. Almost 20 years after his death rumors still circulate about whether the plane crash that killed Pakistani strongman Zia ul-Haq was really an accident.

Benazir’s death is most reminiscent of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Both the children of prime ministers, anointed into political office by their lineage, they had been the great democratic hopes of their countries. Both fell from grace, dogged by scandal and corruption but tried to come back to power again. In fact, both died on the job as it were, at a campaign rally, at the hands of a suicide bomber. Rajiv Gandhi, who many believed squandered the huge sympathy after the assassination of his mother Indira, managed in death to resuscitate his party. The Congress Party was able to come back to power.

In Pakistan, the death of Benazir could become the galvanizing force for a mass engagement in the political process. Or it could unleash the kind of revenge-seeking bloodbath that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

“The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” President Bush predictably told reporters in Crawford, Texas. “Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.” He’s missing the point. This is not an episode of “Law & Order,” where the killers have to be caught and punished. That would be the way to end the story of Benazir Bhutto.

If Washington and Islamabad are really serious about democracy in Pakistan, they would do better to heed the words of Indira Gandhi: “Martyrdom does not end something; it is only a beginning.”

Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of its radio show "UpFront" on KALW (91.7 FM) in San Francisco.

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