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Home > News > Report

We South Asians like our leaders dead

Sandip Roy | December 29, 2007 01:52 IST
Last Updated: December 30, 2007 14:35 IST

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In death, Benazir Bhutto [Images] might have managed to do what eluded her in the last years of her life.

Dogged by rumours 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 teenaged 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 that 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 caf� in Kolkata. 

 "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 deaths, 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 [Images]. 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 [Images] 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."

This was the extreme makeover of Benazir Bhutto as it has been for many of  her sub-continental predecessors. India's Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Sri  Lanka's Solomon Bandaranaike, Ranasinghe Premdasa, Bangladesh's Mujibur Rahman, Ziaur Rahman, Pakistan's Liaquat Ali Khan, Benazir's own father  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, back to Mahatma Gandhi [Images] himself -- many of South Asia's  leaders have met with fiery ends.

Almost 20 years after his death, rumours 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 fresh-faced 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 blood bath 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."

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