(AFP photo at the rally in Rawalpindi where she was killed.)
Why is South Asia such a hotbed of violence? Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s shocking assassination yesterday is being blamed on terrorists as well as President Musharraf at whom accusing fingers are being pointed by her Pakistan People’s Party supporters. But it is not an isolated incident. I was reminded of:
- The assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards in 1984.
- The assassination of her son, Rajiv Gandhi, by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber at an election rally near Chennai in 1991.
- The assassination of Bangladesh’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, by a group of army officers in 1975.
- The assassination of Sri Lankan prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike by a Buddhist monk in 1959.
- The assassination of King Birendra of Nepal by his son, Crown Prince Dipendra, who then committed suicide, in 2001.
- The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu zealot in 1948.
Somehow South Asian leaders seem more vulnerable than their European counterparts. Spencer Perceval was the only British prime minister assassinated, far back in 1812.
Pakistani leaders perhaps face the greatest threat.
Benazir’s father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979 after a coup led by General Zia-ul-Haq. Bhutto was accused of killing a political opponent. Zia himself died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988.
Musharraf has escaped several attempts on his life. Maybe that’s why he was unwilling to step down as army chief. In Pakistan, power does flow from the barrel of a gun. Like Zia, Musharraf captured power in a coup, ousting prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Coups have become routine in Pakistan, starting with Field Marshal Ayub Khan who seized power in 1958 and ruled till 1969.
Indeed, Pakistan seems a throwback to the Muslim era in Indian history when military power decided who should be king. The country is now racked by terrorism. But Pakistani governments have earlier been accused of abetting terrorists. Musharaff seized power from Nawaz Sharif after Pakistani forces were forced to retreat in a border conflict with India. And the conflict was over Kashmir, which Pakistan wanted to "liberate" from India because Kashmir has a Muslim majority.
Religious and ethnic divisions are to blame for the violence in India and Sri Lanka as well. Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards because she ordered an attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out Sikh separatists. Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a Tamil separatist from Sri Lanka. Gandhi was killed by a Hindu fanatic for protecting Muslims in India while Hindus and Sikhs were being killed in Pakistan after the partition of the two countries in 1947.
Benazir’s death is a tragedy. But if Islamic extremists are to blame, Pakistan did little to discourage them in the past.