Nineteen years ago at the end of December, Benazir Bhutto, fresh from her first, exhilarating election victory and newly sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan, met Rajiv Gandhi, the youthful prime minister of India, for talks in Islamabad. She was 35, he was 44. There was obvious good will, almost intimacy, between them. The air was full of promise and hope that these two modernizing scions of dominant political families would turn decades of war and hostility between their nations into a new era of peace.
Three and a half years later, Gandhi was assassinated. There had been no breakthrough with Pakistan to bolster his legacy. Now Bhutto is dead, at another moment of renewed anticipation. An age of hope is over.
There is a terrible symmetry in the lives and deaths of these two political leaders. Both were the children of powerful people: Indira Gandhi as India’s prime minister and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto her counterpart in Pakistan. Together, in 1972, they had negotiated an agreement over Kashmir, but their heirs were never able to build on it. Their respective children, Rajiv and Benazir, had seen those parents suffer politically motivated deaths: Indira murdered in 1984 by bodyguards revenging her attacks on Sikhs, and Zulfikar hanged under the regime of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in what many Pakistanis consider a thinly disguised judicial execution.
Young Gandhi and Bhutto, both killed in suicide attacks, ultimately became the victims of inherited policies. Rajiv Gandhi had tried to put an end to Indian meddling in Sri Lanka and its support for a vicious Tamil Tiger rebellion. He was killed by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber, a woman who moved toward him to touch his feet in an age-old gesture, then triggered an explosion that blew them both apart. While it is too early to know who killed Benazir, Pakistan’s policies on Afghanistan are the backdrop to this tense and dangerous moment. Her father and his successors had supported Afghan rebels in order to become a player in Afghanistan and counter Indian influence in Kabul lately aligning riskily with American policies. Rajiv’s mother, whose intelligence agencies roamed the region causing havoc, had set out to weaken Sri Lanka, South Asia’s most developed nation.
Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi were both campaigning to return to power when they died. Both had been elected, then vilified. She lost support among middle-class Pakistanis for her feudal ways and unwillingness to take on social issues–child labor or the mistreatment of women–or chip away at the power of the military, and was driven from office twice on charges of corruption, much of it attributed to her husband. In India, Rajiv was the perennial butt of attacks from unreconstructed leftists and traditionalists who scoffed at his Westernized style, Italian wife and fresh ideas that rattled the khadi crowd. On the night he died, a policeman told me they had identified his remains by his expensive imported running shoes. Suspicions linger that Gandhi or those close to him may have been involved in illegal payments for arms contracts.
Tragically, political violence has been the bane of modern South Asia, from Afghanistan and Pakistan east to Bangladesh. Militants and fanatics of all stripes and dogmas and grievances have assassinated leaders since much of the region gained independence from Britain in the mid 1940s. It has been a formidable hindrance to development of political institutions.
In New Delhi, Mohandas K. Gandhi was killed in 1948 by an outraged Hindu. Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951–in the same Rawalpindi park where Benazir Bhutto was attacked–and General Zia ul-Haq perished in a still mysterious plane crash in 1988. In Sri Lanka in 1959, Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike fell victim to a fanatic Buddhist monk, the first of two generations of more than a half-dozen leading politicians to die in shootings and bombings. (Tamil Tiger rebels would later try but fail to kill Bandaranaike’s daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she was president.) Sheikh Mujibir Rahman, founder and first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh, was murdered in 1975; in 1981 Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman, was shot in an army coup. Nepal’s entire royal family was wiped out in one evening in Kathmandu in 2001, apparently by a disaffected crown prince.
Hindus and Muslims killed one another by the hundreds of thousands after the partition of British India in 1947 into Pakistan and modern India. And compared with Pakistan since then, India has experienced much more large-scale sectarian and political violence, with thousands of Sikhs butchered in the streets of Delhi and elsewhere in North India after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, and up to 2,000 Muslims slaughtered by Hindu nationalists in Gujarat–Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace–in 2002. In both cases, political parties have been deeply implicated yet no political leader has been punished–in a democracy.
As the world mourns the loss of Benazir Bhutto, it would be myopic to focus only on Islamic-inspired violence and on Pakistan. This is a region with a turbulent post-independence political history. Our (Islamophobic?) preoccupation with Muslim terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan often blocks out a bigger picture. From end to end, South Asia is a region drenched in blood.