TOPICS: Bhutto’s murder rekindles ethnic doubts

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, leader of the powerful Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and twice prime minister, has pushed to the brink a country already known for regionalism and ethnic suspicion. Bhutto was widely acknowledged as the only leader who enjoyed popularity in the four ethnically distinct provinces of the country, Punjab, Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) besides her own Sindh.

Punjab, the biggest province in terms of population and resources, has long been accused of treading on the rights of other provinces. Punjab’s dominance also rests on the fact that the top military leadership has traditionally been drawn from the province. Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari and other Sindhi leaders have been at pains to dispel threats to the federation, exhorting unity in the volatile situation that developed after the Dec 27 assassination pitted one ethnic group against another.

But it was the fact of Bhutto’s murder in the Punjab city of Rawalpindi that is dominated by the army that has raised fears of Pakistan fracturing along ethnic lines. Such fears are not unfounded given that in 1971 ethnic differences that set off a civil war caused Pakistan the loss of its eastern wing, which then became Bangladesh. The founder and leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party Altaf Hussain, who is currently in exile, issued a statement from London immediately after her death. “I wish to bring this on record that this is the third assassination of a prime minister belonging to the Sindh province,” he said.

While the PPP is a national party its power base is firmly rooted in Sindh. And the fact that ethnic particularities, and even family ties, matter in Pakistan’s politics can be seen from the fact that Bhutto’s eldest child, Bilawal, has been nominated party chairman, though only after adding the charismatic word ‘Bhutto’ to his name. Should the PPP come to power in the elections, now set for Feb. 18, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a Sindhi by origin, will be the party’s candidate for prime minister. Other candidates for the top job include Aitzaz Ahsan, PPP leader from Punjab and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), but his Punjabi ethnicity seems to have gone against him.

Ahsan, still under house arrest for leading agitations to press reinstatement of top members of the judiciary sacked by Musharraf, is among those who believe that the assassination has put the federation in serious jeopardy.

“The burden rests on the Punjab and the Punjabis to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Sindh,” he says.

Ahsan says ‘certain forces’ feared that Bhutto would become a dominant partner in any alliance or arrangement within the structure of the state. “She was not expected to be a Shujaat Husain, Zafarullah Jamali or Shaukat Aziz (handpicked former prime ministers always ready to demonstrate allegiance to President Musharraf),’” Ahsan said, when asked about possible reasons behind her assassination. — IPS