Interview: Victoria Schofield
“They should have insisted BB be kept safe and if she wasn’t, there would be hell to pay”
Victoria Schofield first came to Pakistan in the summer of 1978 to be with her very close friend Benazir Bhutto. She had just graduated from Oxford and had not yet embarked on her journalistic career. Having been told that she was going to a very hot country, she arrived in a short skirt and t-shirt. This was a different Pakistan – not yet Zia-ul-Haq’s and pre the Iranian revolution. She has since been back numerous times, including returning with Benazir Bhutto in October 2007. Most recently Schofield was here for the 1st Karachi Literature Festival where she gave a talk on her journey, as a journalist and writer, through Pakistan and its environment, particularly Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Q: How did your journey to Pakistan begin?
A: You go along a certain path in life and can’t imagine what life would have been otherwise. Here it was that very deep friendship with Benazir. I was to visit Pakistan in 1977, but then the coup took place and Benazir thought it better I not come. When her father’s death sentence was passed in March 1978 she wrote to me, saying, as I was embarking on a career in journalism, I may want to write some articles here. She was under house arrest and the letters were smuggled out. I still have the letter; it was a letter that changed my life and started the whole course of my writing career. I arrived in Pakistan and was allowed to stay with her in Karachi.
Q: Benazir Bhutto was your friend and now that she is dead, there are so many myths that surround her. Who and what was the real BB?
A: She was different things to different people. I knew her for 34 years and saw her in different milieus – Oxford and Pakistan. I still remember her smile when I saw her in Karachi at court. That period became a terribly sad period, but I saw in her huge powers of reserve, which held her through the rest of her life. She had to bear the tragedy of her father and brothers.
Q: How much of her father was in her? Did he want her and not any of the sons, to take over the party?
A: Her sense of duty was firmly inculcated by visits to her father in his death cell. He had a mission. Remember he was only 49 when arrested and felt he had a lot more to contribute and achieve. As far as the boys were concerned, there was huge concern that General Zia would arrest them and do worse to them than to Benazir. She had finished her education and he wanted the other three children to finish theirs. She was the one in Pakistan. She was schooled and soon it was up to a 25-year-old woman to fight the dictator.
Q: Did she feel compromised when she came back in 1986, contested the 1988 election and formed a government with Zia-ul-Haq’s political residue?
A: Compromise may not be the right word; she accepted a situation and tried to change it from within. She learnt that she could not take on all her political enemies in one fell swoop. The sense was if you were coming back for revenge you would not be allowed to do so. She was a realist and knew what she had to do. She was placed on a pedestal and everyone thought all their tomorrows would come today – but there is no magic wand.
Q: There is so much criticism regarding dynastic politics. Today BB’s husband is at the helm and her son is poised to succeed the father.
A: Criticism comes from people who think they ought to be there instead, or from westerners who do not approve of dynastic politics. We have evolved in a different way in Britain. You only have to look at India, the world’s largest democracy, where they have had five generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family. It’s a brand. You want a leader who stands head and shoulders above everyone else. If she had been no good she wouldn’t have lasted. She earned her own place.
Q: Her 19-year-old son has become the chairman of the PPP. Did she want her children to enter politics?
A: Inevitably the children were exposed to politics, they travelled with her and knew what she was about. They were not exposed to politics in Pakistan. She was very protective of them in Pakistan. She would have wanted them to see her in politics in Pakistan and make up their own minds. She certainly would not have wanted her 19-year-old son to take over actively. She knew the importance of a good education; she had one herself and wanted the same for her children. Very clearly she did not write Bilawal into the political will. She also did not want the party to fragment. It was for the interim to see which direction it went in. As it happens, it has gone in the direction it has gone in, with Asif Zardari showing that there was a future generation that was waiting for hope.
Q: How different was the BB who came back in 2007 to the one who returned in 1986?
A: The 1986 BB was a very young determined woman. The 2007 one was a seasoned politician. She was 54, in her prime, had learnt from mistakes of the past and was ready to move in the middle-aged stateswoman role.
Q: Yes, but she was going to work with a military dictator. She had done this in 1988, being seasoned as you say and having two short stints in government. Where was the learning? How could she feel she could trust these people?
A: Well, I think you have to take a leap in the dark, as we know there was a lot more high politics going on at the time. The USA and UK were putting pressure on her to return immediately. Given the situation with the chief justice, Musharraf was no longer the person in whose basket they wanted to place all their eggs. At the same time, the US was very concerned about insecurity, extremism and the war on so-called terror. So on the basis of assurances given by the US, she agreed, for the time being, to work with Musharraf.
Q: Did those assurances include her security?
A: One of the greatest tragedies is that, perhaps, the US and UK did not see the dangers. They say Pakistan is a sovereign country and they cannot interfere too much in its internal affairs.
Q: They interfere huge amounts.
A: Well, you know what I mean, there is a slip between the cup and the lip and in terms of her security, now when I look back on it with the wisdom of hindsight, I think they should have insisted she be kept safe and if she wasn’t, there would be hell to pay.
Q: Did she deviate from the script after the emergency was declared?
A: Of course she deviated; she was under criticism for cooperating with a military dictator. When Musharraf declared the emergency, it made it impossible for her to continue to work with him and that set her on a path of confrontation. We have not had an outcome of the investigation. I ask myself in my own mind having been with her in the October bombing, what was going on in the assassins calendar between these two attacks. Were there other attacks that failed?
Q: BB was also instrumental in your writing other books, including your work on the Kashmir conflict. Having travelled on both sides of the line of control how do you see this being resolved?
A: Benazir was inspirational. If you work on Kashmir for as long as I have, it can be pretty depressing, but I like to be an optimist. A resolution will require consensus politics from both sides; see the suffering both have had. It’s like divorced parents fighting over the child’s custody, only the child has grown up and left home. Here are two countries whose populations are bursting, arguing over 12 million people and putting the rest of the billion on hold because they cannot agree to sit down to talk about what could be the future of Kashmir, or consult the Kashmiris themselves. We can argue about what happened in 1947, the injustices of it all. What could have or should have happened, didn’t happen. We need to take into account what would suit the people living in the region, which includes Ladakh, Jammu and Gilgit Baltistan. As much as one follows the will of the majority, we have to think of the minorities. One just has to look at France and Germany to see how things can change. No opposition groups should torpedo things for political advantage and the extremist elements on both sides should be marginalised so they are no longer relevant to the discourse. Imagine what we could be spending our money on if we were not spending it on arms.
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