By Shaheen Sehbai
Deeply aggrieved, full of anger and passionately in mourning, Sindhis are baffled and confused at the strange reaction in Punjab, specially the ruling elite which has adopted an aggressively parochial attitude, not just against the PPP but against entire Sindh, after the death of Benazir Bhutto.
The accusations that large numbers of Punjabis have been forced to flee Sindh and become refugees in their province may help the PML-Q leaders rebuild their shattered election campaign but it is certainly not helping national unity and the cause of the federation of Pakistan.
A quick tour of the heart broken hinterland of Sindh, starting from Karachi to Jamshoro, Sehwan Sharif, Dadu, Larkana, Naudero, Garhi Khuda Bux, Sukkur, Khairpur, Nowshero Feroze, Moro, Hala, Hyderabad and back to Karachi by road, revealed many facets of the Bhutto murder fallout which cannot be imagined while sitting in cozy drawing rooms before TV sets.
It was quite baffling to note that while we were driving towards Larkana on the Jamshoro-Sehwan route, not one burnt vehicle was seen anywhere from near Karachi until we entered the constituency of Benazir Bhutto in Larkana, over 250 miles away, where we saw a skeleton of a bus. Neither could we see any burnt banks or buildings on this route.
But strikingly on our way back from Sukkur to Hyderabad, the damage was evident but not as widespread as was being reported or projected to be. Some 100 trucks, buses and very small number of cars were still presenting the scene of a battlefield, especially in Moro and some other portions of the National Highway. A few banks on the main road were also visibly damaged.
But the interesting explanation we got by talking to residents and locals was that most of the damage all along the National Highway was in areas and constituencies which were not PPP strongholds and were either represented by Muslim Leagues or other breakaway PPP factions like the Jatois and others. Many gas and petrol stations were still totally undamaged while just in front of them, on the road, cars and buses had been burnt. The protestors were either not interested in burning some property or were cleverly selective in picking their targets.
At one point in front of a huge CNG station, which was intact, several vehicles were burnt but right across the road was a Rangers headquarter and no one seemed to have noticed the violence or done anything to stop it. When we crossed it the Rangers were being guarded by a police picket and van, odd as it may seem.
So when the majority PPP dominated areas were relatively quiet, how would the violence in non-PPP areas be explained. The PPP leadership, rank and file have a ready made explanation that the reaction was orchestrated to blame Sindh and PPP and it was exaggerated to suit the establishment to counter the wave of sympathy for the PPP. It looks somewhat obvious that such an explanation would be given by the PPP but the sudden regression of the pro-establishment section of the Punjab leadership into a parochial mode has lent a lot of credence to the Sindhis’ complaints.
Talking to the deeply disturbed and extremely nervous PPP leadership in Larkana, Naudero and Garhi Khuda Bux, the clear impression that emerges is not good news for the federation. Mr Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto made extra efforts in their early appearances before the media to send the message across that the PPP still wanted the federation, as it did when Benazir Bhutto was alive. But this message has been distorted by Punjab.
The creation of a refugee centre in the heart of Lahore was almost hitting the federation below the belt. Some of the Punjabi small businessmen, roadside gas station owners and hotel stops whom we met on our journey were highly critical of this Punjab move. One of them near Hala said he was always a PML voter but would now vote for the PPP as Punjabi leadership, especially close to the establishment, was unfair. He was safe and doing his business without any fear though he admitted that for four days after the Bhutto murder, he did not come out of the house or open his business. His hotel and shops had not been touched by anyone during the riots.
A PPP student wing leader in Larkana was specifically moved by the huge ads in newspapers from the PML which isolated Sindhis and spoke of large-scale migration from Sindh. “What do they want now that they have killed so many of our leaders? Do they want to push us into the sea. This is all rubbish and meant to fan hatred against Sindh for political gains,” he reacted.
The PPP leadership is having a bad time in the sense that they have been pushed to the wall and now fears they have to take on the establishment which they fear would be a disaster for the country.
Senior leaders candidly admit that the death of Benazir Bhutto has landed the party into a crisis but unity in the ranks and swift transition of power from Benazir to Asif Zardari has helped the party leaders and cadres focus on the real issue of winning the elections, helped by the sympathy wave.
One leader said it was challenging for Mr Zardari to get into the shoes of Ms Bhutto but since she had passed on the leadership to him in her will, the party had accepted the decision and quickly converted the street protests and violence into a determined electoral mission to win the elections.
But February 18 was the cut off date for all practical purposes and it was impossible for any PPP leader, including Mr Zardari, to show any soft corner for President Pervez Musharraf or the establishment before the elections.
“We have to decide that if Feb 18 turns out to be a fraud with us and the nation, what we have to do and this is not an easy decision but this decision cannot be put off any more,” said one leader. “And this time President Musharraf will have to accept all our demands without any precondition or bargaining because we have already paid the highest price that could be asked in any bargain.”
Senior PPP leaders do not believe that the establishment would go for the elections even on Feb 18, if the PPP wave continues, which it will. “They are not prepared to hand over power through the ballot box and unless they are in a position to either manipulate the result and contain the PPP or strike a deal on their terms, they would not agree to a poll,” one leader said. “But the PPP is not in a position to offer anything now. If Mr Musharraf wants a deal with the PPP, he will first have to hold a free and fair election without asking for anything in return. This risk he has to take, or otherwise take much bigger risks.”
This PPP sentiment is reflected at all levels of the leadership which is now gearing up to accept the coming challenges. Whatever doubts and suspicions people may have about Mr Zardari, he has now been catapulted into a position where he has very little room for maneuver or go against the general party sentiment. People want revenge and he has to lead the party into getting one.
“The PPP candidates have been decided by Benazir so those cannot be changed. The PPP leadership all over the country is in place so no particular Zardari men can be inducted. The election is just around and no one can risk intra-party infighting. The mourning has been successfully converted into a fury to take revenge at the ballot boxes so the party has been saved from disarray,” according to a senior leader.
This transition from protests and fury on the streets to revenge through democracy has been remarkably smooth. As we drove hundreds of miles in PPP and non-PPP territory, life had come to almost normal and only the remnants of the burnt out trucks, especially NLC containers and car-carriers, reminded us of the angry reaction. The first hurdle has successfully been crossed by the PPP, headed by Mr Zardari to control the people and turn them into highly motivated and committed workers.