The assault on reputations

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From left: Asif Ali Zardari, Hina Rabbani Khar and Bilawal Bhutto (Internet)

Some years ago, some people, with some help from a tabloid here in Bangladesh, were observed busy trying to tarnish the image of then Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar. There was a whole world out there and no one had any idea of how this tabloid, Blitz by name, came by information on what was supposed to be a torrid love affair between Khar and the son of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari. No Pakistani or Indian media reported on it. In the West, no one knew that the married, mother-of-two glamorous minister and the handsome presidential son, today the leader of his grandfather’s political party, were involved in matters of the heart. But Blitz told us it was basing its report on intelligence sources.

And what were those sources? A British newspaper had given us a pointer: it was the Pakistan army’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which had been behind this bad business of dragging Ms. Khar’s name in the mud. The Pakistan army was quick to react. It had had no hand in the manufacture of the report which appeared in a tabloid in distant Dhaka. That is how it sought to clear its name. The truth, though, is not that the army came forth with a denial. It was more likely that Hina Rabbani Khar’s willingness, at the time, to have the United Nations inquire into the disappearance of Pakistani citizens (and thousands have vanished over the past many years in such areas as Baluchistan) aroused the ire of the army. The problem with the Pakistan army has always been its self-proclaimed claim on patriotism. It was thus quite possible that Pakistan’s military was behind this entire nonsense. It needed to destroy Khar and with the same brush blacken the image of the Bhuttos.

This business of wrecking reputations or causing deep gashes in them is not new. It has been there for as long as memory has travelled back in time. In communist countries, good politicians have often been marked out for liquidation, politically if not physically, when they have dared to challenge the authority of those in power. China’s Deng Xiao-ping was purged twice in Maoist times over his belief that it did not matter if a cat was white or black as long as it caught mice. Liu Shao-qi, in the 1950s and 1960s a ubiquitous presence beside Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai, died in prison, in disgrace, in 1969. In the former Soviet Union, reputations first began to be destroyed in the Stalinist purges, when good communists unable to see eye to eye with Lenin’s successor were simply put through show trials and swiftly shot.

Destroying reputations through innuendos or downright public condemnation has regularly been the vehicle on which men with sinister, rightwing motives have operated. In 1950s’ United States of America, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy decided that there were scores of communists or communist sympathizers working secretly at the highest levels of the government. He went to work, through falsely accusing some of the best of people in the country, of engaging in leftwing conspiracy to undermine the republic, in the end pushing them to misery. It was not until a senior military officer finally hit back at McCarthy that the whole farce drew to an end. McCarthy experienced his comeuppance when, in a twist of fortune, he died in disgrace.

In Bangladesh, many were the people who after November 1975 were vociferous in their denunciations of the murdered General Khaled Mosharraf and his associates as Indian agents who had tried to foist a pro-Delhi government on the country. It was a ploy by the very men who had, only hours before the four Mujibnagar leaders were assassinated in prison, spread the ugly word that the Indians were almost on the verge of springing Tajuddin Ahmad and his colleagues from jail and installing a puppet government under their leadership in Dhaka. It was even given out that a letter to that effect had been intercepted by Bangladesh intelligence. Ironically, no one ever saw the letter nor was any reference to it ever made after November 1975. The newsman who spread the canard was never taken to task for disseminating such falsehood.

Over the decades, aspersions have been cast on the lineage of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His mother was a Hindu before she converted to Islam. Bhutto’s enemies ignored the conversion and only harped on the Hindu factor in their attacks on him. And then there have been the people who, even to this day, go around insinuating that Bhutto was Indira Gandhi’s half-sibling. And how do they draw that conclusion? Easy, they say. Observe closely the physical appearances of Nehru and Bhutto. Doesn’t that demonstrate a huge degree of likeness between the two men, of a father-son nature? Your answer comes in the form of disdain, a shrug. Which student of history wants to respond to nonsense?

All across the world, people have gone on vilifying the hapless Marie Antoinette. That she was an insensitive woman, say her detractors, is based on proof: as the hungry masses demanded bread, she asked her courtiers what the ruckus was all about. When they told her, she nonchalantly instructed them to give the protestors cake. The truth is that she never said that. There is no record of it and yet it was part of the ‘evidence’ which was used to send her to the guillotine. By the way, much as Henry Kissinger might be a man of a dubious political character, he never said at any point in his career that Bangladesh was a bottomless basket. Someone else, on his staff, did.

It is thus that people who do well or are likely to do well or are simply foolish enough to lead quiet lives are waylaid by mischievous people. The stories of the fourteen year-old Rimsha Masih in Pakistan and twenty five year-old Uttam Kumar Barua in Bangladesh are two of the most glaring instances of the innocent being put to shame, all in the name of God and faith. They have ‘blasphemed’ and so their families and clans must have their homes burnt down by the ‘properly religious’.

And Hina Rabbani Khar? Years after leaving office, she remains smart and eloquent, she is young, she fields uncomfortable questions on television with poise and finesse. She had the army riled years ago. The truth is always offensive to armies which have once conquered their own countries. And so they hit back, which is a pity.

One last point: how does Blitz explain its position now?

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Issue 8
  • Time & Space
  • The assault on reputations
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan

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