As I got ready for work this morning, I turned on the TV and started flipping through the usual -- MTV, VH1, and MTV Tr3s. Sandwiched in between the channels is CSPAN, which I also occasionally watch. Flashing toward the bottom was a blurb of what was coming next -- "Presidential candidates to give statements on Bhutto Assassination." For a second, I was quite confused. Why were they going to talk about Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto from back in the day? Then it dawned on me that they meant Benazir Bhutto. I promptly went to CNN, and lo and behold, breaking news was that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated.
"WHAT?!" I yelped.
It was almost in a state of horror and definitely dismay that I listened to the news of her assassination. Like her or not, she was a formidable figure in Pakistani politics. Harvard and Oxford graduate, former Prime Minister (in a Muslim country, no less), self-purported champion of the people. Though she was not without her issues, corruption charges being the most prominent, she did, in the end, risk her life to bring back some semblance of democracy to the country. Ms. Bhutto was not happy that the country was in the hands of a (benevolent?) military dictator, so she decided to do something about it. Perhaps she wanted power for herself again, or maybe she really did want another shot at really running the country. Whatever the case, unfortunately, she died for her cause.
What this means, in my opinion, is that Pakistan is now at a crossroads more than ever. Either this tragic incident can be the impetus for the Pakistani people to stand up against the destabilising elements or the country will steadily slide into chaos. For our country's sake, I hope it's the former. We don't need to be labeled "Terror Central" as demonstrated by Nic Robertson's documentary. What we should be is that light of hope for a more stable, peaceful, and prosperous future, not one wrought in violence and upheaval. Although political power is firmly entrenched amongst the elite and landowners, this is the opportunity for the representatives of the middle class and the intelligentsia to wrest power from them and actually take Pakistan forward. Complacency got us nowhere; the military got us nowhere; the landowners want the status quo; and the Taliban would be quite happy to take us back about 1400 years.
The country gained nothing by allowing Taliban/Islamic militant elements to flourish in the border areas. I believe that part of those elements' success in the area has to do with the cultural conservatism of the Pathan tribes, but more so, it is attributable to the severely hindered social development of Pakistan. It is the lack of basic necessities, especially education, and opportunities, especially decently-paying jobs, that makes the Taliban and madrassas so attractive to the poor. The madrassas (religious schools) provide food, clothing, shelter, and education, albeit a narrow one, to the children that attend. That is by and large far beyond anything a public Pakistani school can offer, that too after charging the students tuition fees that most poor families cannot afford.
If even public schools have to charge tuition fees, what is the government spending its money on? Nuclear warheads, missiles, other defence expenditures? Of course. Is some of that money going into politicians' pockets? No doubt. What about the grandiose projects like dams? Yes, the money goes there, too. However, almost nothing is spent to really advance Pakistan as a society in the way of education and infrastructure. The people, especially the poor, are almost systematically disenfranchised by being denied even basic education. How can they make good decisions about who to elect when they can't write their own names? Exactly. They then get strongarmed into voting for the local feudal landowner who pretty much owns their souls. The ones who can make a modicum of difference end up leaving either for the big cities or for foreign lands, resulting in the much touted brain drain.
It saddens me that Pakistanis have mostly made good names for themselves abroad, yet our motherland continues to disintegrate. How is it that our neighbour, India, who gained independence at the same time we did, became one of the world's leading economies and a powerhouse of IT and sciences while Pakistan lags far behind? Clearly, we have the intellectual capability, otherwise expatriate Pakistanis would not be successful abroad, but we don't have the institutions to foster the capability. We have nothing equivalent to an IIT or Bangalore/Mysore as our Silicon Valley. India's government is not without corruption or extremists (the BJP and Shiv Sehna parties being the most notorious), nor are they without riots, violence, and upheaval. Yet, they still manage to thrive, attract rather than drive out foreign direct investment, and are respected in the world arena. I realise this is a tangent to my original reason for writing, but it merits thought in that the two countries share many elements (poverty, corruption, lack of opportunities for the poor, violence), yet India prospers while Pakistan suffers.
Going back to Ms. Bhutto's assassination, there is much speculation as to whodunnit. In my view, it was either an inside job or Taliban with the help of military sympathisers. My inclination is toward the latter because Bhutto was a woman in a leadership position in a Muslim society. Whereas 20 years ago, that was fully acceptable, with the increased proliferation of ultraconservative militants, this is not something they could stand for, nor would they want to deal with her. This will lead me to another tangent if I keep going, but suffice it to say that although the Taliban's goal is to emulate Islamic society during the Prophet's time, women were in leadership positions and were consulted regularly.
I can't help but shake my head in disbelief while Pakistan sits in stunned silence.