Fazlur Rehman
Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman. — Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: Amid sound and fury in the National Assembly that saw Interior Minister Rehman Malik rejecting calls for his resignation over the assassination of Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a ray of hope shone with JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman saying, in an apparent climbdown, that a perceived misuse of the blasphemy law could be discussed.

After several lawmakers from both the opposition and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) demanded that he step down and some others said he was doing well, Mr Malik said he would continue his job and “my mission” to rout Taliban militants, whom he called Pakistan’s enemies, even at the risk of his life.

But, winding up a two-day debate over Wednesday’s shooting down of Mr Bhatti by four gunmen near the home of his mother in Islamabad apparently because of his views over the application of the Zia-era blasphemy law, the minister said he would be ready to resign if a judicial commission or a parliamentary committee found him wanting in carrying out his responsibilities.

Mr Malik also rejected suggestions that the minorities affairs minister, a Christian, was not provided adequate security, saying Mr Bhatti had made it a practice to go to his mother’s house, about a furlong from his own, to live their for the night without a 15- to 16-strong guard provided to him, thinking that in this way he would distract those who threatened his life. But, he said, the absence of Mr Bhatti’s guards when he was returning from his mother’s home made him the victim of the gunmen who, according to police, escaped in a white car after the shooting in the I-8/4 sector.

During heated arguments from both sides over the security situation in Islamabad and the rest of the country before the house was prorogued after a 12-day session, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) leader Maulana Fazl touched on the blasphemy law — while most others hesitated — although he disagreed with the general view linking Mr Bhatti’s murder with the controversy over that law or with the Jan 4 assassination of then Punjab governor Salman Taseer by one of his own police guards.

The Maulana said he thought Mr Bhatti’s murder could have been inspired by what he called “a lobby opposed to religious circles” to put them under a new pressure on the pretext of the blasphemy law.

In what seemed to be a gesture and a change in a previous hard line, the JUI chief said although attacking procedures often reflected an intent to block the application of a law, “if a law is being misused against minorities we are ready to discuss this (matter)”.

Recalling that after the government’s assurances it did not intend to make any amendment to the blasphemy law, the JUI-F and some other religious parties had terminated a ‘Tahafuz Namoos-i-Risalat’ campaign launched last year, he said: “Such acts (of violence now) amount to taking the law and Constitution in one’s own hands.”

And he asked the government to “accept its responsibilities” to maintain law and order and said that “law should come into action”.

The interior minister did not refer to Maulana Fazl’s apparent offer to discuss fears about the misuse of the blasphemy law often voiced by minority communities and human rights organisations and there was no indication in the JUI-F leader’s remarks if he would himself raise the matter with the government.

It was also without referring to his remarks that PML-N lawmaker Ayaz Amir, in a strong speech afterwards in which he called for building “a dam against bigotry and fanaticism”, noted that both the late Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti only wanted procedural safeguards against the misuse of the blasphemy law and did not want to change the definition of blasphemy or the punishment of death for those who committed the offence.

Those who demanded the interior minister’s resignation, mostly in the first sitting of the day, included PML-Q parliamentary leader Faisal Saleh Hayat, some other members of both the PML-N and PML-Q and a vocal PPP back-bencher, Jamshed Dasti.But in what appeared to be the result of some public relations work during a break for Friday prayers, several others from the PPP, government-allied MQM and at least one from the PML-Q, jumped to the minister’s defence, calling for an end to what he and some of his supporters called a “blame game”.

Mr Malik asked why nobody from the PML-N-led Punjab government resigned when governor Taseer was killed by a member of the provincial police or when other deadly attacks, including some on military officers and religious leaders, were made in the province and why members of the same party were asking for his resignation now?

“It is time not to have a blame game, it is time to sit together to work out a strategy (to fight terrorists),” he said while defending his role in what he described as a transformation to comparative peace from a critical situation when the present government took office, when, he said, parents were not ready to send their children to school and when the Taliban rebels based in Swat had reached up to Haripur, across Islamabad’s Margalla hills.

“I am proud of my government and my men,” he said and claimed improvement of the situation in Balochistan where he accused unspecified “foreign powers” of involvement.

“We should unite on two things -- security and foreign policy,” the minister said and asked the house to decide whether to set up a judicial commission or a parliamentary committee to probe the security situation.


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