The man who killed Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer on January 4, 2011 is a symbol of many things that have gone wrong in Pakistan. He stands for subversion of the rule of law in the name of religious passion; he symbolises disregard for the code of professional conduct and institutional discipline under the garb of a self-declared war between religion and its real or imagined challengers; and, most essentially, his conduct is an affirmation of the state’s failure to regulate the society through constitutional, legal and administrative means.
Mumtaz Qadri, who pulled out his official gun and emptied it on Taseer on that fateful day in the capital, was so consumed by his religious frenzy that he decided to act as the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner all rolled into one to punish the governor for raising his voice for a woman convicted under the blasphemy law. Never mind he turned his back on his professional duty and official responsibility by killing the same man he was assigned to protect. In his self-assumed role as a protector of religion, he conveniently forgot that he had a covenant with the state as its employee and its representative to protect its citizens. His public reception as a hero betrayed the dangerous, near fatal, readiness among large sections of the society, including lawyers, to undermine, even pull down, the state and its institutions, including the courts, at the altar of controversial beliefs and debatable edicts. Such a slaughter is, slowly but surely, leading Pakistan to a situation where chaos and anarchy are the only option and nihilistic religious fanaticism the only thing to govern our personal and collective conduct.
Taseer’s assassination, however, was neither the first nor the final manifestation of the withering away of the Pakistani state though, by far, it remains the most potent, most obvious symbol. Over the last three decades, the country’s slide into mayhem has passed through some remarkably unfortunate incidents involving the blasphemy laws. The first of these, undoubtedly, was the introduction of the laws in 1986 – which helped many Pakistanis take revenge on their personal, sectarian, religious and even political enemies accusing them of committing blasphemy. When the Federal Shariat Court, in 1990, declared that the only possible punishment for blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam was death, it only took another big step towards giving the society the licence to kill. Subsequent events showed how.
In 1994, a charged mob in Gujranwala accused, Muhammad Farooq, a local practitioner in traditional medicine, of blasphemy, snatched him from a police station and stoned him to death in the most brutal manner. That was the first sign that the society was no longer willing to trust the state and its institutions when it came to trying those accused of blasphemy.
Gujranwala also created huge international headlines in 1993 when an illiterate Christian minor in a village was accused of writing blasphemous content on the walls of a local mosque with the help of two others who also could not even read and write. During their trial, mobs would gather around the court, demanding death for them. As the state showed no sign of moving against the mobs, next came an armed attack on the accused, killing one of them on the spot and injuring the other two. The only action that the government took was to shift the case from Gujranwala to Lahore, making its failure to protect its citizen loud and clear. After the trial court awarded death to the accused, they appealed before the Lahore High Court against the verdict. Arif Iqbal Bhatti, then a high court judge, found the evidence against them wanting and acquitted them in 1995. Bhatti was gunned down in Lahore In 1997, with no one having been arrested, let alone tried and punished, for his murder. That was the final proof that the state has totally given up guarding the fundamental rights of its citizens to life, to fair trial and to express their legal views without fear or favour on anything remotely seen as blasphemous.
It was only a matter of time before the state officials became accomplices rather than being negligent bystanders. In 2001, Yousuf Ali, convicted under the blasphemy law and imprisoned at Kot Lakhpat jail Lahore, was killed by a fellow prisoner who received active help from prison officials as well as some interested outsiders. The murder showed that the employees of the state were untroubled by the requirements of their profession and duty when it came to aiding and abetting those who had taken upon themselves to punish others for blasphemy.
Next, one of the state officials became an assassin himself and this was years before Qadri appeared on the scene. In 2004, a police constable assigned to guard a Christian accused of blasphemy at a Lahore hospital killed his ward with a brick cutter. The only difference between him and Qadri was the weapons they employed. The former could have but did not use his official gun but the latter did not think twice before using his official gun, provided to him to protect lives rather than take them.
There are also clear parallels between Bhatti and Taseer: Both had represented the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Lahore’s electoral politics; both believed that the blasphemy accused enjoyed the constitutional guarantees to be tried fairly and within the ambit of the state’s institutional and judicial writ; both represented the state at a very high level – one as a high court judge, other as a provincial governor; and both had not committed any blasphemy on their own though they had recommended procedural reforms in the registration and trial of blasphemy cases. And then there is the final parallel: in both cases, the state has only further surrendered to the wishes and whims of a society on the rampage. The judge who awarded death penalty to Taseer’s killer fled Pakistan last October, after angry lawyers in Rawalpindi forced him out of his courtroom and religious groups openly issued death threats against him and his family. Qadri’s supporters have also allegedly kidnapped Taseer’s son, Shahbaz Taseer, and investigators say that one of their demands in return for his release is that his father’s killer is set free.
The state and its institutions, in the meanwhile, have kept on retreating to the point of exercising next to no control over the society. It does not even so much as surprise anyone anymore that raising a voice for those being accused of blasphemy for reasons having nothing to do with faith, those being convicted for blasphemy under flimsy evidence and those being killed by mobsters and target killers for real or perceived religious insults has become a life-threatening exercise few are willing to take up. This certainly answers why Taseer’s family alone is mourning his death while the rest of the country is at best ignoring the anniversary of his assassination and at worst supporting his murderer.
Badar Alam is editor of the Herald magazine.