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Taseer’s killing — symbol of a withering state

Published Jan 04, 2012 06:49am


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Salmaan Taseer 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. — File photo

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.


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Comments (34) Closed

P K Jan 04, 2012 12:33pm
Is Tasser's Son still in the custody of the kidnappers ? I feel really sorry for his family. It must be like dying everyday. Can one get used to situation situation. I think the state should take upon itself the responsibility to freeing Mr Taseers son within 10 days even if they have to give in to the demands of the fanatics.
Sadia Jan 04, 2012 01:30pm
Thank you for writing this.
Sumit Singh Jan 04, 2012 02:25pm
Sorry but this is obvious path for a country which was made on the basis of religion. No matter how much elite in Pakistan disagree, the fact remains that Pakistan was made on the basis of religion and to safeguard tenants of Islam. Now if you mix politics with religion, and create country on religious basis you cannot ask people to not follow religion blindly, and not to be very very passionate about it.
ali Jan 04, 2012 02:54pm
Actions speak louder than words. Our mullas always incite people to violence and extremism which had led us to this chaotic situation. About his son? We have not heard anything. I think he is being kept as ransom until Qadri is freed from jail.
Shivkumar Jan 04, 2012 03:45pm
What is sad about Pakistan is that not merely some fringe groups are indulging in such activities, it is the so called educated classes including Lawyers who are behaving worse than Taliban. Pakistan itself has to find answer as to what kind of future it wants for its citizens. One can only feel sad about all those Pakistanis who dont believe in hatred but can't open their mouths for fear of reprisal. Still credit to those journalists / columnists who are willing to stick their neck out. May God Bless such souls.
Muhhamaad Jan 04, 2012 03:59pm
Animal society ....No I am denigrating the animals,they are much more honest
Kashif Jan 04, 2012 04:01pm
A very brave article., Hats off for you dude. Unfortunately if someone speak of truth and justice in this country, he is questioned for his faith. I hope and pray that real scholars come on front and help us to eliminate radicalisation and this false practice of faith.
Akif Jan 04, 2012 05:15pm
Indeed, a thought provoking piece of writing which refreshed the memories of a brave man. Well done dear! This day (anniversary of Salman Taseer’s assassination) demands from us to rededicate our commitment with his vision as he had intended to see a tolerant and equal society. Unfortunately, the current situation is very ironic; his murderer, who has occupied a fabricated status of “Religious Sanctity” and emerged as a hero, thanks to those societal factions who made him so. This is all the byproduct of the absence of the rule of law, tolerance and the absence of counter-narratives of the extremis factions in the society.
AHA Jan 04, 2012 07:12pm
@Sumit, Despite how we present ourselves now to the outside world, Pakistan was not created in the name of Islam. It was created as a homeland for Muslims of India. There is a subtle but significant difference between the two. Jinnah had envisaged a secular state, where minority were equal citizens and where one’s religion was one’s personal affair. Unfortunately for the people of Pakistan, the difference (between Pakistan being created for Muslims versus Pakistan being created in the name of Islam) was too subtle for our ‘simple’ minds, and we have completely lost our way. So Sumit, while you have correctly identified the symptoms, your diagnosis is wrong.
Ms. Mahm Maqdoome Jan 04, 2012 07:21pm
withering heights is not any withering estates....agreed?
AHA Jan 04, 2012 07:25pm
@Muhhamaad, Oh, come on. The extremists are just a tiny minority. They are not the ‘Society’. Unfortunately, everyone else is scared of the extremists, and rightly so, because there is no rule of law in Pakistan. We know that no one will protect us from these extremists.
Prof. Y. Zubairi USA Jan 04, 2012 07:44pm
Thank you for discovering the "withering state" of Pakistan. What goes around comes around.
Neil Jan 04, 2012 08:24pm
Unfortunately, this world runs on perceptions. And currently, this 'tiny minority' has done enough to be seen as the face of Pakistan...not only to the outside world, but also to it's internal just had to see the black suits who were hailed as angels on democracy some time back showering petals. Without a single worthy politician...we all are being asked to put our future in the hands of Imran Khan cant comment on the way he would want to take the country forward!! May the good lord save us!!!
raika45 Jan 04, 2012 08:26pm
So does that mean that if a non muslim makes a statement no matter how innocent,you muslims can charge them for bleshmey and sentence them to death? Say what you want, Pakistan needs the worlds help to tackle it's financial problems.You have no way out.Your nation has no money to pay it's debts.Why should the world help you if this is your attitude to there races and religions. You moderators will not allow this because it is the truth and it will put your country in bad light.
Amjad Cheema Jan 04, 2012 08:33pm
Ab raaj karey ghi mulayeat Tum ko mubarak ho yeah jamhooriat
The Right Left Jan 04, 2012 08:56pm
This is what happens when a spiritual movement is transformed into a politicla movement. Islam has been politicized and Mulims like the Taliban are more vying for the political space. There is no spirituality left as we hear the silence of the mullahs amongst us. They celebrate murderers and abhor education. This should be a wake up call for everyone in Pakistan and the Muslim world at large.
Sakethram Jan 04, 2012 09:46pm
You cannot want to be secular and at the same time create a state based on religion. The statement itself is oxymoronic. I understand what you mean though. I do hope that Pakistan pulls out of totalism and moves forward. I have a feeling the country will........ :)
ivehadit Jan 05, 2012 12:04am
i had the same thought. Any updates on his son being released? unfortunately, Pakistani's are just too far along the "forgive and forget" road. The pain endures for those affected, but empathy for the victims seems sadly missing.
Sandeep Jan 05, 2012 12:45am
@AHA, Very true and a correct diagnosis. However the past is long forgotten and so have the ideals. It is painful to see that the vision of Mohd. Ali Jinnah, his dream has turned into a nightmare for many.
Godaveri Jan 05, 2012 12:52am
Come on AHA when a murderer was showered by rose petals by the society especially by educated lawyers, and kicked out the judge who sentenced him is a tiny minority, wake up!
nabeel Jan 05, 2012 06:57am
A failed state by virtue of the corrupt government this government has robbed this country of everything no security. No jobs nothing for the common people of Pakistan Jan 05, 2012 09:24am
Interested in knowing how story of Pakistan going to end.
Iqbal Jan 05, 2012 09:42am
Yes it is at best ignoring it because people have enough problems of their own to cry over ONE life when thousands are killed without a reason. It is despicable how a man of power is remembered as if he was any more important than those killed in target killing in Karachi or the suicide blasts or even the pilgrims killed in Quetta. So why are we doing it again? Are we "genetically" so indifferent? No. We have more pressing matters. If someone in my family dies, I am sure you will care just as much. People need to be told how to deal with this circular inflationary crisis before being asked to remember a dead man. Give it a break guys, at times it feels DAWN serves to the grievances of the upper strata of the society, who have enough time and money on their hands to afford the luxury of feeling the moral responsibility of remembering Salman Taseer. I wish newspapers were a bit more directional when they can be so jingoistic and discuss "relevant" matters oh-so-relevant to the people...
Rizwan Jan 05, 2012 10:01am
Pakistan is a confused country, doesn't know or dare to confess what it stands for in theory and practice. Chaos, confusion and misdirection has gone mad. When the dark gets darkest,we can hope for dawn nearing. Brutality in the name of faith was at its highest in the Europe of Dark Ages, but there were men who stood against brutality, who defied the draconian laws, who breathed courage in timid minds to QUESTION. And the result is what we see now of all those sacrifices of the brave that Europe is stands amongst the most educated minds today, and Muslims yearn to have that piece of pie, wish our kids get education their, treat our sick in their hospitals. Pakistan is plagued by fundamentalism, extremism, and utter disregard for and murderers, rapists, terrorists flourish here by using religion an excuse.
Bilal Jan 05, 2012 10:14am
well 2 states in the world were created in the name of religion, pakistan and israel, isreal is holding on, we managed to smash everything to pieces though. no one ask the question that the country like saudi arabia, with the strictest laws on sharia, does not have 'passion' for blasphamy law, then how come our people are supporting it blindly? I tell you why, "education", clergy has not been focused on positive side of things for a long time now and current situation of faith is what you get in result. People have also not tried to learn either about religion, only what they hear in friday prayers. How can you move on then?
Abdul Alim Jan 05, 2012 10:39am
Asslam-o-Alaikum. Such heinous crime must be condemned in strongest words. Government should understand its job and save such type of man from rascal and illiterate fundamentalists by abolishing discriminatory laws.
Aku Jan 05, 2012 12:28pm
I appreciate your article and thoughts. I am sure the majority of our nation agrees with you. Unfortunately, they are mostly silent, too busy in making money or lacking the courage to speak up. But I am positive about the future. Things are changing for good. Our nation is passing through a phase of change today, just like India did 20 years ago. This change will also need some sacrifices. Taseer was probably just one of them. The only worry is if we jump from one extreme to the other.
Hariram Jan 05, 2012 01:13pm
Indra Gandhi was also killed in India and so was Benazir Bhutto. But difference between Gandhi/Bhutto killing Vs Salman taseer's killing was masses in Gandhi/Bhutto killing didnot support the killer.
krishnan Jan 05, 2012 03:50pm
I admire the courage of the author and Pervez Hoodbhoy who has written an even more bold piece on Salman Taseer in another newspaper- especially on what the Mullahs preach in the mosques to the illiterate people( which includes lawyers who hail Qadri).
AHA Jan 05, 2012 06:00pm
@Aku – I wish I could have shared your optimism about the future. Extremism has already taken roots in the mainstream society. India never EVER was in this situation.
Agha Ata Jan 05, 2012 07:34pm
Doomsday is not very far when masses support the evil!
Al Jan 05, 2012 08:24pm
You write, I write and we all write but does the govt bother/ My solution: a revolution like in Egypt and Libya and Tunisa can only get rid of the corrupt and inept govt.
Tashi Namgyal Jan 05, 2012 08:29pm
"The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people, But because of the silence of good people!"
Sajjad Aug 22, 2012 07:59pm
what we need to do is to stand up against the religious bigots. We need to get out of safety and comfort of our sofas and stand up against all those who preach hatred. only by taking them on frontally they will realize that the majority cannot be cowed down. if we fear them, they will win as they have been till today.