Salman Tasseer’s assassination, one year on

A year has passed since that dreadful afternoon of January 4, 2011 when Punjab Governor Tasseer was gunned down by one of his official guards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, allegedly for committing blasphemy (showing disrespect to the Islamic religion).

Tasseer had always been a flamboyant character, in his lavish lifestyle as well as his political demeanor, and was unapologetic about it. He had a fearless knack of staring a challenge in the face, unlike some other Pakistani politicians. Months before his assassination, he had taken it upon himself to advocate the release of a Christian woman, Aasia bibi, who was subsequently sentenced to death in a blasphemy case, on the complaint of a local cleric in Sheikhupura, a small town almost 40 kilometers from Punjab province’s capital Lahore.

He went to the prison with his wife and vowed to undertake all efforts for her release because of allegedly charges brought against the poor woman in the case. His strong stand induced sharp criticism from clergy and he also received death threats, which ultimately led to his killing.

There was an immediate for and against opinion on his assassination and the division was so sharp that even many educated and well-oriented people were found justifying the killing on the premise that Tasseer “may have” committed something wrong. Even his party leaders and former colleagues were reluctant to openly condemn the incident, fearing a similar fate as Tasseer.

Following the killing, his party faced a hard time in finding a prayer-leader to lead the funeral and had to fall back on a party leader from within their own ranks to do the rituals. He has since had to leave the country fearing for his safety.

Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin, who had handed himself over to the police, was showered with rose-petals on his first hearing by the lawyers and banned religious outfits made a mockery of the rule of law in the country by openly campaigning for his release on the roads and threatening of dire consequences if their demand was not fulfilled.

The judge hearing the case has also left the country since then after receiving death threats and the case against Qadri is, at best, in limbo. No headway has been made on the mercy petition of blasphemy accused Aasia bibi, forwarded to the President by Governor Tasseer before his assassination, and she continues to languish in prison.

Barely a couple of months after Tasseer’s murder, Pakistani minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti was also gunned down in broad daylight in the federal capital, Islamabad. His bold stance against the blasphemy law is believed to have led to his demise and his assassins also remain at large.

Member of Parliament, Sherry Rehman, was the only colleague of Tasseer in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party to take an open stand against blasphemy laws and submitted bill in the parliament for bringing about necessary changes in it. She not only received death threats but her own party ditched her as well. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani made a public statement that she was doing it in her private capacity and should withdraw her proposed amendments.

One year on, as we look back at events surrounding Tasseer’s murder, Sherry is set to take charge as Pakistan’s new envoy to Washington, DC and is likely to encounter tough questions about religious intolerance in Pakistan. This is something that has also been highlighted in the recent religious freedom report issued by the US State Department.

The youth, political parties and the media in Pakistan are as divided as the ruling elite on the issue of blasphemy laws. There is no objective discussion on the cases or an effort to reach a solution. It is quite hard to discern even after a year whether more people in Pakistan justify the killing of Governor Tasseer and minister Bhatti or condemn it.

The confusion in thought and contradiction in approach can be described best by a decision of the government when it announced civil award for the slain Governor Salman Tasseer on Independence-Day (August 14, 2011), but not for minister Shahbaz Bhatti. Both belonged to the same party and had faced the unfortunate end to their life because of their bold stand on the same issue; but were not equal even for their own leadership. This is the battle within that the Pakistani decision-makers and the general public must fight, even more than the much-trumpeted “war on terror” on external fronts.

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The Missile called Mirza: There’s a Method behind this Madness

There is never a dull moment in the Pakistani politics, and news channels thrive on such moments. For the last week or so, Zulfiqar Mirza has become the new darling of the Pakistani media, who has caused an unprecedented furor by taking on the friends and foes simultaneously.

Mirza’s reputation has always been of a ‘no-holds-bar’ kind of person who got a free reign after his personal friend and school-buddy, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected to the office of the President. The fact that his wife, Fehmida Mirza, was chosen to become the speaker of national assembly only enhanced his political nuisance and the bond of friendship between the two.

It was never in doubt that Mirza was the ‘bad-cop’ in Sindh, and this role-playing was always in sync with the presidency to suit the political objectives of PPP. He was used primarily to keep the MQM in check, to which the PPP’s inner circle in Sindh has been reluctant ally, as well as to flaunt the Sindh-card as and when required.

This was evident with his justification of the violence that broke out after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Sindh, his tirade against the political opponents on the BB’s death anniversary in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in presence of Zardari, his speeches against the SC orders and the threat to kittle out PML-N from Sindh.

However, it’s MQM to which he has taken a special liking. It is not the first time he has played villain in the PPP-MQM ‘love–affair’. The last three-and-a-half years of “consensus politics’ of PPP have seen MQM walking-out of this relationship on several occasions and Mirza has been the very reason for it almost always.

When he first decided to take-on MQM with a verbal assault in Karachi chamber, hardly anybody thought that it could be without Zardari’s knowledge. With each passing day, his aggression towards MQM has been on the rise and just peaked last week, with some added flavors to everybody’s surprise.

His barrage of accusations against Rehman Malik has caught everybody by surprise and his own party off-guard. Given the seriousness of his allegations, here has been no denial of his accusations from either side, barring a meek attempt by Rehman Malik and MQM. His own party, ruling in Sindh and center, has dismissed it as his personal opinion. One wonders if they can leave the ball like that?

On the political chessboard, Zardari has made his moves tactfully and keeping MQM in check has been one of his desires. The party, particularly its Sindh leadership, has never been happy with the pressure-tactics of the MQM and wants a larger stake of the pie with the next elections approaching.

The accusations against MQM have been doing the rounds one way or the other but it needed a heavyweight voice to lend it credence. It’ll hardly minimize their political influence but will at least push them on the back-foot for a while. If a villain had to be made out of some other party colleagues, i.e. Rehman Malik, to achieve that end, the bargain is worth it!

We are certainly not done with the Mirza episode as yet and it will keep unfurling over the next days and weeks. One thing is for sure; this is certainly not the whole truth. And half-truth is dangerous because it is aimed at achieving certain ends. We should keep our fingers crossed as it unfolds further. As they say, “there seems to be a method behind this madness”.

Land of the “Pure”

Independence Day of any country is certainly a moment to rejoice; to savour the feeling of being a free nation and having a country of your own where you are a first-rate citizen; but it is also a time to reflect and do some soul-searching.

Are we really looking inwards as a nation to find out what exactly have we achieved over the last 64 years and where do we stand on the map of the world? An honest answer is NO; and that indeed is sad because the singing and dancing on national songs while forgetting everything else going around is like burying your head in the sand in trying to escape from reality.

We are a nation living in the ‘hope’ for a good time for the last six decades and one wonders if this is really ‘hoping against hope’? Our political system, notwithstanding the often-repeated rhetoric in praise of restoration of democracy, is in abyss and is designed in a way to perpetuate corruption, nepotism and status-quo.

The economy has been in shambles for ages and successive regimes have relied on providing it oxygen with loans acquired from financial institutions and donor countries without really thinking about the implications in the future.

The industrial sector is fast starting to look offshore in search of proper utilities and safe environment while the agriculture produce per acre is shrinking with each passing year. Our exports and revue targets are fudged and still we continue to believe that we can survive.

Our foreign policy has failed us inexplicably and consequently almost all the neighbours are hostile towards us while the friends, like Saudi Arabia and China, have also taken a step back. One wonders if those responsible for it are prepared to learn any lessons even now?

Law and order is at its worst. Leaving the perils of war-on-terror aside, which indeed has pegged the country’s progress back by several decades, are we really concerned about taking care of other issues? Whatever is happening in Karachi for the last several months now is anybody’s guess. It is simply brazen, indigenous power-struggle by our political parties at the cost of ordinary people.

We are a fastest growing population anywhere in the world with a bulging youth but there’s hardly any plan to cater to this challenge. Most of them are living for the day in the absence of any guiding force. This population bomb is going to explode some day and the results, given the scarcity of resources, could be frightening to say the least.

The brain drain is at an all-time high. Every other Pakistani, whether young or old, is looking to move out of the country without really thinking what they aim to achieve from it. Gone are the days when people used to venture abroad for greener pastures; it is “peace of mind’ that they are looking for now but they don’t know that even this dream has a price of its own in an alien country.

Hope is good because it keeps you motivated but it can also be self-defeating at times. Hope and false promises, without backing them with concrete actions, can be a very dangerous prospect and that is exactly what the power-brokers have been doing with ordinary Pakistanis. The problem is that those who matter are hardly pushed and there’s no leadership in sight to correct these wrongs.

Sixty-four years are not a long time in a nation’s history to achieve something, as we are always told, but it indeed is enough of a timespan to find a direction and the right set of priorities. Without doing so, the people in the “land of the pure” will continue to grope in the dark (God forbid) for another 64 years!

We owe it to Saleem Shahzad

Saleem Shahzad’s killing has once again brought into sharp focus a bitter reality that we all know but hardly admit. Intolerance has seemed across the society in Pakistan and it is not just terrorism but intolerance across the rank and file of the society that threatens the very existence of its fabric.

Saleem was Pakistan’s best-known journalist to the outside world because of his expertise in covering militant outfits and the ability to unmask their ability to infiltrate within the security agencies. The fact that his stories were hardly ever rebuked, even by his detractors, is a credit in itself.

Even in the last story that he did on the terrorist attack at Mehran naval base in Karachi, he pointed to the presence of some right-wing elements in navy who were probably having sympathies with the militant outfits. But the question is whether there is anything new in it? We all know that several officers and jawans of armed forces were taken in custody and convicted on charges of abetting the militants.

The attack at the naval base in Karachi was no different from the GHQ attack in October 2009 and several other attacks on military, police and other law enforcement agencies across the country. Sad though it is but could this be without any inside information? This is a question that hardly anybody would dispute.

Why kill somebody who is writing all this then? And he had been doing this with aplomb and fearlessness for more than a decade. The rising intolerance meant that his mouth had to be shut like other liberal and independent voices in other parts of the country. Whether he was killed by the intelligence agencies, as is being alleged, or the militants that he exposed, is immaterial in this debate because the ultimate cause of his death remains the same.

And why rue his loss only? What about an acclaimed intellectual like Prof. Saba Dashtiari in Balochistan or the politicians like former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseeer and former minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who were assassinated because of their liberal approach.   

Could this go on with such impunity? Could a country of 180 million be allowed to drift towards extremism and intolerance like this? The answer of an overwhelming majority in Pakistan will be a big NO. But how to stem the rot and where to start? The answer perhaps lies in coming out of the state of denial.

There will gain be commissions and promises of fair investigation into Saleem Shahzad’s killing but in every likelihood it’ll also meet the same fate as other investigations prior to this. The murder probes in Pakistan, right from the first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan’s assassination in 1951, have literally become a joke.

Saleem was not just another number and not just another journalist in the long list of people who had to pay dearly for their quest to bring the truth to light. His killing has caused a huge uproar within the country and abroad. While we may never know who exactly killed him and it’ll be life as usual for most of the people after a while, but the journalist fraternity has an obligation to him.

He gave his life without compromising on truth and that is the message that needs to be understood and spread across. It is now our responsibility to carry the baton and seek light towards the end of the tunnel. When I see most young journalists, let alone his contemporaries and seniors, echoing the same sentiments and ready to play their part, I know all is not lost and there is still hope. Yes Saleem, we owe it to you!