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.
- Published at Dunya News on Jan 6, 2012