Lets Say It: Taseer Was Right!

Originally published in Daily Times on Sunday, March 20, 2011

Two martyrs, Left: Shahbaz Bhatt; Right: Salmaan Taseer

It is high time that we call a spade a spade. Bhatti died because he supported what Taseer stood for. Taseer died because he was against the way the current blasphemy laws were promulgated and their content, which makes it easier for the abusers to settle personal scores under its cover

As the Raymond Davis case finally comes to the expected end and the ‘ghairat’ (honour) brigade’s predictable and orchestrated fury goes on, the people and the media seem to have moved on and at least partially forget what happened since last fall. Two high profile assassinations in Pakistan within two months had shocked many while bolstering few others and petrifying those in charge of politics in the country. The governor of the most populous province, Punjab, was assassinated on January 4 followed by the broad daylight killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal Minister for Minorities’ Affairs on March 2 this year.

The common thread that ran through both the assassinations was Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman who was accused (wrongly as claimed by the victim herself) of blasphemy against Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). She was convicted and sentenced to death by a local court. In many cases, the fate of such cases in the last two decades at least has been custodial killing of the alleged blasphemers even before the due process of law completes. Most such murders have been done either in police custody, in or near courts or after the acquittal. In many cases, the police has been in the know of the identity of the killers or the killers take the responsibility with impunity.

Strong pressure of public vigilantism makes it almost impossible for the police to carry out a transparent and fair investigation and for the lower judiciary to carry out impartial and unbiased process of justice. This fear has been dinned into the police and lower judiciary in an organised manner by either threatening them or killing them eventually. At least two judges have been killed in past years on this account while the public has assaulted many police stations in such cases.

Shaheed Salmaan Taseer refused to bow down before this fear of the ‘known’. Despite many of his friends’ and well-wishers’ repeated reminders to stay away or to do it at an appropriate time, he decided to do what he thought his responsibility was: correcting the falsification of his religion by clerics and subsequent negative image; and saving a woman (in fact all the victims from minority and marginalised sections of society) from the wrath of orthodoxy.

Taseer’s was a simple point: if a man-made law enforced by a military dictator has been used to victimise, persecute and abuse the poor and the weak, why should such a flawed law be allowed to not only continue battering people, but also blacken the name of religion? To him, Islam consisted in compassion and his role model, Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), was an icon of forgiveness, benevolence and kindness. To him it was important to show this face of Islam to the world and to our own people through laws based on equality and justice. But anyone who brings out this face of the religion had to be stopped and shunned by those who take Islam as their only occupation and thriving business.

Such are the stakes of being a politician, that too the one who would not compromise on principles. This voice of sanity was muted. There were people who supported the killers by giving media statements vowing to kill a blasphemer the same way. Some supported the killers by refusing to lead the funeral prayers, by threatening the people who participated in the funeral and other rituals, by bringing out rallies trying to pressurise the government for backtracking on what Taseer died for, by not taking action against all those involved in the murder, showering rose petals on the killer, coming on the streets pledging legal support to the killer, doing TV programmes asking people whether Qadri was a killer or a hero, and finally, remaining silent.

All of this resulted in another broad daylight assassination on the same count. Shahbaz Bhatti was known to many as a person of resolve, commitment and many ideas to bring change. While most of us, the rights’ activists in Pakistan, took out to streets to protest and keep up our voice for justice to Taseer, Bhatti had been quietly taking forward Taseer’s work, saving Aasia along with other victims of blasphemy law’s procedural lacunae. He had been meeting people in the right offices, discussing possible ways out of the situation and was continuously in touch with the authorities on Aasia Bibi’s case. Punishment on this was due, and he got it finally.

What riles me most is the fact that those who avoided even mentioning Taseer (including our prime minister and all opposition leaders save few), feel it much easier to talk about Bhatti. The issue that started with Taseer’s appropriately pointing out of lacunae in a law, for which Bhatti had also to die, was successfully moulded into a minorities’ issue. It is safer to talk about minority rights with a charged populace ready to be fooled on any slogan carrying religion rather than touching upon the electric plug of challenging the blasphemy law and resultant public vigilantism that took Taseer’s life.

When Aasia Nasir, a member of the National Assembly (MNA), spoke on the issue on the floor of the House in a passionate and convincing manner, she missed out on Taseer. It gets unnoticed by the activists too. When the prime minister spoke on International Women’s Day, he gave a passing reference to Bhatti, but conveniently ignored Taseer. Everyone seems to be scared to death to even mention Taseer’s sacrifice, while drumming loudly on minorities’ persecution that they think is manifested by Bhatti’s murder.

It is high time that we call a spade a spade. Bhatti died because he supported what Taseer stood for. Taseer died because he was against the way the current blasphemy laws were promulgated and their content, which makes it easier for the abusers to settle personal scores under its cover. Taseer committed no blasphemy; he was rather on the path set by the Prophet (PBUH) by being just and fair with the weaker sections of society. The conservative and more powerful section of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and all the opposition parties could not spell it out in clear terms and kowtowed to the religious right only to make things worse.

Time is not completely lost yet. The religious right has been very clearly using it to their political advantage; people have to understand it and refuse to be fooled by them. Political parties who claim to be secular and progressive need to come out clearly on Taseer-Bhatti sacrifice instead of playing safe. The progressive elements within the government need to take the speeches of President Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as the guiding principle and take on the killers fearlessly. Address the issue if you want to save yourself of a Qadri. Qadris cannot be avoided by bowing down. Appeasement would only strengthen and embolden them.