Salmaan Taseer – on the right side of history

January 4, 2018: Salmaan Taseer – on the right side of history (Daily Times)

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the senseless, cold-blooded murder of Salmaan Taseer. His martyrdom was a price paid for defending a poor Christian woman and speaking up against injustice and violence perpetrated through the misuse of blasphemy laws. Even though the murderer has been punished by the courts of this country, ‘justice’ in a broader sense remains as remote as it was on January 4, 2011.

Salmaan Taseer wanted the parliament to review these draconian laws. His quest for reform was misconstrued by the right wing fanatics, opportunists in the media and political opponents as ‘blasphemy’ itself. In all these years, not much headway has been made to reconsider the controversial and, if one may add, man-made laws that continue to haunt the body politic, and adversely affect the status of minorities in the country. Since his brutal murder, more people have been booked under the law, incidents of lynching have continued and hundreds languish in jails. The parliamentarians are scared, unmoved or worse remain indifferent.

Taseer’s killing should have moved the state towards action. After all he was a representative of the federation in his capacity as the governor of Pakistan’s largest province. But the state of Pakistan is addicted to misuse of religion for political gains. The Pakistan People’s Party government blocked YouTube after protests against a C-grade movie on the Internet. Nothing was learnt from the Taseer episode. A long legal battle led to restoration of YouTube but the damage was done. You could pick up any issue, incite public passions, mobilise a few hundred fanatics and then pressurise the state to surrender.

In 2014, GEO TV that had fallen out of the favour of the powers-that-be, was booked under the blasphemy law. This followed the attack on journalist Hamid Mir whose family accused the deep state of harming him. GEO/Jang Group aired these accusations. Once again, blasphemy came in handy as a means to teach a lesson to the errant channel and its management. That this occurred at the behest of security establishment, says it all.

After the taming of traditional media, especially the television industry, the digital spaces emerged as arenas of dissent. A crackdown on digital media has been ongoing since the start of 2017. In January 2017, five social media activists were abducted by state agencies on the pretext of having committed ‘blasphemy’. The chorus was joined in by some TV channels and an effective campaign against illegally detained bloggers was launched that convinced even reasonable people of their alleged blasphemous activities. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) under the overzealous (former) interior minister published advertisements that online blasphemy should be reported. This was an open invitation for a witch-hunt.

One victim of this odious state policy was Mashal Khan, a student at the Abdul Wali Khan University who was killed on campus by a mob that consisted of students, staff and outsiders on fake allegations of posting blasphemous content on his Facebook page. For weeks, everyone was busy proving that he was not a blasphemer, as if that would have justified the barbaric behaviour.

But this was a prelude to what was coming. After Nawaz Sharif’s engineered ouster through a questionable court verdict, his party’s government was brought to a standstill by clerics on the blasphemy issue. Ministers released video confessions that they were devout Muslims, and in the streets of Islamabad hundreds lionised Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Shaheed Taseer. Abusive language, including expletives, was employed by these clerics to defend the ‘honour’ of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The son-in-law of former PM Sharif, Imran Khan and many others openly supported this cause. Such is the reckless support to extremism to earn a few political brownies

This marginal Barelvi extremism has always been a reality. Mumtaz Qadri was a face of it but with the backing of the establishment to undercut Nawaz Sharif and pliant sections of the media, it is likely to turn into a menace. For more than 30 years, we have dealt with the Debonadi variant, generously funded by the Gulf countries, and now the Barelvi brigade might be used to control politics, as the Sharif dynasty refuses to disappear despite massive propaganda and court cases.

In 2017, the military refused to become part of the crackdown on the Barelvi fanatics. Instead, they were given a warm send-off, called ‘our own people’ and awarded return fares. All of this unfolded like ignoble chapters of a tragedy. It is clear that the blasphemy laws are not going anywhere and religious passions will remain a convenient tool to be used at any given moment for a particular political agenda.

Mumtaz Qadri was hanged. An immediate cause of justice was served but the mindset that aids and abets violence in the name of religion is ever-present and has the clear-cut backing of state institutions. Asia Bibi, the Christian woman defended by Shaheed Taseer, remains in prison. Another young scholar Junaid Hafeez continues to suffer solitary confinement and countless others are at risk.

But Salmaan Taseer has left us with the idealism and courage of resisting this injustice. This is why many in Pakistan’s civil and political societies are challenging the forces of extremism. This is why we need to celebrate Taseer’s life; and bewail his death. He was on the right side of history.