By Anees Jilani
Jan 06, 2011
My first encounter with Salmaan Taseer was in 1983. I used to go to Regal Chowk located on Mall Road in Lahore every day in the evening to watch the MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) workers courting arrest. Those were the dreadful heydays of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law, with police arresting anybody seen standing near the chowk; most of the time police personnel outnumbered the protesters. Despite this, someone from the crowd would suddenly start raising slogans and the police (and intelligence agents in civilian clothes) would pounce on the guy and whisk him away. In the midst of all this depression, a day came for Salmaan Taseer to court arrest and suddenly there were at least 1,000 people; Salmaan suddenly emerged from nowhere and the whole area shook with loud slogans. I developed immense respect for him that day as it showed his courage and organisational skills. He was taken straight to the dreaded Shahi Qila (Lahore Fort) where he is said to have been beaten up.
Then came Benazir Bhutto in 1986 and Salmaan Taseer was again in the news. He was probably made secretary (information) of the People’s Party; however, Benazir somehow never gave him a position in the government and denied him even the senate ticket which depressed him. May be he was too vocal and intellectual for Benazir.
He was sidelined in the PPP polity and thus decided to switch to business; he had earlier started Taseer Hadi, a leading chartered accountancy firm. He proved to be a successful businessman and made lots of money. The good part is that he could never be accused of corruption, unlike many of his friends and foes in politics. And then he re-surfaced in May 2008 when Musharraf chose him as governor of Punjab.
He proved to be an active governor and brought lots of attention to this office which otherwise is a redundant one. It became a centre of the PPP workers who otherwise were lost after being repeatedly trounced by in elections by Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League. He became their voice and a one-man brigade against the PML.
His opponents on a number of occasions tried to raise his relationship with Indian journalist Tavleen Singh, with whom he has a son Aatish Taseer (who is an intellectual in his own right and author of a best-selling novel). Salmaan never clarified his relationship and desisted from talking about it. But apparently, Aatish visited him in Pakistan a couple of times including after his becoming the governor.
Salmaan Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard on January 4 in Islamabad and he was only 66. God in the Holy Quran says that “no people can hasten their term, nor can they delay it” (23.43). So Salmaan’s time had come just like it will for all of us. But Salmaan died like a courageous man, with his boots on. I am sure this is the way he would have wanted to go taking a principled stand for something he believed in. He did not die crawling.
The pity is that his death may cow down the remaining few sane voices in the country. One could perceive this while watching the programmes on various television channels following his murder. There is hardly an anchorperson bold enough to outrightly defend what Salmaan stood for and the politicians are a foregone conclusion anyway. Every politician becomes a martyr in Pakistan but nobody is willing to call Salmaan one. Is it because they do not believe in what he stood for, or are they scared of the repercussions?The worst part is that the lower class folks I came across on Tuesday unanimously supported his death, ranging from the cooks to the chowkidars. They all said that he stood for blasphemy and deserved to die. This is a sad and dangerous trend.
The question is, who is going to change this mind-set and how? One cannot expect any sort of action from the present rulers because they lack the will, the vision and the intellect to do any such thing. The military has the might but it also has its limitations as such extremists are present in its midst as well and an intervention of any sort would be denounced and the political forces may suddenly unite against it. This leaves us with the media and the intellectuals.
The media will have to take the lead in this respect and give intellectuals showing the liberal democratic path space to air their views. Instead, what we saw the evening he died was television channels, including the Pakistan TV, giving the religious personalities lot of time to justify the killing. The English print media appears more sane and portrays a liberal voice, with few exceptions, but the Urdu press is overwhelmingly sensational and gives front page coverage to the religious extremists with banner headlines.
No one appears to be bothering to promote tolerance in the national polity and in culture. How can a nation aspire to have democracy without tolerance? It is a test of a nation’s civilisation and Pakistan has been failing since the late Seventies in this respect. All that Salmaan Taseer asked for was a few modifications in the blasphemy law (Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code which was inserted by the military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq in 1986). The law is constantly being misused by some sections to get their enemies into trouble. And once a blasphemy charge is made everyone gets cold feet, including the police and judges, and they invariably find the accused guilty as charged. It is not surprising that blasphemy cases, unlike the other cases, are decided in record time as the judiciary tries to get rid of them as quickly as possible.
Many religious zealots called for killing Salmaan Taseer after he called the blasphemy a ‘black law’; a nation-wide strike was called by the religious parties on the last day of 2010 against any amendments in the blasphemy law and many in the public meetings that day called for his death. Such terrorisation is a crime under law and there is hardly any justification for ignoring such threats.Media has a responsibility in this respect and should act maturely and in the name of sanity if nothing else should desist from highlighting statements eulogising religious extremism. It is so far failing to do so.
Anees Jillani is a prominent Pakistan Supreme Court lawyer
Source: The New Indian Express © Copyright 2008 ExpressBuzz