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#3312, 7 January 2011
Reading Pakistan-I: Who Killed Salman Taseer?
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS
email: subachandran@gmail.com

Yes, of course the security guard pumped bullets into Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, who stood against the Blasphemy laws in Pakistan. But, did he really kill Taseer? Or is he only an expression and an instrument of a larger narrow religious chauvinism?

Salman Taseer was not assassinated for political reasons. His assassination was a culmination of his opposition to the blasphemy law in general, and more specifically, his efforts to commute the death sentence of Aasiya Bibi, awarded by the lower court on charges of blasphemy.

The primary responsibility of Taseer’s assassination rests with the PPP, especially Asif Ali Zardari, the President and Yusuf Gilani, the Prime Minister. Both are nothing but opportunistic cowards, who let their own men and women within the PPP down by not backing them. Salman Taseer and Sherry Rehman (another PPP MNA and a liberal stalwart) are perhaps the few voices of sanity and courage within the PPP, who decided to stand up and speak for what Jinnah believed. If Taseer decided to pursue the case of Aasiya Bibi, Sherry Rehman courageously submitted a bill to amend the blasphemy laws.

Alas, what did the Prime Minister and the President do? Instead of lending their support, both decided to distance themselves from these two initiatives to ensure the survival of their government. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister has the courage to amend the blasphemy laws; they fear this will give more power to the religious political parties which will only further destabilize the government. No one is asking for its complete repeal, which will be ideal. The demand from the liberal section today is only to amend the blasphemy law, so that it is not misused.

What has been the role of other political parties, outside the PPP, in amending these blasphemy laws? The PML-N has always been playing dirty on this issue and never come on board. Its political interests have always been dominant, even at the costs of national interest. Whether it is the case of blasphemy laws or the presence of the Taliban (and its supporters) in Punjab, referred as the Punjabi Taliban, the PML-N has never countered the growing extremism inside Pakistan. In fact, in terms of ideological orientation on this issue, PML-N and PML-Q are much closer to the religious parties. Neither of these two parties has made any official announcement on their stand on the blasphemy law. While the PPP may have wanted to take on the religious parties on this issue, it is the lack of support from the PML and its variants in Punjab that has led to Zardari’s deficiency in not taking a decisive step.

The religious political parties need to be appreciated on this issue, for there is no hypocrisy involved. They are openly against the repeal or even amendment of the blasphemy law and have been publicly vocal about their sentiments. They favour moderate radicalization as long as it serves to politicize the issue and remain relevant, and most importantly, to gather votes. Along with religious organizations, the religious political parties have made their stand public and stand by it.

The public stand of religious parties rallies a section of civil society that believes in such extremist ideas - from conservative NGOs to lawyers, as was made explicit in the public showering of flowers on the killer of Salman Taseer, when he was produced in Court. The support for the assassin was so shrill and widespread, that the Dawn reported: “ Because of fears for their safety, no public prosecutor turned up at the court and the police officers concerned had to argue the case themselves.” The group that has so vociferously lent its support to the assassin is in all likelihood no more than a small bunch of fringe radical elements.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, this section of civil society has found a strong platform in the media. A large part of the print and electronic media provides the much needed space to both civil society and radical groups to publicize their cause.

Finally, the intelligence organizations have well established links with all the above sections to espouse a particular cause - radical groups, religious political parties and the media. They believe their actions are in the interest of the nation and are essential to pursue a strategic course vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan. In fact most of the radical backlash that Pakistan is witnessing today, that has taken the lives of Benazir Bhutto, Salman Taseer and numerous other unknown names, is the result of flawed polices that the intelligence agencies and security forces pursued vis-à-vis their eastern and western neighbours. 

It was thus not Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin who actually sprayed the bullets that killed Taseer. He is only an expression and an instrument of a larger problem that Pakistan is grappling with. Any answer that deals with the question of who killed Taseer should also explore the larger issue rather than just allegations of Qadri’s links with a radical group or the matter of it being a political conspiracy, as the PPP may want to shift the blame.

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