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No Respite in Crises for Pakistan

Zardari saw in Taseer an ideal proxy of him to constantly harass the Sharif Brothers, Shehbaz, the Chief Minister, in particular. The open hostility between the Governor and the Chief Minister of Punjab made regular headlines in the Pakistani media

The broad-daylight murder of Salman Taseer, Governor of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, outside a posh shopping mall of Islamabad, has plunged the crises-ravaged country into yet another crisis.

Tasser was gunned down, in a hail of bullets by one of his own body-guards, reminding many of the dastardly murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in identical fashion, 26 years ago in neighbouring India.

Of course Salaman Taseer wasn’t a patch on a popular and highly-respected Indira Gandh, though in all fairness to him he, too, fell a victim to a religious fanatic’s craving to settle a score with the aid of bullets.

Unlike Gandhi, Taseer was a highly controversial political figure who made innumerable enemies because of his free-wheeling and cavalier style. In a country where liquor has been officially proscribed for nearly 40 years-though that hasn’t checked its wholesome consumption among the elite of the country who can afford it-Taseer was known for his consumption of it in public view. That factor alone made him a pariah in the eyes of Pakistan’s exponentially expanding legions of religious dogmatists and fanatics.

However, Taseer virtually signed on his own death warrant, two months ago in November, when in an interview with BBC-extensively aired in Pakistan-he described Pakistan’s equally controversial and inflammatory Blasphemy Law as a ‘black law’ and a piece of legislation that needed to be amended.

Taseer’s outburst against a legislation done during the days of General Ziaul Haq, who not only had a reputation for being a hard-liner, himself, in religious matters but also fed the religious paranoia of the clergy in Pakistan, making them enormously powerful in the process, had an immediate context. A Christian woman from a village in the Punjab had been sentenced to death by an appeals court on the charge that she had disparaged the name of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in the presence of several other women. Under the Blasphemy Law, her guilt was established and punishment pronounced.

Taseer, never one to shy away from a fight, saw an opportunity for himself to make political mileage from the episode. He had been appointed governor of Punjab by Pakistan’s former, tin-pot, military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf with whom he shared a number of traits in common; their mutual fondness for the banned liquids being just one of them. Musharraf’s successor, the incumbent President Asif Ali Zardari, kept Taseer on as governor for purely political considerations after the last general elections of February 2008, which led to the Pakistan People’s Party of the slain leader, Benazir Bhutto, emerging as the largest party, and thus entitled to form government at the federal level, the same election also brought the PPP’s principal rival in the political arena, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to power in the largest province of the federation, Punjab. Taseer was known for his hostility to Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, who became Chief Minister of Punjab. Zardari, too, carried a deep-seated animus against the Sharif Brothers, though for expediency’s sake he entered into a series of political pacts with Nawaz, none of which worked out because of Zardari’s welll-known duplicity and brazen hypocrisy.

Zardari saw in Taseer an ideal proxy of him to constantly harass the Sharif Brothers, Shehbaz, the Chief Minister, in particular. The open hostility between the Governor and the Chief Minister of Punjab made regular headlines in the Pakistani media. Taseer regularly denigrated the dignity of his office and abused his status as Zardari’s eyes and ears in Punjab with impunity to cross swords with Shehbaz. He earned notoriety as Zardari’s attack-dog and a man who couldn’t be stopped by protocol or decorum of his office from stooping down to the lowest level of political discourse in order to thumb his nose at his rivals in the Punjab government.

But he obviously crossed the limit by taking on upon himself to publicly beat the drums in support of the indicted Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Before accessing the resource of BBC-always freely available to anyone half-inclined to denounce Islam and its followers in a way that fits the global anti-Muslim campaign triggered since the 9/11 episode-to denounce the laws of his own country, Taseer had invited the woman at the centre of the controversy to the Governor’s House in Lahore to call for changes in the Blasphemy Law. That exercise in public relations was seen by the clergy as Taseer unfurling the banner of anti-Islamism in a country that prides itself as an Islamic Republic.

Taseer’s murderer, arrested on the spot, is being hailed by many in Pakistan as a hero. They are eulogizing him as a religious crusader who has put out one who dared to tarnish the name of the HOLY Prophet of Islam (PBUH). This fallout of fanaticism and religious orthodoxy should be a cause of concern, not only to the people of Pakistan but also to Muslims anywhere in the world. The Holy prophet, an apostle of universal peace, amity and brotherhood doesn’t need misguided zealots and obscurantists, half-baked in the spirit and message of Islam, to stand guard among his followers and murder those who dare to express a contrary view.

The Blasphemy Law is a man-made law and is controversial, no doubt about it.

Ziaul Haq had conceived of it as a stout stick in the hands of a robust clergy and to be wielded against his political rivals to silence them. But a law tailored to suit the political needs of an autocrat, garbed in the shroud of religion, is not necessarily the best piece of legislation for all times and circumstances.

There is no gain said, in the context of present-day Pakistan, or the way Pakistan has lurched alarmingly to ultra-conservatism and fanaticism, in religious terms, over the past three decades since this law was crafted, that it has dangerously empowered a myopic segment of its deeply-divided society. The result of this imbalance in the moral calibre of the Pakistani society is that this law has been abused by its practitioners with total impunity, especially against those targeted politically.

Pakistan is a fractured society in the sense of its sociological imperfection. It’s basically a feudal society in which the privilege of one’s birth also arms one with undue power and authority over the less-privileged or, using a simpler terminology, deprived from birth and consigned to a perennially disadvantaged status. Feudal barons have always found it enormously convenient, for their pelf and power, to align with retrograde clergy. And this marriage of convenience between the two has made the lives of those condemned to live at their mercy and largesse an unending nightmare, if not a living hell.

The law entitles any Muslim, armed with a couple of witnesses, to accuse anyone on the list of ‘enemies’ of having blasphemed the Holy Prophet. A corrupt and morally degenerate police force can always be conveniently arrayed on the side of the accuser against the accused. An equally corrupt and money-based judiciary at the lower level of the system seals the fate of the accused, as has been the case with the Christian woman found guilty of this crime. That’s how easy it is, in the ‘Land of the Pure’ to put away a marked man, or woman, with absolute authority of the law.

Of course, this weapon of convenience has been trained more on Muslims of Pakistan than non-Muslims. But the cases of non-Muslims, for understandable reasons, end up gaining more traction in the world media, as is the case with the Christian woman, Asia Bibi. With political zealots like Salman Taseer throwing their weight behind a well-concerted campaign, waged from many corners of the world, to seek justice for the condemned woman, it was destined to become a celebrated cause to condemn Pakistan for not caring enough for its minorities and treating them as second class citizens.

But it isn’t the minorities alone that are consigned to second class status. The majority of Pakistanis, irrespective of their religious beliefs, are being treated as second or third class citizens of a state in which there is no rule of law and where law is routinely bended to suit the convenience of a minuscule privileged class, made up of the ruling elite and the establishment.

What aggravates the Pakistani problem-and has done so consistently for several decades-is that religion has been treated as a hand-maiden to serve the interests of various strata, especially those with power, political or religious. The result is not only systematic abuse of religion itself but massive exploitation of the people in the name of religion. And it isn’t that only one faction is guilty of using religion as a weapon to silence others. In Pakistan, the abuse of religion as an essential tool of power commenced with politicians but, lately, the clerics have become equally adept to raise the banner of religion to gain political mileage with facility.

At this juncture of a powerful politician having been silenced by a religious fanatic or bigot, the Pakistani problem is getting snarled into the political malaise that has been afflicting the country ever since the present democratic dispensation has come to power.

Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani has lost his majority in the parliament, in the past couple of weeks, because of the defection of two major parties-one religious and the other secular-from his coalition. These political allies of the beleaguered Gilani deemed it proper to jump his sinking ship, which has long been hobbled by massive corruption and gross mismanagement and lack of governance.

The murder of Taseer aggravates the prime minister’s desperate bid to hang on to power. He’s not prepared to seek a vote of confidence, which he must under the constitution of the country; nor is President Zardari, who belongs to the same party as the PM, is inclined to ask him to get the confidence vote for fear that his vulnerability would only be exposed to all and sundry.

The most powerful rivals of the Zardari-Gilani combine, the Sharif Brothers, have served an ultimatum to Gilani to clean his act and get cracking his whip against massive corruption in the top echelons of his government or get out of the coalition in Punjab with their party. So Gilani and Zardari suddenly find themselves in the eye of the storm: they have lost their most loyal watch-dog in Punjab, whose nuisance value was a real asset to them, and now, on top of it, their nemeses in Punjab are pulling the rug from under their feet.

But the Pakistani politicians are also renowned for their habit of shooting themselves in the foot. So on this occasion, too, when the rulers of Islamabad should, as logic dictates, be seeking accommodation with the powerful Sharif Brothers in order to calm a highly inflamed political scene, the attack-dogs of PPP have started barking at the wrong tree. Their terse comments and angry, acerbic reactions to the murder of Taseer are focusing on a ‘political conspiracy’ hatched, according to their fertile, but sick, imagination in Punjab to eliminate Taseer.

It’s pathetic of those expected to salve an inflamed and overly-sensitized public on the heels of a national tragedy to be engaged, instead, in partisan politics and pointing fingers at their political rivals. This unhealthy and nihilistic tendency epitomizes Pakistan’s perpetual crisis of confidence, the fallout of which is spawning a highly fractured and torn-down-the-middle society of fanatics and bigots of all shades and stripes. The most dangerous fanaticism is, of course, the one fuelled by a miscued and distorted version of Islam.

When a nation starts spawning liberal fascists and religious fanatics at one and the same time, it must be knocking at the door of self-annihilation. Pakistan is almost there, at that avoidable tryst with ill-fortune, but seems hopelessly incompetent and ill-prepared to stem the rot.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2011 on page no. 26

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