LAHORE/KARACHI: The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has declared the killing of Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer a “political murder” timed to occur during a serious political crisis threatening the embattled government.
Taseer, 66, was shot dead outside a café in Islamabad on Tuesday by one of his own security guards incensed by his statements against the controversial blasphemy laws.
It was a political murder, and it did not have any religious motivation, Law Minister Babar Awan, the most vocal cabinet member of the PPP, told journalists outside Taseer’s residence in Lahore. He demanded that the Punjab government unearth the “real motives” and expose “the real culprits.”
Awan also pointed to, what he called, “serious lapses” in Taseer’s security. He said the assassin guard – Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri – was assigned the duty notwithstanding a police special branch report which declared him unfit for the security of VVIPs. Awan faulted the Punjab government but said he was not blaming it for the murder.
The ruling PPP is scrambling to survive after two of its major coalition partners – the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman) – defected to the opposition last month. The law minister said that Taseer’s assassination was, in fact, an attempt to derail the democratic process and his party’s government.
Salmaan Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, was one of the most outspoken voices against religious extremism. Nonetheless, Awan said his murder was not motivated by religious fanaticism. Taseer was a political figure and he did not have differences with anyone, he added.
The minister said that, in a way, it was also a custodial murder because the Punjab government was responsible for Taseer’s security and it had failed to follow standard operating procedures.
While Awan was accentuating the political connotation of Taseer’s killing, President Asif Zardari said it was yet to be established that the murder was part of some broader conspiracy against the democratic system.
Speaking to PPP lawmakers at the Bilawal House in Karachi, Zardari said the real planners would be unmasked after investigations. He called Taseer’s murder “a great tragedy” and a “huge loss” for the PPP and vowed to convert it into strength for the party.
Rights groups have been calling for amending or repealing the blasphemy laws which they say are often exploited by religious conservatives as well as ordinary people to settle personal scores. But hard-line religious parties are strongly opposed to any changes in the controversial statute.
The fragile government of the PPP is walking a tight-rope on the issue making sure it does not offend the powerful religious right and ultimately lose vital support in the next election.
Religious parties have directed their wrath at the PPP, which, they believe, wants to amend or repeal the blasphemy laws. The party now feels it imperative to quash this perception. And the job has been assigned to Babar Awan, sources told The Express Tribune.
As a part of its strategy to defuse the situation, the PPP high command has decided to drag Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his Law Minister Rana Sanaullah into Governor Taseer’s murder to give it a political colour, the sources added.
Earlier, Salmaan Taseer was buried with state honour at Lahore’s Cavalry Ground Graveyard, also known as Shuhada Qabristan (the graveyard of martyrs). Thousands of people attended the funeral, braving tight security and defying threats from religious conservatives.
Some religious scholars had warned that anyone who expresses grief over the assassination could suffer the same fate.
Draped in the national flag, Taseer’s coffin was buried by his sons Shaheryar, Shahbaz and Shaan Taseer, as relatives looked on. A contingent of the Punjab police presented a guard of honour.
Attendees at the funeral included Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, some of his cabinet members, Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, Senate Chairperson Farooq H Naek and provincial ministers from Punjab. A number of leaders from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Q-League and other political parties, senior bureaucrats and a large number of civil society members and rights activists were also in attendance.
Taseer’s soyem will be held at the Punjab Governor House at 2pm on Thursday, January 6.
(With additional reporting by HAYAT UMAR & RANA TANVEER)
Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2011.