Salmaan Taseer in Kafka’s Pakistan
How utterly absurd that in Pakistan we can shed tears for a murderer, but have none to spare for a powerless peasant.
“One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.”
Thus begins Franz Kafka’s novella masterpiece Metamorphosis. The novel inhabits the familiar bizarre frame of Kafka’s work, of a world where the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a giant insect-like creature elicits hardly any surprise from Samsa’s family and associates, or indeed from Samsa himself. Samsa spends no time pondering his metamorphosis, why it may have occurred or how the process may be reversed. He busies himself instead with mundane concerns, and immediately upon his transformation spends an inordinate amount of time simply looking for a comfortable position to sleep in. For Kafka’s literary canvass was one where utter absurdity was a fact of life. Perhaps Kafka was a proto-Pakistani.
Consider this: today marks the first anniversary of the murder of Salmaan Taseer, Punjab’s former governor. Taseer was murdered for advocating reform of Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws and for championing the case of Aasia Bibi, a powerless peasant woman whom he believed had been wrongfully accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Today, no plaque marks the spot where Taseer was martyred, no street bears his name, no public education campaign highlights the historic cause he gave his life for.
Taseer’s killer, his own former bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, suffers no such anonymity. Declared a “Hero of the Muslim World” by some of the most prominent Islamic organisations in Pakistan, Qadri’s smiling, slightly deranged face beams down from innumerable billboards and posters in the Punjab, particularly in the shining city of Lahore.
“We salute the greatness of Mumtaz Qadri, the Ghazi (heroic warrior) of the Muslim Ummah” reads one such poster.
Qadri’s supporters in the Sunni Ittehad Council, a Barelvi group, intend to celebrate January 4 as ‘Mumtaz Qadri Day’.
Under the Court of Inquiry convened to examine anti-Ahmadi riots in Lahore in 1953, Pakistan’s mullah community famously disagreed even on the definition of a Muslim. But in Taseer’s case it finally found something it could agree on. Clerics almost unanimously refused to lead Taseer’s funeral prayers, and fatwa factories went into high gear prohibiting others from leading or even attending the funeral. Ultimately, the secretary general of the PPP’s ulema wing, Muhammad Afzal Chisti, led the prayers. For his trouble, Maulana Chisti received numerous death threats and has had to flee the country.
Qadri faced no such dearth of well-wishers. The self-appointed defenders of the faith were quick to leap to Qadri’s moral defense. And to the everlasting shame of the Punjab and Pakistani bars, hundreds of lawyers – those black-coats sworn to uphold the Rule of Law – garlanded Qadri, a confessed murderer, when he first appeared in court. The court received dozens of applications from lawyers clamoring to defend Qadri.
Many hoped that Taseer’s killing would become a rallying cry. Instead it has been a death-knell for efforts to reform blasphemy laws and for a kinder, more tolerant Pakistan. Another prominent supporter of reform, the former Minister for Minorities Affairs Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated on March 2, 2011. The ruling PPP had already distanced itself from Taseer’s and Bhatti’s advocacy, claiming that they did not represent the government’s position. The government also further sidelined Shehrbano “Sherry” Rahman and her private members bill on reforming blasphemy laws. The government made its backtracking clear when its own Interior Minister Rehman Malik, with foot firmly planted in mouth, came out threatening to personally kill anyone who blasphemes. Through all this, an uncomfortable blanket of silence covers most Pakistani media when it comes to discussing Taseer.
But Qadri has no shortage of powerful supporters. His visage graces countless oversized banners at numerous rallies organized by Pakistan’s Islamist organizations in support of Qadri and blasphemy laws. Nor can one plausibly maintain any longer the fiction that these events are held by fringe groups full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The political flock at these rallies are not only the religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, but mainstream right-wing parties as well, including the former ruling PML-N and PML-Q, PML-Z, and even the PTI. The Tehreek-e-Insaf clearly thinks little of providing justice to Taseer or to the numerous victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (its position on blasphemy laws is covered more fully elsewhere).
Qadri was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court on October 1, 2011. The sentence sparked nationwide protests. Even as his lawyers have launched an appeal to reduce the sentence, there have been emotional outbursts from bawling protesters and appeals to President Zardari to commute the death sentence. Meanwhile, Aasia Bibi has languished in prison for over two years as her case slowly winds through the appellate process. Regardless of what the court decides a question mark hangs over whether she will ever get out.
Aasia Bibi has to cook her own food in jail for fear of being poisoned, and one of her prison guards was recently suspended for trying to strangle her to death. Even if her death sentence is overturned or she does get released, the mullahs have offered, with complete impunity, a financial reward for her murder. On Valentines Day last year, supporters gathered outside Qadri’s high-security prison to deliver him flowers. Only assassins lurk outside the walls of Aasia Bibi’s prison cell. There are no weeping supporters in the streets for this poor peasant woman or for the hundreds of others wrongfully on death row in Pakistan’s jails on the basis of empty and vindictive accusations.
How utterly absurd that in Pakistan we can shed tears for a murderer, but have none to spare for a powerless peasant. How utterly absurd that there are calls for a ‘Mumtaz Qadri Day’ but none for a ‘Salman Taseer Day’, or better yet, for a ‘Compassionate Pakistan Day’. How utterly absurd that standing up for the powerless and advocating reforms to a law almost designed to facilitate abuse makes one a political pariah, often of the murdered kind. But proscribed terrorist organizations like Jamaatud-Dawa can openly praise freedom of speech in Pakistan and receive establishment support even as they publicly disavow any belief in nationalism and by extension, the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. How utterly absurd that a sovereignty obsessed people can condone the writ of the state being openly flaunted by any Tom, Dick and mullah.
But behind the curtain of absurdity, Kafka offers Pakistan another lesson. All the characters in Metamorphosis, including Gregor Samsa himself, largely ignore Samsa’s transformation into an insect and the attendant loss of his humanity. Samsa’s dilemma is captured when he considers removing all his human possessions from his room to allow himself more space to scurry about. Kafka asks, “Did he really want the warm room, so cozily appointed with heirlooms, transformed into a lair, where he might, of course, be able to creep, unimpeded, in any direction, though forgetting his human past swiftly and totally?” Ultimately Samsa gives up all his possessions, save for a solitary picture on the wall.
Perhaps all of Pakistanis are Gregor Samsa, utterly unattuned to the collective loss of its humanity. We are too easily convinced to give up our humanistic impulses and to ignore the lessons inherent in thousands of years of our history – our precious heirlooms – for the cold comforts of ideological and political conformity. It becomes easier to forget about Aasia Bibi and Taseer and Bhatti and countless other innocents than to struggle to make sense of our ugly societal transformations and how to reverse them. But if we continue to forget, will all that is left of our humanity be a remnant hanging on our walled-off conscience?
On the anniversary of Salmaan Taseer’s killing, will we have the courage to enter into an open national dialogue not just on blasphemy laws but on the sickness in our socio-political fabric where the metamorphosis of murderers into martyrs is condoned by the gatekeepers of the law and our major political parties? Will we step into Taseer’s and Bhatti’s tall shadows by raising the banner of minority rights? Will any political party demonstrate the will to move past empty rhetoric and bring real justice to Pakistan’s minorities and other powerless victims by proposing concrete reforms to the sections of the Pakistan Penal Code and the Constitution that deal with blasphemy and enshrine bigotry? Or like Gregor Samsa, will we continue to simply look for a comfortable position to sleep in?