I have observed that writing at this time of the year, it is customary to critically reminisce over the year gone by and speculate about what lies before us. The last year, like all years, is too complicated to be summarised and I have not yet earned the right to be smug enough to make precise predictions for the future. Nevertheless, the last year was out of the ordinary. The year got off to a very bad start with Governor Salmaan Taseer being murdered and it never really recovered. The assassination of Taseer set the trajectory for the rest of the year and, I daresay, maybe of years to come.
Murder in the name of faith is hardly a novelty in Pakistan. We have acclimatised ourselves to the periodic suicide bombing, the attack on minorities etc. Yet, this particular murder concentrated into a microcosm the conflict at the core of our society. The governor of our largest province was murdered by one of his own security personnel because the governor opposed the current formulation of the blasphemy laws. The incident was indeed tragic, but what made it into a tragedy of catastrophic proportions was the response to it. The first and foremost casualty was the media; it was hard to find anyone who was willing to unequivocally condemn the daylight murder of a governor. It was an orgy of the most egregious usage of the words ‘sensitive’ and ‘provocative’ etc. As one saw the ordinarily hysterical, subdued and neutered in their quest for objective language, only one element was clearly and palpably present i.e. fear.
One of the most surreal and telling images of last year was that of the assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, being garlanded by lawyers. The vulgarity and the indecency of it are unmistakable. The leaders of the lawyers movement, who had the courage to stand up to the entire apparatus of a dictator, were nowhere to be found when confronted with one religious murderer. The Supreme Court by then had already displayed its propensity for taking suo motu cognisance of almost every conceivable news item, nevertheless, not one word from My Lords. Either the Supreme Court did not deem the matter to be of public importance or was afraid, both conclusions are disturbing. Perhaps, the most sinister betrayal was from the politicians, especially those from the governor’s own party. The response overall was pathetic, the façade of caution was very thin, displaying the cowardice which lay beneath.
In a year as eventful as the last, the exclusive focus on one murder, however tragic, might come across as unjustified to some. Still, I maintain that the singular most influential and depressing event was the fiasco. The condemnation of suicide bombing requires a minimum degree of moral clarity but not courage. The victims are distant, more significantly, the fanatical murderers unknown, it is a crime without a face. In the case of Mumtaz Qadri, it was the face that was and still is unavoidable. If one is permitted to resort to cliché, it was the litmus test, the gold standard. And we failed, chillingly without a fight. Once we had failed, Shahbaz Bhatti really had no chance. That is the thing about courage, once you pretend to be selective; you are going to be found out very quickly for the spinelessness which you seek to conceal. Blackmail is by definition regressive and vicious and we allowed Mumtaz Qadri and his murderous supporters to take us hostage. We as a people, and liberals in particular, did not just lose the argument but accepted complete moral defeat. Mumtaz Qadri has now, uninvited, drawn a chair to our table, and he is armed and knows us for what we really are. Keeping in view, our irrepressible desire to ascribe to our country one singular owner, it might not be completely inaccurate to say that we spent the last year in ‘Mumtaz Qadri’s Pakistan’.
When Saleem Shahzad was brutally murdered by mysterious forces, which probably will never be known, the resolve of fighting and not stopping short of obtaining justice sometimes came across as an attempt at cheap glamour, not convincing. The posturing of taking the ‘establishment’ on was betrayed by the silence on the journalists murdered and still being murdered in Balochistan. The primary reason for that was that we had been tested in the face of adversity and violence before and found out to be meek and wanting. Capitulation to one kind of thuggery makes it very easy, even natural to surrender to any other kind. Anyone who remained silent or tried to justify the killing of Taseer is exactly the person who would find that the very little talk of murders of the Baloch, Ahmadis and Shia are overblown or irresponsible.
The grip of fear and the influence of Mumtaz Qadri was nowhere more obvious than when Imran Khan addressed a historic crowd in Karachi on Christmas day. Whereas the American citizen, convicted of terrorism, daughter of the nation was eulogised, not a word on Aasia Bibi, the irony bears repetition, on Christmas day.
Yet, not everything has changed. The ‘analysts’ with shameless tenacity are still giving deadlines regarding when the government will be sent packing and specifics of the new set up, as they were at the turn of last year. Balochistan still burns, Kurram still bleeds. Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis are still hunted. The army and intelligence chiefs are still thriving on their jobs, even after OBL, PNS Mehran and Salala. The Chief Justice believes that ‘sipahsaalar’ (army chief) should always be believed and shown deference, oh wait, this might be new.
The arrival of a new year is often the time for optimism, for Tennyson’s “ring out the old, ring out the new” and “Auld Lang Syne”. Yet, the words that come to mind are of W H Auden from his best work, September 1st 1939, “The enlightenment driven away, The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief, We must all suffer them again.” I wish you a happy new year; I only wished that I could say it with any conviction.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 1st, 2012.