The assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad by one of his own police guards, in one of the federal capital’s most upscale markets (often frequented by foreigners, diplomats and the well-heeled) should open our eyes to the utter madness engulfing our nation. According to Interior Minister Rehman Malik, the killer surrendered himself after doing the ‘deed’ and said that he did it because the governor had called the blasphemy law a "black law". The assassination comes a few days after a countrywide strike by religious parties, fully backed by banned militant and sectarian outfits, against any government plans to change the blasphemy law. In the run-up to that strike, Mr Taseer and his PPP colleague, the courageous MNA and former information minister Sherry Rehman, were singled out by name by the obscurantists and many of the statements that were made by the leaders of some religious parties bordered on incitement to violence. Mr Taseer had also spoken out in defence of Aasia Bibi, after visiting her some weeks ago in prison. He had pledged to do all he could to free her since, in his view, she was innocent of the charge against her because she had not committed blasphemy and was being victimised because she was a Christian.
In all of this, the Punjab governor said all the right things and it was heartening to finally see someone speak with the voice of progressiveness and respect for human rights that the PPP had historically been associated with. And now it is revolting to see the same man done to death, so viciously, and that too by a member of his own police guard, someone whose duty it was to guard him with his own life. The policeman who killed Mr Taseer was, in all likelihood, so indoctrinated by the culture of hate and intolerance that pervades against minorities, especially on the blasphemy law in this country, that he must believe that his action will guarantee him a place in heaven. And it will not be long before we will find many people, in the media and on television in particular, who will become apologists for the killer and try to justify his actions. In this it needs to be said, clearly, and again and again, that Salmaan Taseer was not a blasphemer and he was not an apostate. He said what needed to be said because the blasphemy law is misused and targets defenceless people who, more often than not, belong to the minorities and any country comprising civilised and sensible people, would have in-built provisions to prevent its misuse. And for that he should not have been killed. But what we have is utter madness, a situation where those who try and speak out for the poor and defenceless, for the victimised and the harassed, are targeted themselves. And Mr Taseer’s untimely and tragic death shows that position and power doesn’t play a role in this — one can be the governor of the country’s largest province and an important member of the ruling party but all of that comes to naught in front of a brainwashed individual who thinks that taking another man's life is a passport to heaven.
Also, lest we forget, since we all, especially in this country, tend to have very short memories, the blood of Salmaan Taseer is on all our hands. We, each one of us, are to blame for his assassination. And this is because, when he was being targeted by the extremists and the religious elements in our society, when some people came on television and hinted that Mr Taseer was, in effect, wajibul qatl we did nothing to stand up and support him. It is these same people who are now targeting Sherry Rehman — how many members of civil society rallied to her defence, except for a few hundred people in the federal capital?
The PPP is known to be a party of progressive values with a vision, and it needs to reclaim that space and fight the extremists. It needs to provide exemplary punishment to the killer and it should not back down from modifying the law since it is much misused and cause for violence. If this is not realised and nothing is done on this front, we will all be victims of the same fate that befell Salmaan Taseer.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 5th, 2011.