Shahbaz Bhatti: a great loss

Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down on Wednesday morning in Islamabad as he left his house to attend a cabinet meeting. According to reports, Mr Bhatti was ambushed by unknown assailants who shot him several times. Mr Bhatti succumbed to his injuries while he was being taken to hospital. No group initially took responsibility for the assassination but pamphlets left by Mr Bhatti’s body were attributed to the Pakistani Taliban. Later in the day, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab (TTP) claimed responsibility and issued a statement that “those proposing amendments in the blasphemy law will meet the same fate”. President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani have strongly condemned the incident and ordered an inquiry into it. Within two months, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has lost two of its prominent members. Mr Bhatti’s assassination comes almost two months after Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer’s murder in Islamabad. Being a member of the minority community, Mr Bhatti was vocal about the misuse of the blasphemy laws. In an interview, Mr Bhatti had said: “I was told that if I was to continue the campaign against the blasphemy law, I will be assassinated. I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me.” Mr Bhatti’s brutal assassination has once again highlighted the fact that we are fast turning into a violent society.

Governor Taseer’s assassination and now Mr Bhatti’s murder by religious zealots should serve as a wake up call for the government. If the terrorists can kill the governor of Punjab and a federal minister in broad daylight in the capital of Pakistan, the government should not rest till the perpetrators are nabbed and brought to book. The extremist groups feel that they have a free hand to do as they please, to silence voices they disagree with. The PPP was pussyfooting around Mr Taseer’s murder. It is because of the PPP government’s spineless response to Mr Taseer’s assassination that the religious right was further emboldened.

Mr Bhatti had asked for more security in the face of additional threats following Mr Taseer’s murder on January 4. Officials have so far denied that there was a security lapse in this case. Inspector General Islamabad Police Wajid Durrani said that two squads were provided to Mr Bhatti but he himself had asked that no squad be provided at his residence. Even if Mr Bhatti had made that request, in the light of the grave threats given to him, the security officials should not have entertained his request and should have insisted against it. The terrorists who killed Mr Bhatti were not met by any resistance because there was no security detail to protect him. It is also astonishing that even though the debate on any amendment or repeal of blasphemy laws died with the death of Mr Taseer, the religious right continues to play this card to justify violence.

Religious intolerance is increasing while dissident voices are being silenced in Pakistan one after another. All those who have raised their voice against the extremist mindset are being threatened or harassed. The government must not let the terrorists challenge the writ of the state anymore. This is not the time to be frightened into silence. It is time to implement the law and not surrender in front of the extremists. Our founding fathers did not wage a struggle for an intolerant society. They wanted equal rights for all human beings regardless of their caste, creed and religion. We must reclaim our tolerant heritage. Pakistan cannot let the blood of Mr Taseer and Mr Bhatti go to waste. RIP Shahbaz Bhatti. A brave man like you will surely be missed.

(my editorial in Daily Times)



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