Saluting a brave man

It seems as if it was only yesterday that Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer was hosting a dinner at the Governor’s House where he was the centre of attention because of his intelligent remarks, charming personality and sharp wit. He was not afraid to say what was on his mind. That is how he lived and that is how he left us all, grieving for a man who stood up to be counted.

A year ago when TV channels broke the news that Mr Taseer had been shot in Islamabad’s Kohsar Market, I remember the fear and shock that swept me. I started dialling frantically — from Bano (Mr Taseer’s youngest daughter) to my journalist friends, I called a number of people to find out what had happened and whether Salmaan sahib was safe. Details of the incident started pouring in a few minutes later. The news of his death had not yet been announced on TV but a friend who was working for a local TV channel in Islamabad called and said, “Mehmal, bad news...” Then Iftikhar sahib, a senior journalist, confirmed the news: “It’s all over. Salmaan is no more.” I could hear the pain in his voice. He was an old friend of Mr Taseer. It was like a violent, almost physical, blow. Howling like a maniac, I nearly collapsed.

Hundreds of tweets started pouring in from all over the world on my timeline expressing shock at this tragic news. I also tweeted in a state of disbelief and helplessness. It was as if we were all trying to swallow this news and comforting each other in a virtual world. At Mr Taseer’s residence, people were gathering to pay their condolences to his family and friends while at the same time trying to come to terms with it. A man who was larger than life was no more. Nobody could believe it. Grown up men and women were pouring their hearts out and the young ones’ eyes were brimming with tears. My heart goes out to the brave Taseer family who were graceful even in their sorrow. It is a great tragedy that on Mr Taseer’s first death anniversary, his son Shahbaz Taseer would not be there to comfort his family as he was kidnapped last August. Hundreds of thousands of people are praying for his safe return. Here is hoping that these prayers are answered soon, Insha’Allah.

Salmaan Taseer’s death was a blow for the progressive voices in Pakistan. While those who mourned his loss were sizeable in numbers, the reaction to his murder from a large section of society was revolting to say the least. It was like a slap in our faces when hundreds of lawyers gathered around to garland Mr Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri. A self-confessed murderer, a cowardly criminal, was being glorified by the extremist forces. It was a message, loud and clear: a secular and progressive Pakistan would not be tolerated by the terrorists who reside in our midst. One year on and these forces are stronger than ever while brave, bold and progressive voices are shrinking with each passing day.

Pakistan needs more progressive, pluralistic and secular voices. Liberals need unity amongst their ranks. We should not end the debate on the blasphemy laws after Mr Taseer and Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassinations. This is what the extremists want but we cannot allow them to win. We must stand up to them and call a spade a spade. And it is not just about the blasphemy laws; it is about extremism in the name of religion and ‘honour’. Pakistan is a country where the rights of common citizens — men, women and children — and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities are trampled upon by state and non-state actors alike every day.

Just take a look at the grand rally held by the Difa-i-Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defence Council) in Lahore last month. Banned terrorist outfits posing as the ‘saviours’ of Pakistan were out there in large numbers chanting jihadi slogans. Pakistanis should be aghast that a banned organisation like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) is allowed to operate on our soil just because it has changed its name from Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), a terrorist organisation. Instead, our state allows JuD and many other militant outfits to indoctrinate and radicalise the people of Pakistan just because they serve the vested interests of our military and its affiliates. How many more innocent lives would have to be lost inside our territory and across the border for us to realise that terrorism is terrorism even if some forces would like to put a spin on its various forms? It is time to put an end to this barbarism.

Today, let’s salute the bravest of the brave, Salmaan Taseer, and vow that his sacrifice would not be in vain.

(Originally published here)

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