An ugly reality

January 4, 2012, was an emotionally charged day. It was Salmaan Taseer’s first death anniversary. A year ago on that fateful day, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in Islamabad. He was killed by one of his bodyguards who was of the view that the Governor had somehow committed ‘blasphemy’ just because he had spoken up for the rights of a poor Christian woman charged with alleged blasphemy. Mr Taseer tweeted on December 26, 2010: “Religious right trying to pressurise from the street their support of blasphemy laws. Point is, it must be decided in parliament, not on the road.” Unfortunately, the fate of the flawed man-made blasphemy laws was decided on a bloody road in Kohsar Market (Islamabad) the day he was brutally murdered. Mumtaz Qadri, his self-confessed murderer, was convicted of Mr Taseer’s assassination but the judge who handed out the death sentence fled the country due to threats from pro-Qadri quarters.

Two days after Mr Taseer’s assassination, Kala Kawa – a blogger – wrote these lines: “The Governor was killed because he voiced his opinion. That’s it. Until now I’d taken it as a given. We’re part of a fairly free country, where we at least have the right to say what we want to say. I’m afraid that no longer holds true; and that’s probably where the suffocation comes from.”

The level of suffocation felt after Mr Taseer’s death cannot be overstated. Intolerance has permeated our society to such an extent that people now fear for their lives if their views are considered ‘dissenting’. On the one hand we had those who mourned Mr Taseer and on the other we saw people in large numbers glorifying Qadri. Revolting as it was, we soon realised it was an ugly reality we had to live with. Despite all this, people with a conscience were not willing to remain quiet. They raised their voice and continue to speak out against the extremist mindset that is threatening the very core of Pakistani society.

Sections of the media played an ugly role in Mr Taseer’s assassination. He was targeted left, right and centre by the rightwing media. Even after his assassination, it seems the media has not learnt its lesson. The Urdu press is dominated by the rightwing but now the electronic media and even some sections of the English press are guilty of being equally irresponsible. The insinuation or allegation of blasphemy is now being used to threaten, coerce or target all manner of people from humble doctors to high-profile human rights activists. In retaliation for raising concerns about due process and transparency in the ongoing ‘Memogate’ crisis, Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), was targeted by the press through raising the bogey of the organisation’s critique of the blasphemy laws. A story appeared in The News, a local English daily, that was not just full of slander against the HRW but amounted to incitement of violence and public threat to Hasan.

The roots of religious extremism in our country were sown even before the idea of Pakistan was born. It consolidated itself once Pakistan came into being. From the Objectives Resolution in 1949 to General Zia-ul-Haq’s draconian ‘Islamic’ laws, our rulers have appeased the Right in every possible way. In the process, the rightwing has become so strong that it can silence any and every voice with a bullet or a bomb. The Pakistani military needed the mullahs to strengthen itself, which led to a mullah-military nexus. A rally held on December 18, 2011, was a perfect example of this alliance where the Difa-i-Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defence Council) chanted jihadi slogans against India, the US, NATO forces, etc. Banned terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) – now Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) – were out in full force spewing venom against our neighbour, India. The civilian government wants peaceful relations with India but the military wants to circumvent the peace process. Kargil war, the Mumbai attacks and this recent bigoted rally are all examples of how far the military can go, along with its jihadi proxies, to prevent peaceful relations with India.

Thousands of our civilians and jawans have lost their lives over the years due to the military’s skewed policies. Cross-border terrorism has resulted in the deaths of thousands of non-Pakistanis. Pakistan needs to fight this vicious nexus. Only a continuation of the democratic process can challenge the civil-military imbalance and put an end to this madness. This is what lies at the heart of this matter and this is exactly what our military fears. A democratic, secular, progressive Pakistan is the answer to all our woes.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)


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