Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populace province, was assassinated in Islamabad on January 4 by one of his 26 years old bodyguard who had suspected Mr. Taseer of committing blasphemy.
The almost unanimous and global condemnation of his death is indicative of the fact that sensible people and societies do not support settling ideological disputes by bullets. This lesson in civility, however, is lost in today’s Pakistan, which has regressed into almost a medieval state where religious and other fanatics are calling the shots.
While Salman Taseer is recognized for the sacrifices he made for democratic ideals as a deputy to late Benazir Bhutto, or for his his principled stand against the blasphemy law, which is in serious need of reform, and for his support for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, Mr. Taseer’s recent record as a political administrator cast a shadow on the illustrious political career he had enjoyed in the past.
Pakistan’s famous author on current affairs, Ahmed Rashid, eulogised him as a stalwart for democracy. It was however the same Salman Taseer who supported the military dictator, General Musharraf, and became a minister in a caretaker government supported by the dictator. Mr. Taseer was later appointed governor by Mr. Asif Ali Zardari to keep in line the political opposition in Punjab. Mr. Taseer’s failed attempt to dislodge the elected provincial government of the party that opposed his political master, Mr. Zardari, is another misadventure that puts in question his credentials as a democrat. Mr. Taseer was believed by the masses to be close to the American establishment. This further damaged his political bonafides in Pakistan.
Despite his earlier struggles against the military dictatorship and the authoritarian rule of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mr. Taseer’s recent past did not put him in the company of democrats. He had joined the coterie of political opportunists brought to prominence by President Asif Ali Zardari, whose own political acumen and the aptitude for governance leaves much to be desired. Thus it came as no surprise when the news reports mentioned some legislator, crying at Mr. Taseer’s demise. Like Mr. Taseer, they lack popular support and rely on the Presidency for their political relevance and survival. Like Mr. Taseer, they are part of the elite not used to such senseless violence. Their grief is also reflective of the insecurity that has now extended its reach to the most powerful and protected in Pakistan.
Mr. Taseer was of the twittering classes, one of the few Pakistani politicians whose tweets were read in Washington DC, and other capitals in the western Europe. Culturally he was closer to the twittering class than to those who struggled to buy naan and cheeney (bread and sugar) at grocery stores in Lahore. A look at the Internet searches conducted from the Google search engine suggest that he was not reputed for his stand for democracy or human rights, which many leading columnists would like us to believe, but instead for his family’s western lifestyle that fascinated the conservative Pakistanis. This is in fact more of a reflection of the socio-political voyeurism that plagues the superficially devout Pakistan.
Mr. Ahmed Rasheed and other elites in Pakistan are obviously stunned to see one of their fellow elite gunned down in the middle of a street. Ordinary Pakistanis, are indeed greatly saddened, but not shocked by Mr. Taseer’s brutal murder. They have reconciled with such violence that claims the lives of the very poor as they sleep on the streets of Karachi or pray in the Imambargahs or mosques in Lahore and Peshawar.
Mosharraf Zaidi, another Pakistani writer blogging for the Foreign Policy echoes Ahmed Rasheed’s sentiments: "Taseer's assassination for me, and many among the small English-speaking urban community in Pakistan, is gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. It is a reminder that the realities of Pakistan in the New Year are stark and intimidating." This to me is another evidence of the elite slowly waking up to the violence that has to date only threatened the lives of the poor, disenfranchised masses in Pakistan.
When ordinary citizens are denied opportunities to excel in all spheres of life, they seek heroism in notoriety, crime, and extremism. Was there any other opportunity for Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, Mr. Taseer’s alleged assassin, to become a hero to anyone? Mr. Qadri picked the misguided lot for its praise, a fact reflected in the praise showered by extremists on Mr. Qadri on various social media outlets on the Internet.
Pakistan's elite has to allow the rest of the citizenry some opportunity to excel and shine. They have to address the genuine grievances of the very poor whose numbers have exploded in Pakistan. If the economic disparities continue to worsen in Pakistan, social, cultural, religious and political disputes will generate even more violence, which is no longer going to spare the rich and famous in Pakistan.