The assassination of the Punjab Governor by Ishtiaq Ahmed

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January 6, 2011

Pakistan plunged further towards anarchy, violence and terrorism as neo-fascist Islamists in the security services gunned down on January 4, 2011 Salmaan Taseer (66), the Governor of Pakistan’s most populous and dominant Punjab Province. Salmaan Taseer was a senior member of the Pakistan People’s Party whose leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2008. The PPP-led coalition government had already been confronted by a crisis when one of its partners the Muttahidda Quomi Movement (MQM) withdrew support on grounds that the government had increased the price of kerosene oil used by poor households and thus made life unbearable for people.

The main national opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was on the look out for an opportunity to bring the government down and seems determined to create as many problems as possible for the minority regime now in power. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is hoping to remain in office even when it does not enjoy a majority. A minority government is understandably going to be very weak. This would not be the first time that Pakistan would face such uncertain political future only this time the crises is greatly compounded by the challenge posed by the Islamists. It was just announced before publication of this article that the government has backed down from the increase in the price of kerosene. So, the parliamentary crisis may be over for now.

Taseer was killed by one of his bodyguards while others looked on. Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri admitted his guilt on television and then in court saying that Taseer deserved to die because he had described the blasphemy law as draconian. It may be recalled that some time back a poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for allegedly using sacrilegious language against Islam and Prophet Muhammad. Since 1982 a blasphemy law exists which prescribes severe punishment for those who use disparaging language or bodily gestures against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. That law has been made more and more severe through amendments in 1986 and 1991. Currently the death penalty is the automatic punishment for those found guilty of blasphemy.

Hundreds of non-Muslims, mainly Christians, as well as some free-thinking Muslims have been charged for blasphemy. At the lower levels the courts have found them guilty and passed the death sentence but because of the agitation by human rights organizations and pressure of international public opinion no individual has been executed up till now. Rather, at the higher levels the courts have found some technical basis to reduce the sentence or set such individuals free. That has of course not been the end of the matter. Such persons have either been killed by fanatics, or, granted humanitarian asylum in the West. Aasia Bibi is currently in jail.

In some cases fanatics have taken the law into their own hands and brutally killed alleged blasphemers. To this day, no such killer has been punished. Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti of the Lahore High Court had in 1995 found two Christians, Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih, not guilty of blasphemy and set them free. On October 10, 1997 Justice Bhatti was gunned down.

This time, death threats to Taseer had been issued by hundreds of clerics because he had advocated that the blasphemy law should be rescinded or amended drastically to make it safe. In a recent BBC interview the governor admitted the danger he faced but said that he believed in the innocence of Aasia Bibi and in the unjustness of the blasphemy law. He was a marked man since that day.

The fact that the police commando posted as bodyguard to protect the governor killed him has raised many questions about how reliable the security services in Pakistan are. It is widely believed that extremists committed to a violent Islamic revolution are now present at all levels of state machinery including the military, police and security services. When his death was announced the Islamists let loose a massive propaganda in the media but especially on the Internet describing the culprit, Qadri, a warrior of Islam and Taseer a renegade to Islam. Hundreds of leading clerics issued fatwas (religious rulings) that Taseer should not be given an Islamic burial.

The head of the leading fundamentalist party, the Jama’at-e-Islami, Munawwar Hasan blamed Taseer for provoking pious sensibilities by describing the blasphemy law in uncharitable manner. Incidentally, a PhD thesis on the Jama’at-e-Islami describing it as parliamentary, democratic party was approved by Goteborg University not very long ago. This is the level of scholarship in Sweden about Pakistani politics.

Pakistan is a failing state, but has not failed yet. Contrary to the fatwa of some ulema that Salmaan Taseer should be refused an Islamic burial, other clerics were willing to lead his funeral prayers. Thousands of people took part in the ceremony. He was buried with full official protocol, his bier being carried by men in uniform. He was given a state funeral with full honours. It means that not all people have gone mad. Salmaan Taseer was a brave man and one with strong convictions. Such individuals are becoming rare commodity in Pakistan. Unless the blasphemy law is repealed and the culprits punished according to the law, Pakistan’s decline into religio-fascism will be unstoppable.

Ishtiaq Ahmed

The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The assassination of the Punjab Governor by Ishtiaq Ahmed
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