There is a journey during which it’s not the legs that ache, but the heavy heart”(Ik safar woh hai jis mein, paon nahin, dil thakta hai). These are words from the late Urdu poet Ahmed Faraz which came to mind on hearing of Governor Salmaan Taseer’s murder in Pakistan by a person assigned to be his bodyguard. On January 4, 2011, the life of Pakistani Punjab’s brave and charismatic leader ended at the young age of 66. A liberal to the core, Salmaan left behind his wife and six children from Pakistan and family in India.
Condolences go out from the heart to all of them, as do sincere apologies for the behavior of a segment of the Pakistani population which, unbelievably, proceeded to congratulate his killer. The void that his family must feel now is understandable, and this feeling needs to be shared by our diaspora around the world which, now, must make reasonable people, the world over, wonder: Where is that country heading?
I have never met Salmaan Taseer or known his immediate family. But I do know that there still remains a small but significant secular population in Lahore and in other cities of the Punjab province which should not be overlooked by outsiders. Punjabis (in both Pakistan and India) are a predominantly hard- working lot who have retained their ability to have a good time in spite of the recent encroachment of an extremist religion into their lives. In Pakistan, the debate on whether the basant (spring) kite festival should be celebrated or not, as it approaches every year, is a case in point. In spite of many obstacles, the beautiful people of Lahore turn out in the thousands on their rooftops, telling the religious extremists to “go fly a kite” by doing just that. The people of this city also love to eat well and dance to the rhythms of their rich dhol(drum)-based music.
Added to this secular mix was the very witty and the fun-loving Taseer, a self-made man who not only allowed his Daily Times newspaper to uphold its journalistic independence against serious odds, but also kept projecting the liberal face of Pakistan, one which appears to be even more endangered after his death. And one has to ask that question: What did he die for?
Asia Bibi is a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. I am not exactly sure of the details of the charges against her, but in Pakistan these charges resulted in her getting the death penalty. Although one has to admit that it would be extremely foolish to indulge in so-called “blasphemous” activities in the religiously and politically volatile environment in Pakistan today, what should be questioned is the accuracy of the charges, especially against non-Muslims living there. Are people being accused just to settle old scores, because they may be competitors, or just because they possess an independent mindset? Taseer appealed for Asia Bibi’s pardon. Was that reason enough to kill him? All the late Governor did was question the Blasphemy Law and how it is being implemented. Is questioning a law itself blasphemy now? It is incredible that his killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, claims to have demonstrated his love for the Prophet by his action. Is protecting religious minorities like Asia Bibi in Pakistan motivation enough for someone like Qadri to become judge, jury, and executioner?
The biggest disappointment to Pakistani liberals has been the recent attitude of some Barelvi religious leaders in Pakistan. The Barelvi School in Islam is one to which a majority in the country adhere. Till recently, it was thought that the Barelvis would remain a strong liberal counterweight to the more conservative minority Deobandi and Wahabi schools in Pakistan. Now, after the Taseer killing, it appears that the Barelvis too have become attracted to extremist ideas, despite their stated opposition to the Taliban in the region.
The only positive outcome following Taseer’s assassination has been the political emergence of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) currently residing in Britain. In a recent speech young Bilawal strongly backed the rights of minorities in Pakistan and condemned extremists including the killers of Taseer. But, speaking as one who had decided to stop supporting the younger Bhutto after his mother Benazir’s assassination, it is worth noting that good governance is the extremist’s worst nightmare. Will the PPP-led government in Pakistan ever be able to provide that deterrence and, if so, when?
2011 is the centenary year of Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, one of the finest that have emerged from the region since Ghalib. Many events are planned to honor this great South Asian liberal-progressive writer this year worldwide. It is ironic that the year should also start with the murder of Salmaan Taseer, who was the nephew of Faiz’s wife Alys. May the brave Governor now rest in peace. Let us end with Faiz in (attempted) translation with a few lines from his poem “Nisar mein teri galyon kay.”
“This life dedicated to you, o streets of my homeland, where the custom now is that no one should keep their head up high.
Those that love here and openly want to express that love instead must avert their eyes; protect their body and their life.”
Ras Siddiqui is a South Asian writer and journalist based in Sacramento.