By Rajeev Sharma
The March 2 assassination of Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian minister, in broad daylight in the capital Islamabad demonstrates that the volatile Islamic nation is in the grip of a clerical tsunami. Less than two months ago Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard on January 4. Both politicians were assassinated because of their strident opposition to the country’s controversial anti-blasphemy laws and their support for Asiya Biwi, a Christian mother of four children, who has been on the death row since last year for her alleged blasphemous comments against Prophet Mohammed.
Now there is one left: former federal minister Sherry Rehman. The 50-year-old Rehman was among the three Pakistani politicians who took up cudgels on behalf of Asiya Biwi and demanded scrapping of the blasphemy laws. The fundamentalists have already taken a toll on the fiery Rehman who is known for taking up bold stand on controversial issues. Her public appearances in Pakistan have stopped ever since Taseer’s assassination. She has also stopped going to National Assembly (parliament), though she is a member. Reports from Pakistani media say that she remains huddled up inside her Karachi house and her movements have become secretive.
The modus operandi of Bhatti’s assassins raises several questions. He had just come out of his mother’s house shortly before noon and was on way to attend a meeting of the cabinet when several gunmen, armed with automatic weapons, sprayed some 30 bullets on him in 15-20 seconds. However, his driver emerged unscathed from the ferocious attack. Significantly, Bhatti was without his security detail at the time of his assassination. Subsequent investigations have shown that Bhatti used to frequently visit his mother without his security detail which he would invariably send to his office, like he did on March 2. It was easy for anybody keeping him under surveillance to know his movements and the places and timings when he was most vulnerable.
The attackers did not necessarily require support from insiders, though an insider hand cannot be ruled out. Bhatti was well aware of the mortal danger looming over his head and had many times pleaded with the government to provide him a bulletproof vehicle and a house in the Z-security zone in the capital where senior ministers reside, but his requests fell on deaf ears. The most troubling part in the wake of the assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti is that the Asif Ali Zardari government has remained tightlipped on the blasphemy laws which should embolden fundamentalists to stage more such attacks.
It is a lesser known but significant fact that though Pakistani military dictator Gen Zia ul Haq had enacted the controversial blasphemy laws three decades ago, more than thirty alleged blasphemers have been lynched by angry mobs but the Pakistan government has yet to execute anyone under these laws till date. This may, however, change soon. A new dangerous game of fundamentalists’ intolerance began with Taseer’s assassination. The killing of Bhatti is a continuation of this trend. The assassination of Punjab Governor and media tycoon Salman Taseer in Islamabad by his own security man on January 4, 2011, and the subsequent sins of omission and commission by Pakistani politicos, religious leaders and people from a wide cross-section of the Pakistani society are an indicator of the manner in which Pakistan is hurtling headlong into the chaos of fundamentalism and divisive politics.
Taseer’s assassination may have stunned all Pakistanis but has surprised none in the international community. The assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of the Elite Force of the Punjab Police, quietly threw down his weapon and surrendered after pumping in 26 bullets into Taseer. Qadri told his interrogators later that he killed Taseer because the Governor had called the blasphemy law “a black law” and had been campaigning for its repeal. Significantly, Qadri is from the Barelvi sect, which is considered more tolerant than sects like Deobandis, Wahabis and Salafis. Taseer was a prominent leader of the ruling PakistanPeople’s Party (PPP) and considered quite close to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. Despite this the high and the mighty of Pakistan, including Zardari himself, stayed away from Taseer’s state funeral. The reason: the Mullahs had issued a diktat that the funeral must be kept a low-key affair.
What transpired in the wake of Taseer’s assassination demonstrated what a dangerous and fractious society Pakistan has become. The list of Qadri’s public admirers swelled by the minute. More than forty thousand people poured out on the Pakistani streets to demonstrate in support of Qadri. Pakistani celebrities from all walks of life vied with one another to sing paeans of Qadri on national television.
None other than Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani went on record saying on January 17, 2011 that the government had no plans to amend the blasphemy law. This was contrary to what Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti had publicly stated in Washington almost a year ago. Bhatti had said on February 7, 2010 that he had been speaking to various political parties to present revisions to the blasphemy laws by the end of 2010 affecting the rights of the minorities. “This is a democratic government which has a commitment to repeal all the discriminatory laws affecting the rights of the minorities,” Bhatti had said in an interview to a Western news agency.
Even when Taseer was alive and was busy battling on behalf of Asiya Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman convicted by a trial court for blasphemy against Islam, Pakistani fundamentalists were vociferous in their criticism against the Punjab Governor and even gave a ‘withdraw opposition (to the blasphemy law) or else’ threat to another PPP politician and former minister Sherry Rehman. The fundamentalists’ deadline for Rehman was fixed for January 6, 2011, though she did not oblige.
Governments have come and gone in Pakistan since Gen Zia died in a mysterious plane crash, but none has ever been able to muster enough courage to repeal Section 295C of Pakistan’sPenal Code which has put the nation back into medieval age. The Section stipulates that “derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet … either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly … shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” The controversial Section has been abused in such ludicrous ways that an Ahmediya lawyer of Karachi found himself behind the bars on blasphemy charges just because he refused to take up the case of a client and threw into the dustbin his visiting card which had his name “Mohammed” printed on it!
Even General Pervez Musharraf, who has the distinction of being Pakistan’s second longest-serving President after Gen Zia, could not dare to repeal this law at the peak of his authority and popularity. Right from Benazir Bhutto to Zardari, every single Pakistani leader has chosen to be a status quoist. No Pakistani leader ever considered it worthwhile to rock the Mullahs’ boat. Besides, every Pakistani President/Prime Minister has been snowed under by multiple problems of far graver importance than the blasphemy law. A weak President like Zardari, who is leading a minority coalition government, can hardly be expected to bell the cat.
Pakistan’s slide into religious fanaticism and fundamentalism is nothing new. However, a Pakistani journalist Qayyum Nizami chronicled an interesting account in Urdu newspaper Jinnah in January 2010 about former ISI Chief and a hawkish Islamist, Lt Gen Hamid Gul. Gul was invited by ‘EK Club Lahore’ to deliver a lecture. Around 300 people turned up to listen to him – itself an indicator of how the educated class of Pakistan is inclining towards Jihad and Islam. Qayyum wrote that Hamid Gul was in good spirit and his address was a mixture of ideology, revolution with a touch of spirituality. Qayyum said that he was present at the function and whatever Gul said was interesting. Gul said that the creation of Pakistan was a miracle and after the establishment of Medina in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan was the second Islamic state which indicated the intentions of Allah. Gul said that the geo-political situation and milieu of Pakistan provides an opportunity to Pakistan to play a major role in the affairs of Muslim nations. He said that if Pakistan follows democracy, nationalism and religion it can be a world power and went on to suggest three points which can make Pakistan a world power: (i) Pakistan should have an Islamic democratic system; (ii) Pakistanis should have the spirit of Jihad; (iii) Pakistan should have full faith in its nuclear capability.
Leaders of Pakistan, particularly Gen Musharraf, have time and again talked of Turkey as a model Islamic state that Pakistan needed to emulate in terms of its all-round development. What Pakistan is fast becoming today is not unlike the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (1996-2001) – a medieval, intolerant, fulminant Islamic state that put women under burqa, reduced them to slaves with only duties and no rights, banned music, burnt down educational institutions for women, closed down barber shops and attacked religious structures of other faiths as evidenced by their razing to the ground of the historic Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
This is a dangerous trend that can very adversely impact the entire region, particularly India which has the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia. But there is hardly anything that India can do. There is one country that can do something in this regard – China. But even China is doing precious little though the spread of fundamentalism in Pakistan can be harmful to China in the long term as its Xinjiang province borders Pakistan and has a Muslim population of over 45 per cent.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])