Jinnah’s Pakistan: Ahead of time (with several verses from Munir Niazi)
I was stunned, definitely, but not surprised at Salman Taseer’s assassination. His death is just another episode in a drama that continues to be staged in Pakistan. The curtain rose on this drama when Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah gave that monumental, memorable, yet futile speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947. And I quote him:
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
Jinnah, who is still widely regarded as a secular man, was the right man man in the wrong place. His concept of a new “State of Pakistan”, as he noted in his speech quoted above, was floated before the wrong audience. Everything doesn’t sell everywhere.
The drama I refer to is the longstanding and seemingly never-ending struggle that Pakistan’s secular, liberal, progressive forces have been engaged in. This tug-of-war between the merchants of intolerance and the philanthropists of peace began the very day the idea of Pakistan was conceived.
Salman lost his life to this tug-of-war.
The secular, liberal, progressive forces of Pakistan have been dying a slow and painful death for decades.
Many others in Pakistan have fallen prey to such predators. The modus operandi of Salman’s assassination reminded me the way Benazir Bhutto (BB, as I had come to call her towards the last days of her life) lost her life. Salman and BB, both died fighting intolerance — intolerance of religion, of democracy, of peace, of human rights. And, such crusaders die such deaths in Pakistan.
This reminds me of a famous piece of poetry by Munir Niazi, a renowned Pakistani poet, whose work in the Punjabi language hasn’t seen many a parallel. The poem goes:
kujh unjh wi raahwaan aukhiyaan sun,
kujh gall wich gham da tauq wi si,
kujh shehr day lok wi zaalim sun,
kujh saanu maran da shauq wi si.
( my path was tough anyway,
and I had a noose of sorrow around my neck,
the people of my city were cruel,
but even I had a fascination for dying.)
These lines sum up the attitude and outlook of the brave and brazen of Pakistan. And such people, obviously, become popular and visible and audible. BB was all these. Salman was only the latter two. Despite that, he lost his life in a bizzare fashion. They die fighting at the hands of the same intolerance they have fought all their lives. Their cause becomes their end.
Even though both BB and Salman died similar deaths, there was a cardinal difference in their public persona. BB was a leader of the masses. Salman, for that matter, wasn’t someone the down-trodden of Pakistan looked up to but, of late, he came to champion the cause of an outright underdog. That’s what got him into the league of popular leaders like BB. BB was unbelievably brave, sometimes bordering on stupidity (considering the circumstances of Pakistan, not to take anything away from her, especially when she’s not around to defend herself).
When Jinnah gave that famous speech, he made another wrong assessment in context of the new “State of Pakistan”. I quote him again:
“… in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”
Only Jinnah’s spirit knows today how wrong he was when he uttered these words.
In the light of Salman’s murder, Jinnah’s words fail him. He stands alone, with no one by his side to join forces with his ideology. I quote Munir Niazi again:
Welay to aggey langh jaan di sazaa,
bandaa kalla reh jaanda ae.
(the price you pay for being ahead of time,
you stand alone).
Perhaps, the time for Jinnah’s Pakistan of August 11, 1947, hasn’t come yet.
Economist Jan 6th 2011
A good man who did something
In his first speech to Pakistan’s constituent assembly, on August 11th 1947, the country’s president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made clear his belief that religious toleration should prevail in the country he had brought into being. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan.” It is a dreadful measure of how far Pakistan has sunk since then that Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, was murdered on January 4th because of his outspoken support for that principle.
Mr Taseer, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party and a close ally of the president Zardari, had been campaigning on behalf of Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farm worker who in the course of a row with neighbours over drinking water was accused of blasphemy, convicted and sentenced to death. He had called for her to be pardoned, and also for the law, under which death for blasphemy against the prophet is mandatory, to be changed. His murderer, one of his bodyguards, said this was why the governor was killed.
The Wider Horror
The blasphemy law is bad enough in itself, but it also gives official sanction to a growing atmosphere of religious intolerance in Pakistan. Nobody has been executed under the law, but some fundamentalists regard it as their duty to do what the legal system has failed to do, and 32 people charged or convicted under the law have been murdered. Clerics called a national strike on December 31st to oppose a change in the law; whether out of support for the fundamentalists, or out of fear, it was widely observed.
Religious intolerance has also manifested itself in a horrifying wave of sectarian violence. In August 2009 the burning of a Christian church, after claims that a Koran had been desecrated, killed nine people. In May last year attacks on two mosques of the Ahmadi sect—which some mainstream Muslims regard as apostate—killed 95. In September an attack on a Shia procession killed 35 people.
Responsibility for turning Pakistan from the country that Jinnah hoped it would become into the bloodstained place it is today must be widely shared, but there are a few obvious culprits. First among them is the army. Zia ul Haq, the military dictator who took power in a coup in 1977 (and who imprisoned Mr Taseer and had him tortured), introduced sharia law, set up many of the religious schools that have produced the extremists who now plague the country, and promoted fundamentalist officers. His successors in the army have nurtured extremist groups to use them as tools within Afghanistan and against India, with little regard for their own country’s safety.
The politicians are not guilt-free, either. As a class, their venality has given democracy such a bad name that mullahs who decry it get an enthusiastic hearing; but some individuals have extra burdens of guilt to bear. Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister, formerly chief minister of Punjab and whose brother now holds that post, has long numbered fundamentalists among his allies, and it was during his time in power that the mandatory death sentence was introduced. After the Ahmadi massacre in Punjab’s capital, Lahore, neither of the Sharifs visited the mosques to pay their respects to the community.
But the Pakistan People’s Party must take its share of the blame, too. Its manifesto committed it to repealing discriminatory laws, and President Zardari made much of Ms Bibi’s case. But instead of granting a swift pardon (which he did for his interior minister, Rehman Malik, who was convicted of corruption last year) he dithered until the case became a cause célèbre for fundamentalists and then lost his nerve. The government abandoned the only two politicians brave enough to pursue the matter—Mr Taseer and Sherry Rehman, an MP who had introduced a private member’s bill to amend the law—and said it would not change the legislation.
For evil to prevail, as the old saw goes, all that is required is for good men to do nothing. But Mr Taseer’s fate shows how high a price those who do something may have to pay.
Brave people who are isolated are easy to pick off. Pakistan’s slide into darkness will be stopped only if its political class hangs together and clings on to the values Jinnah predicted would make the place “one of the greatest countries in the world”. It is a phrase that rings with tragic irony today.
In its Oct 7, 2015 judgment, the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) upheld the death sentence of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, 30, who murdered Salmaan Taseer, a liberal Muslim, on Jan 4, 2011.
Qadri, one of Taseer’s official bodyguards from the Elite Force, shot him 27 times with an AK-47 sub-machine gun at Kohsar Market in Islamabad, because of Taseer’s views on the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
In its judgment on Qadri’s appeal against the decision of the Islamabad High Court (IHC), the apex court also allowed the Federation’s appeal seeking the restoration of terrorism charges against the accused.
The Judgment affirmed democratic values, including the rule of law, and rejected religious fanaticism in the public sphere.
Human rights activists and minorities have been demanding the repeal of blasphemy laws, as these laws have been widely used as a tool against minorities, especially against Christians and Ahmadis.
Taseer was murdered for defending an illiterate and poor Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was convicted and received the death sentence under the blasphemy law. Her appeal is still pending in the Supreme Court. Bibi was arrested in June 2009, after allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad during an argument with her Muslim co-worker. Taseer not only visited her in jail, but sent an appeal to the President, Zardari. Moreover, he publicly called for reforms to the blasphemy laws, which were imposed by military dictator General Zia in the 1980s.
Qadri’s act of violence was unprecedented, as he killed a top political figure in broad daylight for religiously motivated reasons.
For many, criticising or challenging blasphemy laws, are also an act of blasphemy against Islam, its prophet and the Quran. In their view, this cannot be tolerated, and that person should be killed. Therefore, when the former governor demanded modifications to the law, there were many who quickly declared him a blasphemer who deserved death.
After killing Taseer, Qadri, a former police guard and the self-confessed murderer, was revered as a hero by many who felt that he did his religious duty as a true Muslim by killing a blasphemer. He was showered with rose petals by lawyers when he first appeared before the trial court in Islamabad and hailed as a soldier of Islam and the Prophet’s policeman.
Over the last few years, during crowded public rallies, his supporters have demanded his unconditional freedom. After the recent court’s judgment, Islamic parties, including Pakistan Sunni Tehreek and Jamaat-e-Ahle Sunnat Pakistan staged a protest rally in Karachi on 9 October and demanded his immediate release.
During the court’s hearings, many of Qadri’s supporters tried to reach the Supreme Court to pressurise the judges. However, police arrested many people in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and over 90 were arrested who tried to enter Islamabad’s Red Zone, where the Supreme Court is located.
Qadri’s sentence was first awarded by a judge in an anti-terror court in October 2011. The judge subsequently left the country for fear of his safety. Against the trial court’s decision, Qadri filed an appeal to the Islamabad High Court (IHC), where on March 9, the court upheld the death sentence under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) but overturned the terrorism charge from the Anti-Terrorism Act’s (ATA) Section 7.
Later, Qadri filed an appeal in the country’s highest court of law against the verdict of the IHC. The federal government also challenged the IHC’s verdict to remove terrorism charges and the Supreme Court combined both petitions.
Qadri’s defense counsel, which included two former High Court justices, tried to portray him as a noble Muslim who was carrying out his religious duty to punish a blasphemer who called blasphemy laws “black laws”. Through their arguments, the defense counsel tried to justify a murder in the name of religion and demanded the repeal of their client’s death sentence.
A three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, mainly focused on whether an individual had the authority to assume the role of a judge, jury, and executioner after having accused someone of blasphemy.
Justice Khosa observed that press clippings, which were presented in the court against Taseer by the defense counsel, did not provide sufficient evidence that the former governor committed blasphemy.
Justice Khosa was concerned that people could accuse others of blasphemy to settle personal scores. He mentioned the incident of a Christian couple, Shehzad Masih and Shama Bibi, who were burnt alive by a Muslim mob near Lahore on 4 November last year. They were accused of desecrating a copy of the Quran.
“Will it not instill fear in the society if everybody starts taking the law in their own hands and dealing with sensitive matters such as blasphemy on their own rather than going to the courts?” Justice Khosa asked.
The court said that no individual had the authority to punish a blasphemer and that criticising the blasphemy law did not amount to blasphemy. The apex court upheld the death sentence and said that Qadri should be executed for shooting Taseer.
The court’s decision is a landmark judgement in the judicial history of Pakistan because it answered some very sensitive questions without any ambiguity. Until now, the religious forces used religious rhetoric to silence those critical of the blasphemy laws.
Although the court’s judgment is a welcome step, now it is the responsibility of the government to take strict actions against those who falsely accuse others under blasphemy laws. It seems unlikely that the present government of Mian Nawaz Sharif will take any measures in this direction, as his party shares the same ideology as religious groups.
Extremists have been operating in the country with impunity because religion is the basis of the country’s foundation. Because of that, these people use violence in the name of religion to gain power and intimidate others to accept their religious teachings. Since Taseer’s murder, no Pakistani political leader has had the guts to criticise the legislation.
Generally, the courts’ credibility is not very high when it comes to sensitive cases related to religion. For that reason, the SC’s judgement should be seen as an important step in an Islamic country where liberal Pakistanis are marginalised.
During cases of a religious nature, courtrooms are filled with religious groups who try to pressurise courts to provide judgments in their favour. In an environment where religious intolerance has forged deep roots in Pakistan’s conservative society, and courts are careful when they hear cases of a sensitive nature, the present judgment against Qadri, who is a symbol of religious vigilantism, is heroic.
In blasphemy cases, many lawyers are not willing to represent the accused and judges are loath to hear cases for fear of their personal safety. In that atmosphere, the SC’s decision is significant as it gives a signal that the legal system should not be compromised and the principles of justice should be held without any fear and pressure. Similarly, the verdict displays judicial strength against religious fanaticism and supports free speech.
The court reinstated Qadri’s conviction under anti-terrorism laws that the Islamabad High Court had wrongly set aside. As a result, Qadri cannot now pay blood money to the victim’s family under another Islamic law, the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, for his release, though his supporters are still publicly offering blood money to Taseer’s family.
Because of the fear of violence, it is impossible to initiate a public debate about the misuse of blasphemy laws, as this act is itself considered blasphemy. Therefore, the current observation is significant as it clearly states that criticism of blasphemy law does not constitute blasphemy. It will encourage debate.
Hanging Qadri would send a very strong message to supporters of extremism. However, the government will still be under a lot of pressure not to execute Qadri, as he has a strong lobby behind him.
After the Supreme Court’s judgment, Qadri could ask the president for a pardon which he has done. However, Qadri’s lawyers say they will go for a judicial review.
“The SC’s verdict and observations of Justice Asif Saeed Khosa during the hearing are epochal not because they lay down new law but because they help wrestle back public space to discuss our flawed blasphemy laws over which our bigoted brigade has established complete dominion,” wrote Babar Sattar, a lawyer, in his column in The News on 10 October. https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2015/10/4054562/