When Punjab Governor Salman Taseer stepped out of the Table Talk restaurant in Islamabad, after having lunch with his hotelier friend Sheikh Waqas on January 4, he was most likely aware of the possibility of religious extremists lurking around the corner. But what Taseer could not have imagined is that a religious extremist dressed in uniform of the Elite Force of the Punjab Police, brandishing an AK-47, one of those very men who had been assigned to protect him from the rage of Islamists, could get him.
As Taseer approached his car, a cry of ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ echoed in the air. It was in fact Malik Mumtaz Qadri, his bodyguard, who fearlessly proceeded to empty the magazine of his AK-47. As Taseer stumbled and collapsed, Qadri reloaded the rifle and sprayed another round of 30 bullets. He then placed the rifle on the ground and surrendered to the other 11 bodyguards. The remorseless mowing down of an already dead Taseer reflects the depth of Qadri’s hatred. The inaction of other bodyguards, even in the gap between two rounds of firing, speaks of the silent support for Qadri among the posse of bodyguards.
For the dead Taseer, it could hardly be a recompense to recall what he told the Herald magazine two years ago: “I remember the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, saying history is written in the blood of martyrs”. Martyr Taseer now is to the cause of liberal values, to the secularism of the Jinnah brand, to the effort of recovering and restoring to Pakistan its moderate, modern Islamic soul. Taseer was killed, as Mumtaz Qadri was to later tell his interrogators, because of his criticism of blasphemy law and his efforts to secure a presidential pardon for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman condemned to death for having allegedly committed blasphemy.
But martyr Taseer wasn’t in the eyes of Qadri, who believes the assassination now guarantees him a place in Paradise in afterlife. He isn’t a lonely wolf, a solitary misguided bodyguard, for he confessed to his interrogators that he had informed other bodyguards about his intention to slay Taseer and requested them to desist from shooting him as he would surrender after the murder. “I have been looking for an opportunity to shoot Taseer because I did not want to allow him to live anymore,” one of the investigators quoted Qadri as having told him.
“When I received the official gun in the morning, I immediately loaded and put it on the automatic burst.”
The preliminary inquiry has revealed that Qadri was associated with Dawat-e-Islami, a religious group belonging to the Barelvi school of thought. The FIR in the Taseer murder case says the assassination took place with the assistance and conspiracies of religious and political factions. The murder was committed within days of a countrywide strike by religious parties against a possible government plan to amend the controversial blasphemy law, often exploited to settle scores, grab property, and persecute those who don’t share the outlook of obscurantist mullas.
In the days before the countrywide strike, some religious extremists had named Salman Taseer a blasphemer for springing to the defence of Aasia Bibi after meeting her at Sheikhupura Jail. Not accustomed to debating religious issues or countenancing challenges to their stifling theocratic worldview, Tehreek Namoos-e-Risalat, an alliance of religious parties backing the blasphemy law, threatened they would launch a prolonged agitation should President Asif Zardari decide to grant pardon to Aasia. They also demanded the removal of Taseer from the post of governor of Punjab. This goal was achieved through the bullets Qadri sprayed on Taseer.
However, that was not the end of the story. What irked most to those in mourning was the behaviour of the Lahore High Court lawyers when they kissed Qadri’s cheeks, showered him with roses and patted his shoulders for carrying out an act of courage, while he was presented in the court. A page was opened on Facebook praising Qadri, and when the website blocked access to it, several sites surfaced elsewhere on the Internet, supporting Qadri and defending the blasphemy law.
Even Taseer’s bullet-ridden body awaiting funeral became a symbol of the schism between the liberal and orthodox sections of the society.
Hours after his assassination, over 500 Deobandi and Barelvi religious scholars praised Qadri for his brutal act, urging people to boycott the funeral ceremony of the ‘blasphemer’. Even the prayer leader of Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid declined the administration’s request to lead the funeral prayers. A PPP Maulana ultimately led the prayers. Even rallies were organised in parts of Punjab to celebrate the death of Taseer.
Days before his assassination, Taseer, who was a nephew of celebrated poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, tweeted forebodingly: “I am under huge pressure to cow down before the rightist pressure on blasphemy. The extremists are giving me threats, they are using the name of Islam, they want to bring their own brand of Islam but I don’t give a damn…even if I am the last man standing”. His Facebook status reads: ‘R.I.P. Lion of the Punjab Salmaan Taseer (31 May 1944 – 04 Jan 2011)’. His web page lists his favourite quote as ‘How can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the honour of his country and the temple of his gods’.
Source: The News, 8 Jan 2011