The assassination of the governor of Pakistani Punjab, Salman Taseer, marks a new low for that country. The fight for its identity —secular for some, taking after the founder of the country Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and an Islamic theocracy for others— has always been vicious. It has been murderously violent for sometime now.
Taseer was gunned down on Tuesday by one of his securitymen, one Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who described himself as a “slave of the Prophet”, little realizing that no prophet ever preaches the cold-blooded murder of innocents. Qadri’s anger at Taseer had its roots in the latter’s efforts to undo Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. These laws, themselves a product of the lawless age of Zia ul-Haq, make blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad a capital offence. These laws are abused for good measure. Those at its receiving ends are religious minorities such as Christians, Hindus and the Islamic Ahmadiyya sect. Many in Pakistan do not accept Ahmadiyyas as Muslims.
How should his killing be viewed? At one level it marks the ever-shrinking space for secular ideas in that country. Pakistan’s elite, like any other elite, does not have a very deep private involvement with religion while publicly it continues to make heavy-duty use of religious ideas. This duality goes back all the way to Jinnah. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to finesse it and paid the price for it. So did his daughter Benazir Bhutto. Taseer was very much a part of that same elite even if his public stand—for example his defence of Aasia Bibi, a Christian convicted for blasphemy—gave a different public gloss to his politics.
The deeper failure of this elite lay not in its inability to counter this trend—with which it was complicit in any case—but to give a better meaning to the idea of Pakistan. This failure has not dawned upon the leaders and opinion makers there. The use of religion to mobilize the masses, whether it is against each other or against India (something the Pakistani army, the ultimate arbiter of that country’s destiny, is trying to fine-tune) lies behind disasters such as Taseer’s assassination. It will be a matter for historical judgement whether the idea was doomed from the start. One can wait for that judgement but the prognosis is not good. In the meantime, Pakistan grieves for another lost son.
Was there any hope ever for secularism in Pakistan? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org