Liberal Indians like liberal Pakistani politicians. They reinforce the view that people are the same across the border. They speak good English and have gone to good schools, they are often sophisticated, charming and well-informed, and they buttress the idea that what divides the two neighbours can be solved easily, if only reasonable people sit across the table and thrash out matters. When in opposition, these politicians become friendlier; they stress how the region can be stable, if only Pakistan can be freed from the clutches of those who dominate Pakistani politics: whom author Tariq Ali has memorably described as “generals, corrupt politicians, and bearded lunatics”. It is like looking across the border and seeing your mirror image – and liking it.
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And then someone like the Punjab governor Salman Taseer gets assassinated, shot by his bodyguard. As BBC’s reporters scour the streets of Karachi seeking vox populi, they are stunned to discover support for the suspect. Other guards speak of the alleged assassin in reverential tone. Several pages appear on the social networking website, Facebook, honouring the suspect; membership of those macabre fan clubs multiplies rapidly. And then, to bolster Taseer’s reputation among the hotheads, some of his supporters start stressing his anti-India credentials, reminding Indians that Pakistani liberalism is specific to the Pakistani context.
Taseer was a courageous man. He did not have to go out of his way to defend Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of three who was arrested on blasphemy charges and faced the death penalty; her arrest was the result of dubious testimony from people who were not there when she is supposed to have denigrated Islam’s prophet. Asia Bibi is a poor woman, not a cause celebre; no votes were to be gained in taking up her cause, and yet Taseer met her, got himself photographed with her, and promised to take up her cause.
Pakistan has always had a blasphemy law, but its use to prosecute and intimidate members of minority communities and the poor, (and sometimes to settle local scores) has accelerated since the time of General Zia ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. Taseer and Sherry Rehman, a former federal minister, led efforts to change provisions of the law. They had to take incremental steps, but those small steps were in the right direction, to bring Pakistan closer to Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s vision, when he famously said to his citizens: “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship…. that has nothing to do with the business of the State… In 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.”
For the assassination suspect, even those ideas of Jinnah would seem blasphemous, and what emboldens him is the politics Zia has left Pakistan with, where being Pakistani meant demonstrating the kind of piousness that only conservative mullahs would approve. With his flamboyant lifestyle, Taseer simply did not fit such a profile. Meanwhile, the State encouraged and colluded with fundamentalists by prosecuting blasphemous acts. Between 1929 and 1982, nine cases were reported; since then, thousands of individuals have been harassed, prosecuted, or persecuted, under this law. Churches have been burnt, Christian aid workers killed, a man found innocent by court has been murdered after his release, and thousands of Ahmadis persecuted. Surely, if the divine entity is all-powerful, he can defend himself, and doesn’t need his adherents to defend the faith from slights committed by mere mortals: But posing such a thought is naïve and dangerous.
Christianity has the concept of blasphemy too, but many countries where Christians form a majority have increasingly separated the Church from the State, and begun decriminalizing blasphemy, as Britain did recently. At home, Pakistan is taking tentative steps to wrest its identity from those who are busy transforming it.
That requires supreme guts. Even as the government is considering changes to the blasphemy law at home, internationally, Pakistan is on a different trajectory: It is leading efforts at the United Nations to outlaw religious defamation. Such resolutions have indeed been passed last year at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and at the UN General Assembly in New York, but they are not binding. And yet, by privileging an idea (faith) over an individual right (free expression), the resolutions turn the notion of human rights on its head.
The battle Taseer had chosen was always going to be difficult, the journey inevitably uphill. Pakistanis who have joined Facebook groups supporting him must take this forward, in the real world, not only in the virtual world by clicking “Like”, for the sake of the many Pakistanis who want to be freed from the tyranny of unelected, unaccountable moral guardians.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org