x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

More to the governor's murder than immediately meets the eye

After the killing of Salman Taseer, no other high-profile individual is likely to have the courage to challenge Pakistan's blasphemy law, or any other distorted laws that falsely claim to be based on Islam

Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab, was not a figure who provoked unalloyed admiration in Pakistan's political scene. The irony is that the one act that did deserve admiration - his opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy law - resulted in his assassination at the hands of Mumtaz Qadri, a member of his own security detail, on January 4.

There is certainly more to this murder than immediately meets the eye. Many of us relatively insignificant people have condemned the blasphemy law and its misuse in Pakistan, with some even calling the law itself blasphemous, if such a thing is possible.

But Taseer was one of only two politicians of note who had the courage to publicly condemn the law, ask for it to be repealed and demand a pardon for Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman who was wrongly sentenced to death under the law. Sherry Rehman, a former minister who is also a member of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), moved a bill in parliament against the law. She is now under threat and in hiding.

Religious leaders had declared Taseer a non-Muslim and some even called for his death. One man, who has since been arrested, even offered 30 million Pakistani rupees (Dh1.3 million) as a reward for his assassination.

Even in this backdrop, it is still true that extremists in Pakistan make up an infinitesimally small proportion of the population. But by virtue of their actions, they are obviously more visible than the silent majority. The individuals that distributed sweets and rallied to celebrate the murder make better news than the millions who grieved for Taseer.

He did make many enemies in his life, which complicates the investigation into his death. The brothers Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, and their rightist political party the PML-N, are prominent among them. Given the political alliance between Taseer and President Asif Ali Zardari, the PPP would like nothing better than to unearth a conspiracy involving the Punjab provincial government, which is ruled by the PML-N.

The federal minister of law, Babar Awan, an ally of Mr Zardari, has already raised questions about "political motives" for the killing that might be disguised by the religious furore, even calling it a "custodial killing". However, while the governor's security is generally the responsibility of the Punjab government, when he enters the capital the responsibility shifts to the Islamabad police, which is under the central government.

Qadri belonged to the Elite Force of the Islamabad police. Members of the force are routinely screened because of their duties with prominent politicians. A few years ago, Qadri became a "reborn" Muslim, grew a beard, and joined the Barelvi movement of Sunni Islam.

In 2006, when Qadri was in the Rawalpindi Elite Force, the senior superintendent of police in command noted in Qadri's file that he was "unfit" for VIP duties. Yet he continued to perform these duties regularly. Ironically (or appropriately), the same officer, Nasir Durrani, heads the investigation team appointed by the Punjab government.

At first Qadri was not on the security detail for Taseer, but requested the post and was obliged. Why that did not arouse suspicion is an unanswered question. Taseer was the most prominent opponent of the blasphemy law, had provoked considerable anger among religious extremists, yet somehow was assigned a guard known for his extreme views.

Elite Force members are trained to respond swiftly to any threat, yet Qadri emptied a complete magazine of his submachine gun, hitting Taseer with 27 bullets. Nearby guards never fired a shot. Having emptied his magazine, Qadri calmly bent down, placed his weapon on the ground and raised his hands in surrender, saying: "My job is done".

There is a rumour afloat that Qadri had shared his intentions with some of his colleagues, asking them to ensure that he was captured alive. Maybe he wanted his day in court; maybe he is confident that no one will have the courage to convict him. The lack of response by his colleagues lends some credence to this rumour. An investigation is ongoing, but this aspect may be hushed up although it should cause real concern in the corridors of power. It might also explain why Mr Zardari did not, "for security reasons", attend the funeral of one of his closest allies.

After the second attempt on Pervez Musharraf's life, it became public knowledge that low level personnel in the air force and the police were involved. The mastermind of an attack on the army general headquarters a couple of years ago was a retired soldier from the army. The extremists may be few but they are growing in numbers and they can be anywhere. Qadri got his man: the question is, was he allowed to?

While the death of a governor is of concern, it is overshadowed by these questions. Of even greater concern, the PPP has already shamelessly reneged on its promise to review the blasphemy law. After this killing, no other high-profile individual is likely to have the courage to challenge the law, or any other distorted laws that falsely claim to be based on Islam.

Pakistan's minorities will continue to be under constant threat and be accused of blasphemy without reason. In Mrs Bibi's case, she claims she was accused after she tried to lodge a police complaint against two Muslims who were molesting her. Now her life is also in danger.

It is past time that the "silent majority", which has been in equal parts shameless and cowardly, stands up to reclaim our country from the forces of obscurantism, bigotry and hate that have remained unchallenged so far.

Brig Gen Shaukat Qadir is a former Pakistani infantry officer