Can’t take them on

His murder took place at high-end Kohsar Market in Islamabad where Salmaan Taseer had arrived to meet friends in a restaurant

By Ghazi Salahuddin
March 03, 2024
Former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer (late) speaks to media persons outside the PCB office. — AFP/File

One of the most dreadful periods I have lived through, as a citizen and as a journalist, was in the aftermath of the assassination of Salmaan Taseer in the first week of January 2011. And I almost shudder with fear when I recall that experience.


The ominous fact about that murder was that it was committed by a person who was assigned to protect the life of the then-governor of Punjab. This paradox was enhanced by the conduct of the rest of the many members of the squad that accompanies an official of that stature.

They watched the evil deed being done in silence and let the murderer surrender like a hero, which he instantly became across the country. This murder had taken place at the high-end Kohsar Market in Islamabad where Salmaan Taseer had arrived to meet friends in a restaurant.

The reason he was killed was that Taseer was seen to have disapproved of certain aspects of the blasphemy laws and had expressed sympathy for a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy.

Anyhow, the dark passions that surged across the country were so overpowering that even offering ‘fateha’ for the leader of the PPP in parliament was a problem, though the party was in power. One was advised to not talk about it in public. I am not able to portray the environment that existed in those days. The situation was worthy of a novel by Dostoevsky.

But why am I reminded of that particular event at this time when so much is happening on the political front, signifying more heat than light? One reason is a message that I have retained about that experience – and I find its relevance to what happened in the Icchra locality of Lahore last Sunday and has reverberated throughout this week. In this episode, the focus has largely rested on the courageous intervention of a lady police officer.

Some days after Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, I had an opportunity to meet a very high official in Islamabad. I complained about why the authorities were not taking any action to rein in the extremists who were dominating the public space. This was the reply I got: “We cannot take them on”.

A heartrending, though candid, confession it was. However, if Salmaan Taseer was an exceptional red rag to zealots on this issue, the powers-that-be have not dealt decisively with other, more manageable disruptions. Consequently, the forces of violent extremism and obscurantism have consistently prevailed.

In its lower depths, Pakistani society is inundated with primitive passions. For instance, there have been regular incidents in Karachi of people being lynched by a mob on suspicion of being a robber or a transgressor of some kind. Every crowd has the potential to become a mob. Any person making a dubious allegation can raise hell, with fatal consequences.

Now, consider this incident in which a woman wearing a dress with a design of Arabic calligraphy was mobbed by an angry crowd in the Icchra market in Lahore. Passions rose when it was alleged that the woman’s garment bore Holy verses.

Eventually, the woman found refuge in a shop and its shutters were brought down. The police arrived on the scene, and it was ASP Shehrbano who managed to rescue the woman and bring her to the police station.

There was high drama in how this operation was conducted. A burqa was arranged, and her face was covered and the police officer pushed her way through the charged crowd. This was certainly a brave act on the part of the woman police officer and she was rightly applauded for her initiative. She also had an audience with the army chief in Rawalpindi and there was ample media coverage to project the resolution of a dangerous situation.

But there are other aspects of this encounter that demand attention. No force was used to disperse the mob and to arrest the main agitators at the scene of the crime. It is intriguing as to how a video emerged in which the woman was made to submit an apology before some religious persons. How did the police allow this and what was the need for this veritable humiliation of an innocent woman who was unjustly harassed by a mob?

Obviously, the mob would not understand that the fashion of wearing calligraphic symbols and letters had come from a Muslim country and the word ‘Halwa’ had no religious roots and meant sincerity and love and goodness.

At another level, the Icchra affair is one more testimony of our moral and social degradation. We tend to take these matters lightly, but they are symptoms of, in a sense, a life-threatening disease. We are, collectively and specifically including the ordinary people, bereft of civility and tolerance.

Incidentally, our politics also certifies our lack of civility and tolerance. The sounds and sights that have marked the initial process of the formation of new governments, specifically at the federal level, make a jarring impact on the minds of concerned citizens. Why can’t we be more civilized in our public behaviour?

According to a statement released by ISPR after ASP Shehrbano’s meeting with COAS Gen Asim Munir stressed the importance of social harmony and the need for a nationwide consensus on curbing intolerance.

It is now for those who are in power to find ways of realizing these goals. And for that, they have to take on the religious extremists and bigots who have repeatedly demonstrated their power and invincibility. It could be argued that religious extremists were nurtured and empowered by the policies that have governed us for a long time.

How can our ruling ideas change so that we become more civilized in our collective behaviour? When will our rulers take on the challenge of building a modern and progressive society?

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: