The assassination of Punjab Governor and Pakistan Peoples Party leader Salman Taseer has proved to be a turning point for Pakistan. The country that arguably had been standing on the crossroads between liberal secularism and extremist fundamentalism is now traveling the latter road as the reactions to the killing prove so vividly. Rose petals for the assassin, threats against those mourning Taseer’s death, threats of similar murders of liberals if they dared speak out for Taseer clearly show that the liberal voice is so weakened that it is now barely heard.
The very fact that the security guard who pumped 29 bullets into Taseer---reloading the weapon at one point while other guards looked on---- is indicative of how deep the rot of extremism has set in. This group (involved in the killing) in Pakistan has largely kept away from violence, and are recognised as a peaceful sect. But now it is as if a dam has burst as clerics have come out with strictures as it were, warning all clerics in the country against reading Taseer’s funeral prayers. No one dared and eventually the task had to be performed by a PPP religious scholar. For the first time in recent memory, it is the extremists who are talking and reacting and threatening even as the small liberal society of Pakistan huddles into a corner, worried and terrified of the future.
Who will be the next target is the question being asked in every home of Pakistan, in what is almost a concession that there is no political force that can challenge and defeat the extremists. Taseer was killed because he had visited the jail to meet with the Christian woman Asiya Bibi, a mother of four. His killer said that it was because of this he had been persuaded to kill the Punjab Governor, and claimed subsequently that he had the support of all the other guards who had agreed not to shoot him dead. This alone should be giving sleepless nights to the Pakistani leaders.
Anger against the United States, deep corruption where all wealth has been captured in Pakistan by just a few families, growing frustration has all merged into a fury where the people have turned to the only available alternative ideology: religious extremism. These groups and individuals have captured the anti-US space in that country, and are the only ones really to speak out against the Islamabad-Washington nexus that the people believe is from where the oppression originates. Former President Pervez Musharraf might have lost some middle class support because of his confrontation with the judiciary and the lawyers, but it was his decision to attack the Lal Masjid to flush out militants that really turned the countryside against him. It was because of Lal Masjid , as every little shop keeper and taxi driver in Pakistan will tell you, that the powerful President had to flee the country and is still not acceptable.
The extremists, using their version of religion as a potent tool, have managed very successfully to use the strong anger against the US to garner support for their ongoing battle against democracy and liberalism. The Zardari government has, unfortunately, lost legitimacy being perceived as corrupt and pro-US to a point where the President himself does not enjoy the full support of his own party. He and his Prime Minister are barely able to lead from the front, and are doing a worse job of governance than their predecessor. Washington, many people in Pakistan are convinced, is doing most of the thinking for Islamabad and what remains is not being thought about at all by the government. Democracy and its values have been in the process come to be associated, through the relentless propaganda of the extremists, with the ruling elite, the rich, and of course the US. The opposite thus has gained credibility amongst the people with Taseer being reviled as a symbol of democracy, and his killer being felicitated as a symbol of resistance and faith.
Pakistan needed a strong, effective government in these trying times. Of course, as the recent political history of the world has shown, the US is able to turn all it touches into dust. Two exceptions that come immediately to mind are Vietnam that fought the US military with guerrilla violence, and Iran where again the resistance to the US was eventually taken over by the religious right. In Pakistan the army is playing some games with the US insofar as guarding its assets (Taliban and others) is concerned, but the political leadership has capitulated completely. The result is that democracy itself is seen to have failed the people, and given their dislike for the Army, the popular tide again is turning to embrace those who have changed strategy more effectively than the other two. The Pakistani elite, for instance, never acknowledged that democracy itself is not enough, it must deliver not to just the few but to the masses living outside the radar of Islamabad as it were. The extremists reached the people while the so called democratic government of the corrupt remained restricted to its upper class, elite base of supporters. There was no realisation at the level of Zardari and Gillani about the seriousness of the situation, and the necessity to carry the people along. Or if there was a realisation there was this crippling inability to deliver.
New Delhi must not revel in the situation, as Pakistan has taken a very steep downhill turn. There is no force today that seems to be in a position to prevent a takeover of the religious Right that has come out of the shadows completely after Taseer’s assassination. The Army seemed more powerful than the weak Zardari-Geelani duo, but given the groundswell of support for those who held the gun against liberalism, it has to be seen whether it will be able to ride this particular wave. There has been a sea change in the ground situation, and for the first time (despite all the agents of doom in the past) it does seem that Pakistan has shifted ground dramatically. The liberal space has been reduced to virtually a corner and while there are still many brave voices of protest, another high profile assassination will silence many more. (Courtesy: greaterkashmir.com)