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Bhatti’s assassination: a sign of a deep malaise

by Farhat Taj, 7 March 2011

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Daily Times, 5 March 2011

Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Gilani, was shot dead in broad daylight in the federal capital. Bhatti, the minister for minorities, had been receiving frequent death threats from terrorists. This is the second high-profile killing in two months, following the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was gunned down by a religious fanatic hailed as a hero by religious groups and even lawyers. Both leaders had been vocally opposing Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws and publicly supporting the release of Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman implicated in a dubious blasphemy case. Both had been publicly highlighting legal flaws in the blasphemy laws.

The aftermath of the killing shows nothing to indicate that Pakistanis in key power positions are even acknowledging the deep malaise the country is suffering from: religious extremism nurtured for foreign and domestic policy objectives. All signs show that religious bigotry will continue to be used for state objectives by the military and the political class will continue to succumb to the lethal military-militant alliance.

Reportedly, the Punjabi Taliban took responsibility for Bhatti’s assassination. The PML-N’s Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, expressed his displeasure over the term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ in the media. During a talk with newsmen he was reluctant to declare the Taliban as terrorists. Some people in FATA call the PML-N the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) of Punjab. This is because the party’s position on the Taliban is vague and tacitly pro-Taliban. Recall, some time back the chief minister even asked the Taliban to spare Punjab from attacks because the Taliban and the PML-N’s objectives converge. It looks like the largest province of Pakistan will have to bleed much more with Taliban atrocities before the PML-N wakes up to the reality. Religious extremism, it seems, has permeated a large section of the Punjabi middle class. This is a very bad sign for the religious as well as ethnic minorities of Pakistan. Religious minorities, especially in Punjab, are routinely attacked and people in FATA, especially Waziristan, inform that their land is occupied by the Punjabi Taliban — many of them ISI operatives — who physically control the minority of Pakhtun terrorists and foreign al Qaeda militants.

The PPP is increasingly caving in to the terrorists. It has abandoned people within its own ranks for taking a principled stance against the forces of religious fanaticism. Late Salmaan Taseer gave his life for supporting a poor Christian woman entrapped in a dubious blasphemy case. The PPP, which is supposed to be a supporter of the minorities’ rights, extended him no support. He was left vulnerable to attacks by religious fanatics, who took his life. Another PPP member, Sherry Rehman, who was prepared to table a bill to amend the country’s blasphemy laws in the National Assembly, has been silenced and made to give up the plan by the party. Fatwas (edicts) had been issued against Shahbaz Bhatti, another PPP stalwart and minister, calling for his assassination. The government showed no signs of standing by the minister for fear of losing power under pressure from the right-wing lobby. His request for a bulletproof car was also not entertained by the government. The result is in front of us — he was gunned down. Perhaps next would be the turn of Sherry Rehman. There is no sign the government would publicly stand by her.

The religious parties are silent over the assassination of Bhatti and thus tacitly approving it. The top tier leadership of the right-wing political parties remains quiet, or guarded in its response. Their spokesmen engage in the usual rhetoric.

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti is a sign of the deep malaise afflicting Pakistan. The overwhelming intelligence agencies of Pakistan have long used religious bigotry as a tool to bleed Pakhtun nationalism in Afghanistan, the Indian state in Kashmir, and assault secular and nationalist forces inside Pakistan. The military-militant alliance remains intact. It has even put the responsibility of Bhatti’s assassination on the US. Pro-establishment rhetorician, Zaid Hamid, has said in a TV talk show that the handlers of Bhatti’s assassins are US spy operatives in Pakistan. I am afraid some time down the road Sherry Rehman would be killed by the bloodthirsty alliance and the blame will be put on US ‘spies’ to fuel anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Assassinations of secular minded people is fetching double benefit for the military-militant alliance: one, it purges Pakistan of secular ‘infidels’ that, by implication, creates more political space for the religious forces, and two, it stokes the fire of anti-Americanism in Pakistan when they blame US spies for such assassinations.

Nothing short of a people’s revolution against the military-militant alliance can save Pakistan. But there is no one to lead such a revolution. Pakistan, as elaborated in a book, Armageddon in Pakistan, is a feudal state. Its power structure is held by a feudal army, feudal democracy, feudal judiciary and feudal media. The army dominates the feudal system and the other three are its beneficiaries as junior partners. Why should the other three break down the system that benefits them? The former three will never come out to speak for the people, especially the ethnic and religious minorities, devastated by the military-militant alliance. There is no place in Pakistan for people who can take a principled stance on the rights of the people oppressed by this deadly alliance. The likes of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti will continue to be eliminated. Let us see who is the next to be assassinated.

The writer is a PhD Research Fellow with the University of Oslo and currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban