Remembering Salmaan Taseer —By Munir Attaullah
Any possible temptation to write a eulogy today, in fond remembrance of a friend who I miss dearly, is easily quashed. “Cut the sentimental crap and get to the bottom line,” he would have brusquely admonished. The mental image of that endearingly sheepish, pursed lips half-smile, and those mischievous twinkling eyes, will not go away. That was Salmaan Taseer (ST) for you: a no-nonsense, down-to-earth, practical sort of fellow if I ever knew one.
But then, why did he voluntarily take an uncompromising public position on the thankless and unpopular cause that was the case of a poor, illiterate, bewildered Christian woman, locked up awaiting a trial for alleged blasphemy (and, I believe, still rotting in jail)? Surely he was aware of the risks? And, during the days he was mulling over this fateful decision, had most of his inner circle of friends not strongly advised him not to play with such fire?
That question needs an answer, especially as I was one of the very few who had encouraged him to take a stand. Do I then, in retrospect, regret my decision? No, I do not. For, Salmaan was a confident and independent-minded man. And his fateful decision stemmed more from his own deep inner conviction rather than the urgings of a friend.
And answering the question is the best way I know to honour his memory. To grieve unconditionally over the death of a loved one is the primary prerogative of the family he left behind (and for them, that journey of sorrow is by no means over, given the kidnapping of his son, Shahbaz). But for us friends, acquaintances, and the many sympathisers in the wider public that only knew him indirectly, the pain is of a different kind and un-healing. We keep asking what sort of national insanity is this that grips by the throat the country we all dearly love, and can generate the kind of hatred that leads directly to the cold-blooded murder of a wholly innocent man?
For, not only were the governor’s actions (in visiting the accused in jail and speaking up for her plight) deliberately and viciously distorted by the hardcore obscurantist lobby, but many in our media and public life (who surely should know better) gleefully stoked the fires of bigotry for their petty selfish ends by artificially creating a controversy where there was none. Do you think anyone of them later felt the slightest tinge of remorse at indirectly having blood on their hands? I doubt it.
As if an insane murder was not bad enough, worse was to follow. A high state functionary was buried hurriedly, quietly and privately, with officialdom and other bigwigs conspicuous by their embarrassing public silence and absence in attending the funeral, or offering condolences to the bereaved family. On the other hand, the self-confessed murderer, remorseless, proud, and serene in his stupidity, was lionised and showered with rose petals in captivity, while an ex-Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court offered his services as defence counsel in his appeal against the death sentence. A few of us will never forget that deep sense of suppressed rage and sadness at such cowardly and shameful behaviour.
And what a contrast such Pakistanis are to the friend I have lost, who all his life was fearless and courageous (even to the point of being foolhardy). When terrorists had attacked Ahmedi places of worship (how utterly ridiculous that by law I cannot use the word ‘mosque’) in Lahore, and killed scores of worshippers offering Friday prayers (it, likewise, being forbidden here to use the word ‘namaz’), was ST not alone amongst officialdom to go and condole with the leaders of that minority community? He believed in confronting a bully rather than running away.
If man is little more than the sum total of his memories, then a nation is largely the collective historical memory of its people. In our own case, those who have governed us have long consciously sought to distort our history and identity in the name of national security. The result is there for all to see. Is our future really to end up as a nation of Mumtaz Qadris rather than of Salmaan Taseers?
It was not always thus. Salmaan and I grew up in a Pakistan where Zafrullah Khan (an Ahmedi) could be a trusted and close colleague of the Quaid, and serve as a stellar foreign minister; where Cornelius (a Christian) could have a distinguished career as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and another Ahmedi, Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhry, could head our Air Force. Religious discrimination had no official sanction and the twin scourges of sectarianism and international jihad lay dormant in the psyches of but a few. Private security and bodyguards were unheard of. Girls could bicycle to college. It had not yet become fashionable for religious goons to have some fun of their own by attacking New Year celebrations of others. And, above all, it had not become obligatory to have a learned opinion from some cleric or the other on what Islam has to say on just about any issue you care to name. Reasoned discourse was a reality both Salmaan and I (and countless others) took for granted.
How times have changed since! But, given his upbringing, Salmaan’s character, further tempered by wide reading and travel, was set in the liberal mould. He firmly believed that the vast majority of Pakistanis did not subscribe to the agenda foisted upon them by those with a medieval mindset. And he remained confident till the end that it was but a matter of time that the country would emerge from the blind alley it had been driven into. As proof, consider this: when most of our well-to-do class have taken out the insurance policy of a second passport and nationality, and stashed abroad a goodly share of their assets, ST steadfastly refused to do likewise, even though it would have been a piece of cake for him to follow that prudent course. A self-made man, he invested his wealth in Pakistan and proudly stuck to his Pakistani passport, for all the hassle that now comes with that document when travelling.
Some 50 years ago, ST and I both studied at the premier institution for higher education in the country – Government College, Lahore – whose motto is the Latin phrase ‘Sapare Aude’. Championed by Kant, this phrase (loosely translated as ‘courage to know’ or ‘dare to think’) became the slogan and catalyst for the paradigm shift that ushered in the age of European Enlightenment. The question I and many others like ST kept asking ourselves is: what stops us from having our own Enlightenment?
For, we have no dearth of good men amongst us who ‘dare to think’. The real problem is not enough of them ‘dare to speak’. I will always remember my friend Salmaan as one of the few who did so.
The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit munirattaullah.com