The first time I came across the name of slain Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer was through the book Strangers to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands, which was written by his son, Aatish. My curiosity was further aroused when I discovered he had once been in a relationship with Tavleen Singh, a well-read Indian columnist. As I researched more about Taseer, I found out another interesting fact—he had been connected romantically with Indian actress Simi Garewal.
As a result of all this, Taseer had become for me a rather interesting and flamboyant personality—different from many of his peers. More importantly, though, he also presented a challenge to certain popular beliefs nurtured by some Indians (and the rest of the world) about Pakistan—that it’s merely full of irrational religious bigots, with only a minimal liberal political presence.
But this small opening to progressiveness in Pakistan seems now to have been shuttered with Taseer’s assassination last week.
The anguish expressed by the liberal English press, in publications such as the Express Tribune, reflects the deep sense of pain and helplessness felt by those citizens trying to break free from the grip of extremist religious forces in a country whose founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, wanted to make this nation ‘one of the greatest…in the world.’
In India, meanwhile, those who believe in a stable and progressive Pakistan are also dismayed by the way events are unfolding in their neighbourhood. In fact, I was so shocked to hear about Taseer’s assassination that we quickly took to the internet to confirm that this was the same, liberal Taseer that we had heard and read about.
It’s of deep concern that irrational forces are asserting themselves so rapidly just next door, and that we’re unable to do anything about it. It’s a reminder of how limited our influence is there.
So what about those countries that consider Pakistan a strategic ally? Are they helping pull the country out of this life-threatening state of extremism? For example, as Pakistan’s close and valuable friend, will China do more than supply Pakistan with arms, strategic roads and ports—all meant to be used as a strategic tool against India? Shouldn’t China instead expend some of its influence on trying to help its ally fight the forces of extremism?
One irony is that despite being in the company of the ‘enlightened’ West for most of its existence, Pakistan still hopped right into the arms of figures like Abul Ala Maududi and Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, rather than accepting the secular and liberal values of a Churchill or other such thinkers. In doing so, the country is forgetting the liberalism of original influencers such as Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Quaid-e-Azam.
But if Pakistan is indeed in a perilous state today, the country’s so-called allies bear significant responsibility— the US and other NATO countries, along with China, have for too long simply used Pakistan like a local goon to get their work done and interests served.
The United States, for its part, armed the country to help counter the Soviet Union in 1980s and is now using it to get its work done in Afghanistan, without realizing the actual needs of this unfortunate country.
Under such influence from the West, Pakistan has lost sight of the fact that it's in the company of selfish allies, easy arms and easy money. Western company has been a decadent influence on the South Asian nation, and has given rise to numerous reactionary and extremist forces who have dramatically altered Pakistan’s persona.
Of course Pakistan’s political and military leadership must also shoulder some of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. But regardless, if the country is to step back from the abyss, the voices of resistance against extremism must step out of the pages of English newspapers and instead thunder their message out on the streets of Pakistan—the people must fight the medieval forces that are hell-bent on turning the country into a backwater of religious fanaticism.
And what can India do? As a big neighbour and established democracy, Delhi should play a more positive and constructive role in stabilizing Pakistan. Unnecessary suspicion about its neighbour’s intentions should give way to a better understanding of the issues confronting Pakistan.
If the loss of Taseer is a loss to the liberal vision of Pakistan, it’s also a personal heartbreak for India. It’s a setback to future meetings and alliances. Taseer might not have been a great politician or visionary, but his kind of open-mindedness is more valuable to Pakistan today than the fanaticism propounded by the likes of terrorists like Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.