Three years separate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and that of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was gunned down by his security guard in Lahore recently. Taseer is no comparison to Bhutto in political stature, but in many ways, his death could prove to be more of a turning point for Pakistan’s politics than Bhutto’s death. It might even be correct to see his death as evidence of Pakistan finally taking the turn it missed three years ago, when the possible defeat of Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship had blinded the nation to the roadblocks that decades of political play with religion had set up. If there were doubts whether it was religious extremism or political conspiracy that had claimed Bhutto, there are hardly any in the case of Taseer. The Punjab governor — part of Pakistan’s illustrious elite, some of whom, like Taseer, had managed to keep the flag of the country’s liberal, syncretic culture flying high — was felled by a religious fanatic who was merely following the established practice of valuing one’s religion more than official duty. Like him, many in Pakistan’s political and military establishments, and increasingly, in society, have prioritized their responsibilities. The evidence of this choice has been manifest in incessant terror attacks on civilians, military and specific religious communities. And the choice-making has been helped by the Pakistan State itself, over the years, through the shariatization of laws, education and politics, the promotion of the interests of particular communities at the cost of others and the sponsorship of jihad against neighbouring countries.
The Taseers, with their liberal views on religion and society, are literally being made into a dying breed in Pakistan. It is unfortunate that given its political compulsions, the minority government of the Pakistan People’s Party, to which Taseer belonged, will find itself in no position either to take up his tirade against the blasphemy laws or his pro-women reformist ideas. It may even be in a quandary to proceed against the assassin, who is already being projected as a hero. The looming economic crisis and political chaos may even obliterate the memory of Taseer’s crusade for basic freedoms altogether, thereby removing the last obstacles to the victory of the religious Right in Pakistan. When that happens, Pakistan will surely have taken a turn for the worst.