Shock murder, twice over Death and life of a Pakistani adventurer

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  • Published 5.01.11
Salmaan Taseer

Jan. 4: Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s wealthiest and most populated Punjab province, was shot dead by his bodyguard in an apparent backlash to the high-profile politician’s opposition to the blasphemy law that can send to the gallows those convicted of insulting Islam.

The only election Salmaan Taseer ever won in his long political career was a seat in the Punjab Assembly in 1988, the year democracy and Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan after Zia-ul-Haq’s decade-long military-Islamist dictatorship.

He lost every subsequent attempt to enter Pakistan’s National Assembly and got his most important political job —governor of the key province of Punjab — only after the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) regained power in 2008.

Even so, Salmaan Taseer wasn’t the kind ever to be edged off the centrestage. Governors in Pakistan, as in India, can choose to lead fairly well-padded and secure lives while they last in office. That wouldn’t do for Salmaan Taseer, always a bit of a flamboyant, and rakish, adventurer.

He inexorably pursued controversy; it probably seduced him to a horrific end this afternoon. The jury hasn’t sat on what drove Salmaan Taseer’s bodyguard to gun him down as he emerged from lunch in Islamabad’s upmarket Kohsar Market, but it is likely he paid the price for relentlessly opposing the cleric-backed blasphemy laws.

“It’s a shocking horror,” Rashed Rehman, editor of the Lahore-based Daily Times owned by Salmaan Taseer, told The Telegraph, “I would not like to hazard guesses at this stage but it could well be he was killed for being the kind of man he was and what he fearlessly stood for.”

Another close Lahori friend who would not be named, said: “Everybody knew Salmaan (Taseer) was under threat for the way he had been speaking against the Islamists, he was a liberal and a progressive person and he made a point of making that known. My guess is Salmaan would not have cared what threats he was bringing upon himself, he liked living life on his own terms.”

Salmaan Taseer teased the edge in private as he did in public. He married thrice and a brief tryst with Indian journalist Tavleen Singh produced his best-known progeny, author Aatish Taseer, who made the difficult and poignant relationship with his father the subject of a celebrated book called Stranger to History.

Aatish made several vain attempts to reach Salmaan Taseer as a young boy before presenting himself as a fait accompli in Lahore as an adult. But if a recognition or reconciliation is what the young Taseer was looking for, it wasn’t to be. The attempt became confirmation to Aatish that his father had betrayed his mother and turned his back on him to save a political career that would be doomed by news of an Indian wife.

As Aatish wrote of his encounter with Salmaan Taseer, “I rose to leave the room. It was if a bank had burst. My father and I, for the first time, were beyond embarrassment. I returned a few moments later to say goodbye to him, but he had left for the day without a word. The now empty room produced a corresponding vacancy in me that was like despair. I wanted somehow to feel whole again; not reconciliation, that would be asking too much, just not this feeling of waste: my journey to find my father ending in an empty room in Lahore, the clear light of a bright morning breaking in to land on the criss-crossing arcs of a freshly swabbed floor.”

Following the unveiling of Stranger to History, whose publication in the UK the elder Taseer is believed to have successfully prevented, ties between father and son became colder.

Salmaan Taseer could be hard about what he wanted and what he did not. He never once attempted to make peace with political adversaries, for instance, formidable as they were. Not for the sake of his business, not because he feared for himself.

Twice during assignment trips to Pakistan, I had put that question to Salmaan Taseer. Both were occasions that gave concern. The first was during the 1988 election campaign, when Pakistan was yet to cast off Gen. Zia’s oppressive shadow. The second time was the aftermath of the assassination of close friend and political boss, Benazir Bhutto.

Both times I remember Salmaan Taseer pulling off his trendy shades — he seemed to have quite a collection and even wore them indoors — and shrugging his shoulders: “Can’t live fearing the future, can you? You must do what you have to, the rest will happen around you.” Beyond a point, Salmaan Taseer couldn’t or did not care.

Many believed his confidence, often bordering on supercilious contempt, came from the class he belonged to — Pakistan’s stable of the rich and the famous. Salmaan Taseer, apart from being a PPP player, was also one of the country’s most successful businessmen, a media magnate and owner of a multinational telephony firm.

Closer friends credit him with “personal courage” that allowed him to “stick it out” in Pakistan through the Zia, and later, the Nawaz Sharif era which, too, was a bad time for PPP members and sympathisers. But then Salmaan Taseer always had the ability to get carried away.

Only last month, he left Pakistan without formally handing over charge to the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, a dereliction that left the province without a constitutional head.

Just months before that, he had been photographed drinking alcohol at a private party with family and friends. The photographs became a rippling row in a country where alcohol is officially banned, politically non-kosher and socially frowned upon.

But none of that seemed to bother Salmaan Taseer; he did not bother to explain, much less apologise. He was just being who he was, like it, lump it.