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Of fallen icons, shrinking space

January 7 2012




A SUCCESSFUL businessman and a politician, Salmaan Taseer had a naughty streak in him which one has rarely witnessed in serious politicians barring perhaps one or two exceptions.

Ms Bhutto`s first government had been dismissed in August 1990. The Herald magazine despatched me to Lahore from Karachi to assess the political situation ahead of the elections. Salmaan Taseer was an `essential` in my contacts book.

He was warm and hospitable. He gave me his view of what was likely to happen in the elections. His friendly demeanour encouraged me to ask him what he thought of an enigmatic Punjab politician as I was doing his profile.

With a mischievous smile on his lips and a sudden glint in his eye, he asked if I`d like to meet him `incognito`. I couldn`t believe my luck so tried to confirm what he meant. He said he`d take me to visit him and introduce me as a friend, which was also true, rather than a journalist.

Then I`d be free to observe him and reach my own conclusions. I was grateful to observe this politician (who has and shall remain nameless) at close quarters and of course didn`t use anything from the discussions in my piece as it would have embarrassed him.

With Taseer you got what you saw. It wasn`t necessarily the same with others. But it was clear to me he meant the politician well and, at the same time, couldn`t resist the temptation to be naughty. (His wit came to be known to a wider audience in the form his sharp Tweets as they brought a smile, even laughter, to many using social media.)

I found out from him much later that he`d called the politician sometime after we`d been to visit him and told him who I was. The two had a hearty laugh at what the other saw as Taseer`s harmless prank. We were to meet once more and talked on the phone a few times.

Taseer built a huge empire but even his worst critics never lifted a finger to allege any impropriety, corrupt practice or misuse of political connections. His conglomerate could only be attributed to his business acumen.

But he was human and wasn`t perfect as some of the employees, including journalists, working in his media companies, used to complain about far-from-ideal working conditions and sometimes of work going unremunerated.

One could also disagree with his somewhat confrontational politics as the governor which was lauded by the PPP jiyalas who had seen the inside of a government building probably for the first time since 1977 as he threw open the doors of the Governor`s House to them.

He assumed a larger-than-life stature, an iconic status, for me with his unqualified support to one of the most dispossessed segments of our society, the minorities. Who wouldn`t recall how he rushed to a Punjab village, Gojra, where the homes of Christians came under attack and were torched.

He was one of the first leaders to reach the hospital when worshipping Ahmadis came under attack by terrorists in Lahore who killed nearly 100 unarmed civilians and injured an even greater number.

And of course his photograph alongside Aasia Bibi in the office of the prison superintendent when he went to meet the Christian woman convicted of blasphemy under the country`s controversial law remains a lasting image.

It is said a picture is worth a thousand words. My thoughts on Salmaan Taseer were triggered by a front-page picture in this newspaper on Thursday of his son and daughter attending a vigil to mark the first anniversary of that horrible tragedy that saw the governor murdered. Murdered by one of his own police guards.

The next day`s (Friday) Dawn had two pictures which yet again brought into sharp focus the battle between Zia`s poisonous ideology filled with bigotry, hate and intolerance and Jinnah`s vision of a democratic, egalitarian and tolerant Pakistan.

The first was on the front page. The national flag-draped coffins of the 15 Frontier Constabulary men kidnapped and killed by the terrorists belonging to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

It`s the TTP isn`t it with which, the ISI leadership reportedly told members of a parliamentary committee recently, talks are taking place that`ll yield surprising results? One can only hope the talks yield less dramatic results than the tragic murder of our valiant defenders on the frontline.

The second picture was on an inside page. A handful of civil liberties activists were lighting candles in the capital for that slain Quetta police surgeon, Dr Baqir Shah. He testified before the Kharotabad Commission, told the truth but was never given the protection he was promised.

Don`t these pictures bring home another sad truth? Those who stand for a tolerant Pakistan now seem only to have the space to light candles at remembrances for fallen icons while those opposed to them are free to pile as many bodies as they want, where and when they want.

The army and its security services are often rightly blamed for patronising groups of deranged zealots as the security establishment deems them vital to national defence. One can point to many other similar suicidal policies.

But how many times have we focused attention on the political parties in the country who have been elected on a liberal agenda but have now sacrificed each principle at the altar of expediency. Only because they lacked the will to govern, and to govern effectively.

As much as I`d like to only remember Taseer`s smiling face, it is difficult to forget the bearded, seemingly swollen and demented face of his killer. One has seen that face in many, many faces in our blighted land.

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan

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