The day Salman Taseer fell silent
LAHORE: “I remember Bhutto saying history is written in the blood of martyrs,” Salman Taseer said while giving an interview to monthly Herald in 2008, two years before he was gunned down by his security guard in Islamabad.
His violent death adds another bloodstained chapter to the history of a country that has been frequently held hostage by agents of hatred. Taseer was born in 1946.
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His father Mohammad Deen Taseer (famously known as M.D. Taseer) was a poet and guides to legends like Faiz Ahmed Faiz as well as being one of the founders of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in the 1930s.
His mother Christabel (Bilquees) was a British leftist activist and elder sister of Alys, later Alys Faiz. The two sisters had left their homes and come to India where they met their future husbands.
Taseer studied at Saint Anthony’s School and the Government College Lahore — institutions where he was a few years senior to Nawaz Sharif.
In the 1960s, he went to England to study accountancy. Early in his professional career, he successfully set up two chartered accountancy and management consultancy firms in the UAE and Pakistan.
In 1994, he established First Capital Securities Corporation Limited (FCSC), a full-service brokerage house and had been actively involved in establishing other companies in the financial services sector as well as the telecommunications, media, insurance and real estate/property development sectors in Pakistan.
Taseer authored a number of articles on investment and financial subjects.
When he picked up the pen to write on politics, there was little surprise that he chose Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as his topic. The outcome was ‘Bhutto: A political biography’.
Taseer’s association with the Pakistan People’s Party went way back in time. In his maiden speech after taking charge as governor of Punjab in 2008, he declared that he wanted to turn Lahore into another Larkana for the PPP.
He was elected to the Punjab Assembly from Lahore in the 1988 election. That was his only electoral victory and he lost the elections in 1990, 1993 and then in 1997.
Taseer was among the PPP stalwarts who were drawn to Gen Pervez Musharraf, even though he did not formally join the general’s establishment until agreeing to be a federal minister for commerce and industry in the caretaker set-up of Muhammadmian Soomro in 2007-08.
While the caretakers wrapped up after overseeing the general election in 2008, the tag of being a Musharraf associate stuck to Taseer until his death.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz strongly criticised his appointment as governor in May 2008. The PML-N called him a Musharraf’s man “installed to destabilize its government in Punjab”.
Over the next two and a half years, Taseer was involved in a war of words with the PML-N, especially Shahbaz Sharif’s law minister Rana Sanaullah.
The worst in the series came when Sanaullah targeted the Taseers in a malicious campaign that found the law minister distributing ‘objectionable’ pictures of the governor’s family among media personnel and MPAs outside the Punjab Assembly.
Salman Taseer was not known to take any accusation leveled against him lying down and would react with anger to anything that was thrown his way.
And he was not averse to initiating a few attacks and a few controversies of his own. He was perhaps the only man from his party to have raised voice for the construction of Kalabagh dam. He said the dam was the “need of the hour”.
As governor, he frequently clashed with the Sharifs. He invoked his experience as a fortune-maker as he sought to win over Punjab’s trading community and applying his own ideology to paint the Sharifs as the supporters of extremist groups.
He was severe on both Shahbaz Sharif and Rana Sanaullah after some photographs which made it to the newspaper pages showed the provincial law minister currying favor with leaders of a banned outfit in the run-up to a bye-election in Jhang last year.
Later on in the year, Sanaullah targeted the governor for disappearing and going on a clandestine visit abroad, leaving the province without its constitutional head.
Taseer remained defiant in the face of punches thrown at him. Sometime later he turned up in person at a Lahore photo exhibition to prove his detractors wrong after a section of the media had reported that he had gone on another of his foreign missions.
Taseer never made any secret of his take on the Sharifs with whom he had long and unsuccessfully contested power in Lahore and Punjab. It appeared as if he was eager to use his position as the governor to press his case.
Taseer was also tortured by police in November 1992 when Nawaz Sharif was the prime minister — an incident which he later remarked had rid him of all fears about his person.
In what could have led to his assassination, he also followed a line on the blasphemy law which was independent of the PPP. He spoke with passion about the case of Aasia Bibi who had been sentenced to death by a lower court and even committed to seeking a presidential pardon for her.
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This landed Taseer in trouble with a group of people who accused him of trying to protect a blasphemer. There were protests outside the Governor’s House in Lahore and rallies in other parts of the country. Some relatively less known clerics issued edicts calling for his head. This led to concerns being expressed about his safety, something he himself was not always too bothered about.
Governor Taseer was all too keen to steal a few moments for himself, his family and friends from the hectic itinerary he had to follow as the constitutional head of the province of Punjab.
Farrukh Shah, his media adviser, said Taseer would often “prefer to move without security” and would say he was not afraid of death.
A couple of messages Salman Taseer sent out during his last days sum up his views on what turned out to be the last of his many battles.
The son of a poet, he quoted Faiz in a television interview:
‘Rakht-i-dil baandh lo, dil figaro chalo / Phir hameen qatl ho aayen yaaro chalo’
(Let’s charge our bruised hearts and go; Come, friends, let it be our heads again).
As a man keen to stay abreast with times, he tweeted on the Internet only days before his assassination:
“I was under huge pressure sure 2 cows down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”