Mark Twain famously said that history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes. For me it clanged shrilly with the killing in Islamabad of Salman Taseer.
The Governor of Punjab province in Pakistan was shot dead on 4 January by his bodyguard and the news took me back 26 years to Indian Punjab when one similarly frosty winter morning the Prime Minister of India was assassinated by her security men. In both instances the killers raised their hands and proclaimed their deed, convinced that they had avenged a wrong. For Mrs. Gandhi’s killers it was revenge against the despoliation of their holiest shrine, Golden Temple; in the case of Mr. Taseer it was his stance against blasphemy laws that claimed his life.
That morning I had cycled to college as usual cutting through the fog that floated over from the fields shrouding the streets of our small town. Before lessons could begin we were informed that lectures were suspended and we were to proceed home. Violence was expected.
That was not unusual, the state of Punjab had been rife with militant activity for two decades. Mrs. Gandhi had galvanised an obscure Sikh preacher against the Akali party in Punjab in an attempt to divide the Sikh votes and gain electoral victory. However, as his fame spread Bhindranwale became the Frankenstein who threatened the very existence of India with his demand for a separate state of Khalistan for the Sikhs. During the Partition of India the state of Punjab had been bifurcated and the western part went to newly formed Pakistan, state of the pure. Now Bhindranwale was agitating for eastern Punjab to be made a separate nation of Khalistan, another state of the pure, where only Sikhs would reside.
Among the requirements bandied in the proposed state was a mandatory requirement for women to cover their heads. It sounded to me like the measures our neighbour Zia had put in place where female newscasters on Pakistan TV now routinely covered their heads.
During the period of militancy in Punjab the space for discourse shrank as people were killed because they were not hirsute enough. The Sikh faith ordains unshorn hair and it became common practice for militants to kill Hindus in buses and bazaars and businesses. I would travel on the state roadways bus from my hostel and run through my checklist in case the bus was held up by militants and inventoried for non-Sikhs. I wore a Kara, the steel bangle that is one of the five items of my faith; I wore my hair in long braids; and I made sure to remove my bindi – the felt forehead dot made into a fashion statement by a Bollywood actress. However I did thread my brows and upper lip – was that blasphemous? And then I would console myself with the thought that the rough uncouth men who made up the militants would never know the difference. My bus never got held up by militants, even while several others did, and I never got to find the answer.
In Pakistan the story is similar. When religion could not bind the disparate wings of the nation and Bangladesh was created, its leaders attempted to unite the nation and its polity through radicalised Islam. General Zia ul Haq is largely credited with the Islamization of Pakistan that resulted in the present blasphemy law condemning to death a person accused of insulting prophet Muhammad. Salman Taseer had opposed this law and was looking to overturn it, thus drawing the ire of fundamentalist clerics.
After three decades the militancy in Indian Punjab died down due to a variety of factors. A peace accord, an attempt to redress genuine grievances, decline in support for militants, a vigorous media… I like to believe that the Punjabis realized they were taking a good prosperous state down the tube, regained their senses and woke up from decades of being brainwashed.
Fundamentalists are looking to redefine what it means to be Muslim on a daily basis. Mr. Taseer was clearly not Muslim enough and for his support of a Christian woman was labelled a blasphemer in turn. His killer is being eulogized by a section of Pakistani society for his act of cold-blooded murder. He was garlanded when escorted to the courts and has overnight acquired Facebook pages and fans. Leading imams refused to lead funeral prayers for the assassinated Governor. A body of religious scholars issued strictures against attending his funeral. Clearly being Muslim means obliterating any space for debate.
Which makes me think if girls in Pakistan have begun creating their own checklists to stay safe in the increasingly vitiated environment? A laundry list of dos and don’ts on clothes, cosmetics, comportment and character to be certified by the zealous religious leaders.
Time for the moderate voice in Pakistan to pipe up. Before it gets too late.