I have a special interest in Aasia Bibi’s case because it was the assassination of Salmaan Taseer that shook most of my worldview and lead me to a completely different path in life. It coincided with my political awakening. I was a 4th-year medical student at the time (January 2011) when the incident took place and I started my new journey. I grew up in a conservative, Salafi family in small town Punjab. I had always been a bookworm, interested in reading the news and reading all kinds of books (more in Urdu than English, mostly because books in Urdu were much more accessible to me). When my classmates in high school were busy memorizing textbooks for history, I was reading books in the school library that had not been read for ages (including both English and Urdu books). I was more interested in biographies and didn’t read (or had access to) books on politics and social sciences written in English. I was curious but didn’t have enough material to understand my own curiosity.
I was aware of the Aasia Bibi case and considered it a bigoted attempt by the village folk as a way to settle scores (not an uncommon occurrence in Punjab, my homeland). I was heartened to see Governor Taseer’s photos in the news when he visited Aasia. I had actually written a letter to Governor Taseer about some issue with our university exam (Governor of Punjab is the de facto Chancellor of all public universities in the province) a week before he was assassinated. From a political standpoint, I did not like him because he had been used by Zardari (President of Pakistan at the time and belonging to Pakistan Peoples Party-PPP) as a pawn to keep the PML(N) government in the bay. It was during this period that photos from some private events attended by the Taseer family were ‘leaked’ on social media. They showed the Taseer family in swimming pools and the ladies in swimsuits (which was considered too much skin). Those photos were circulated on Facebook and then on news channels by both PML(N) folks and later by the religious right which had started calling for Salmaan Taseer’s head after he visited Aasia in jail.
At the beginning of January 2011, I had taken part in an inter-collegiate competition taking place in Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and was still living in the slightly less-bigoted mindset that was present in LUMS. The assassination on January 4th, 2011 took place a day after I came back from LUMS. A few short years before that, Lawyers movement (2007-08) had swept urban parts of Pakistan in a frenzy and it felt like a new era for raising your voice, to demand greater freedoms. Some of my friends from high school had played an active role in the movement and LUMS had been a citadel of resistance during those days. The band, Laal (meaning Red) had sung some of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poems and made a wonderful video talking about protest. After 8 years of Musharraf’s ‘hung democracy’, the politico were back in action. (Side Note: for admission to 11th grade in a military-run boarding school, I had to write an essay on demoracy in pakistan (in 2004) and I used the words ‘hung democracy’ in my essay. I got admitted. Omar Ali of BP went to the same school.) There used to be a ‘study circle’ oraganised by some LUMS students (current and former), who had taken active part in the Lawyers movement, at a place on Jail Road, Lahore near my hostel which I had attended twice. During one of the sessions, Ashar Rehman (Taimoor Rehman-of Laal’s uncle and brother of Rashid Rehman, editor of Daily Times) talked about his days fighting alongside the Baloch against the Pakistan army and how he learned tactics of guerrila war from Che Guevara’s books. At the other session, a lady who used to be active in leftist circles in the 1940s (I believe it was Tahira Mazhar Ali, Tariq Ali’s mother) talked about the freedom she enjoyed in those times, roaming Lahore in her tonga.
It was around 4 pm on January 4, 2011 and I was taking a siesta (ah, good old days) when I heard someone in the hostel gallery laugh out loud. Those were exam days and many people were still enjoying the winter holidays so it felt unusual. I looked at my phone and saw a text message from a dear friend from high school (he had been very active on social media during the lawyers movement and took part in a few street protests as well). The text read: there is no hope for enlightened change in this country. I checked twitter and saw posts from someone confirming that Salmaan Taseer had been shot to death in Kohsar Market, Islamabad.
The laughter I had heard was from a classmate of mine who was laughing at the fact that ‘they killed Salmaan Taseer’. I am by no means a violent man but at that moment, something took over me. I started shouting at my classmate and said some bad things about him that I forgot within the next five minutes. A senior of ours came over to my room and consoled me. I was angry and I was crying. It was almost time for the evening prayers (Maghrib) and I was a regular at the nearby mosque (which was situated between our hostel and the hospital/medical school campus). I went and said the prayers and as soon as they ended, I stood up and said, I want to say something to you all. There were about 15-20 people at the mosque and usually people from the Tableeghi Jamaat (a proselytizing group) did announcements for their events after prayers. Initially, people thought I was with the Jamaat until I said my next few words. I had to weigh what I said but it was such a heavy burden on my conscience that I couldn’t just shut up. I said I hope you all know what happened today and I hope that you have the courage to condemn it. In those days, social media was not as popular as it is now and only about 4-5 people had any idea what I was saying. By the time I said it, the Imam asked me to sit down and let him say the final dua. I knew I had made my point so I shut up and finished the rest of prayers.
When I had finished my prayers and was exiting the mosque, two middle-aged men approached me and asked what had happened. They had not heard the news yet so I told them and they told me in no uncertain terms that Salmaan Taseer had it coming. I tried arguing with them for a few minutes, saying that he merely criticized the law which is made by humans and humans can make mistakes. They were not willing to concede that blasphemy law was a human-manufactured law and believed that blasphemy should result in a death penalty. After a few minutes, I got irritated and separated ways. I felt really uneasy in the hostel so I walked over to a friend’s house who lived nearby. I was talking to him when his mother entered the living room. She is a lawyer and I thought she would have a slightly better view on this issue than the lay perosn. Lo and behold, when she heard me talk about the Salmaan Taseer (ST) issue, she started parroting the same narrative that I had heard on the mosque’s steps from the two strangers. I tried arguing with her about the laws of evidence (Aasia bibi was ultimately freed because of weak chain of evidence, among other things) but she was insistent that I was wrong. I swallowed my anger and continued chatting with her son.
I went back to the hostel late at night and tried doing something that I had some rudimentary knowledge of. I made a video monatge using Windows Movie Maker. The background music was from Laal band’s work and the video included some audio that I had recorded on my phone of Salmaan Taseer’s interview to the BBC. I added some photos of Salmaan Taseer’s father M.D.Taseer and his appointment to the United Nations in late 1940s and the right-wing rallies that had banners and placards calling for ST’s death. The video/montage can be seen here.
I posted the video on Facebook and twitter and sent it to few media people I knew. One of my facebook friends, a Pakistani journalist based in the US, shared that on her Facebook profile and on twitter. ST’s daughter, Shehrbano, saw the video and wrote to her that ‘no daughter deserves to see her father’s bullet-riddled body’ and wanted me to remove those particular photos, which I eventually did. My journalist friend started a secret group on Facebook and added some of the leading progressive voices (mostly journalists and activists) there (BP’s Omar Ali was also in that group). It was/still is a small circle and I’ve either met most people in real life or have known about their work/life through mutual friends and acquaintances. I realised in those days that the liberal/secular minority in Pakistan is very small in numbers (but has an outsized role in the media/academia obviously).
A few months prior to all this happening, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert had organised ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ in Washington D.C. On Facebook, in the aftermath of ST’s assassination, I saw an event of the same name to take place in Lahore. I was excited to attend the rally, slated to take place at Liberty Chowk, an important and busy roundabout in Lahore near Liberty market. It was on a sunday afternoon so I expected there to be about 50-70 people. When I arrived at the venue at the given time, I saw no more than 20 people standing at the roundabout holding placards. Having taken part in some protests in my student life, I was a bit disappointed by the turn out. Upon closer inspection, a majority of the people there were from the transgender community and they left soon after due to some ‘message problem’ with the organisers. Christian activists had also been invited to the protest but they had declined to come and after the transgender people left, there were hardly 8-10 ‘protestors’ which is less than the number of people waiting on a sunday afternoon at the liberty roundabout bus stop. The remaining protestors started marching towards what used to be Kalma Chowk and that is where I turned around and left. During the walk, I met an elderly gentleman who was in the advertising bussiness and had come all the way from Islamabad to be part of the march. He was visibly angry at the fake leftist uncles in Lahore who had preferred spending a lazy sunday afternoon in their cocoons instead of showing up for the greater cause (his words). He had been active in political activism since the days of PPP’s rise in the late 1960s. His name was Shoaib Mir and he passed away in May 2018. At the rally, I learned that the organisers were gathering two days later at a nearby place called ‘Institute of Peace and Secular Studies’ (IPSS).