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Imran missed a chance in Asia Bibi case

Shantanu Mukharji | Updated :

Pakistan was up in arms followed by frenzied violence following the Supreme Court’s extraordinary verdict acquitting Asia Bibi, the Christian woman tried on blasphemy charges. The country was held to ransom for several days by bigots and religious extremists with incidents of violence reported in several major cities including Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi.

What was most disturbing was the belligerent and ugly language used by zealots issuing life threats to the Judges of the Court and to senior officials of the armed forces. The tirade went on unbridled as the fanatics kept baying for blood of the judges and those in power. A nationally televised address by Prime Minister Imran Khan did not have any impact and the rioters had a field day ignoring pleas for calm.

The Imran Khan led government seemed completely clueless on how to deal with the turbulent situation leading to a great sense of insecurity to the advocate who defended Asia, compelling him to leave Pakistan with his family for a safe haven. Asia’s husband, equally petrified by death threats, has already found refuge at a safer location. They have valid reasons for fear as another advocate defending Asia Bibi in initial hearings, Salman Taseer, was killed by his own bodyguard in 2011.

What is worse is the reflection on poor governance of the Imran Khan government and its failure to instil a sense of security in citizens. It is the Dutch government that has come to the rescue of Asia Bibi as she is being flown to the Netherlands by a special chartered aircraft to ensure her safety. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs of Pakistan that despite armed forces’ full backing to the Imran administration, it failed to protect a single life just because the target is a member of the minority community.

The inability to provide security, whether false or genuine, suggests that the government does not care for minorities despite all tall claims or gestures such as extending greetings on festive occasions as shown recently for Diwali. The establishment’s claim of fighting terror tooth and nail has fallen flat.

It has also exposed the government’s close nexus with the fanatical outfit, TLP (Tehreek I Labaik Pakistan) that has been spearheading violent protests on Asia’s acquittal. Imran Khan and his partymen have come to lamentable notice not only for their bonhomie with TLP but also because Imran is reported to have repeatedly shied away from criticising TLP even before the elections.

Such an ostrichlike attitude and inertia on part of the Prime Minister casts a shadow on his credentials and raises suspicions whether the ruling party is at all serious about curbing terrorism or about containing religion-linked violence as triggered by the recent Asia verdict.

The Pakistani media has started coming down heavily on the lawlessness in the aftermath of the violence caused by the verdict. It has repeatedly questioned the government for its meek submission to clerics and their nasty parochial pursuits.

One thing is worth pondering. If Asia is allowed to leave the country, it is deemed as a triumph for radical forces. The zealots and anti-minority lobby in Pakistan will now feel emboldened that they have scored a point. It is ironical that the government will heave a sigh of relief that an encumbrance has been got rid of, a problem pushed away. Either way, it is a victory for the extremists.

However, the Pakistani government is mistaken if they believe their problems are over for good. Tomorrow, if any Ahmediya, any Hindu, any Shia, Parsi, Buddhist or Sikh is charged with blasphemy and acquitted, will the state allow violent religious protestors to take over the writ of the democratically elected government? Or will the State encourage liberal and tolerant countries like Holland to provide safe passage to and eventual rehabilitation of the victims?

According to available statistics (2012) with the National Database and Registration Authority ( NADRA), the Hindu population stands at 1,414,327; Christians number 1,270,051, Ahmediyas are 1,25,681, Bahais 33,734, Parsis 4,020 and Buddhists 1,492. Shias too are often targeted, falling to indiscriminate killings perpetrated by Sunni-led outfits inside Shia mosques or during Moharram processions. The State has failed to protect their lives. Only last year, a prominent Sufi centre of worship in Sindh province (Jhuley lal) came under attack and many lives were lost.

Giving safe passage is a bad trend. Imran Khan would have gone up in public estimation had he publicly stopped Asia from getting shelter in a foreign country. He perhaps lost a good opportunity to redeem his battered image as a secular leader.

It looks as if Pakistani society today is firmly in the grip of religious political groups notably the Labaik. It has to free itself from the shackles of theocracy and the diktats of bigots. Only then can the country towards a ‘Naya Pakistan‘.

The writer, a retired IPS officer, is a security analyst. The views are personal.