Twenty-Seven. That’s the number of bullets a police guard fired into my father before surrendering himself with a sinister smile to the policemen around him. Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, was assassinated on Tuesday — my brother Shehryar’s 25th birthday — outside a market near our family home in Islamabad.
The guard accused of the killing, Mumtaz Qadri, was assigned that morning to protect my father while he was in the federal capital. According to officials, around 4:15 p.m., as my father was about to step into his car after lunch, Mr. Qadri opened fire.
Mr. Qadri and his supporters may have felled a great oak that day, but they are sadly mistaken if they think they have succeeded in silencing my father’s voice or the voices of millions like him who believe in the secular vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
My father’s life was one of struggle. He was a self-made man, who made and lost and remade his fortune. He was among the first members of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party when it was founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the late 1960s. He was an intellectual, a newspaper publisher and a writer; he was jailed and tortured for his belief in democracy and freedom. The vile dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq did not take kindly to his pamphleteering for the restoration of democracy.
One particularly brutal imprisonment was in a dungeon at Lahore Fort, this city’s Mughal-era citadel. My father was held in solitary confinement for months and was slipped a single meal of half a plate of stewed lentils each day. They told my mother, in her early 20s at the time, that he was dead. She never believed that.
Determined, she made friends with the kind man who used to sweep my father’s cell and asked him to pass a note to her husband. My father later told me he swallowed the note, fearing for the sweeper’s life. He scribbled back a reassuring message to my mother: “I’m not made from a wood that burns easily.” That is the kind of man my father was. He could not be broken.
He often quoted verse by his uncle Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of Urdu’s greatest poets. “Even if you’ve got shackles on your feet, go. Be fearless and walk. Stand for your cause even if you are martyred,” wrote Faiz. Especially as governor, my father was the first to speak up and stand beside those who had suffered, from the thousands of people displaced by the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 to the family of two teenage brothers who were lynched by a mob last August in Sialkot after a dispute at a cricket match.
After 86 members of the Ahmadi sect, considered blasphemous by fundamentalists, were murdered in attacks on two of their mosques in Lahore last May, to the great displeasure of the religious right my father visited the survivors in the hospital. When the floods devastated Pakistan last summer, he was on the go, rallying businessmen for aid, consoling the homeless and building shelters.
My father believed that the strict blasphemy laws instituted by General Zia have been frequently misused and ought to be changed. His views were widely misrepresented to give the false impression that he had spoken against Prophet Mohammad. This was untrue, and a criminal abdication of responsibility by his critics, who must now think about what they have caused to happen. According to the authorities, my father’s stand on the blasphemy law was what drove Mr. Qadri to kill him.
There are those who say my father’s death was the final nail in the coffin for a tolerant Pakistan. That Pakistan’s liberal voices will now be silenced. But we buried a heroic man, not the courage he inspired in others. This week two leading conservative politicians — former Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and the cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan — have taken the same position my father held on the blasphemy laws: they want amendments to prevent misuse.
To say that there was a security lapse on Tuesday is an understatement. My father was brutally gunned down by a man hired to protect him. Juvenal once asked, “Who will guard the guards themselves?” It is a question all Pakistanis should ask themselves today: If the extremists could get to the governor of the largest province, is anyone safe?
It may sound odd, but I can’t imagine my father dying in any other way. Everything he had, he invested in Pakistan, giving livelihoods to tens of thousands, improving the economy. My father believed in our country’s potential. He lived and died for Pakistan. To honor his memory, those who share that belief in Pakistan’s future must not stay silent about injustice. We must never be afraid of our enemies. We must never let them win.
Shehrbano Taseer, a reporter with Newsweek Pakistan.