Manufacturing a ‘hero’

Beena Sarwar

The assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer has been termed a 'watershed moment' for Pakistan - not just because a sitting governor of the country's wealthiest and most populous province was murdered in broad daylight by one of his own security guards. Perhaps the greater shock was how the murderer, Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, was allowed to commit this crime and how many hailed him as a hero for having killed someone perceived (falsely) as being guilty of 'blasphemy'. 

That Qadri was assigned to guard the Punjab governor raises questions about the working of the security apparatus. How could a man who was dismissed from Special Branch because of his extremist views be assigned to guard a high-profile target already under threat from extremists - especially since the murderer reportedly requested this guard duty? 

Further, why were standard operating procedures not followed when the first shot was fired? Why did the other guards just stand by and allow Qadri to empty not one but two clips of his submachine gun into the unarmed governor? They arrested Qadri after he threw up his hands in surrender, handling him with utmost care and respect. Why was a man who had just murdered a helpless man not even cuffed?

To top it all, how was the opportunity created to transform Qadri into a celebrity? Who informed people about his court appearances, resulting in crowds gathering, chanting slogans and showering him with rose petals? Television cameras broadcasted all this, further glorifying the murderer. These slogans, and the banners and posters supporting Qadri that have cropped up around the country, have not only turned this man's cowardice - in shooting at an unarmed victim - into some kind of heroism, it has also resulted in further intimidation of anyone who supports amendments to the controversial, man-made 'blasphemy laws'.

Such was the manufactured hype and propaganda around Qadri's supposed act of valour that a group of lawyers, mostly supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) and PML (Quaid-e-Azam), hailed him as a hero and vowed to fight his case pro bono. And these are the people who are supposed to uphold the rule of law.

Then there was the preposterous video clip of the murderer in police custody, singing a naat (religious song), apparently filmed by a policeman on his cellphone and released to the media and the internet.

The Glorification of Qadri's criminal act of murder could not be possible without the vilification of Taseer's supposed 'blasphemy' - for which there is not an iota of evidence anywhere. The build-up to the murder owes much to the Pakistani TV talk shows and channels that perpetuated this false propaganda against the governor. This propaganda is what led to the widespread belief that the governor was somehow, preposterously, guilty of his own murder - in much the same way that attention is diverted to what a rape victim was wearing or doing. 

The media editors and bosses belatedly realised the effect that the constant exposure of Qadri was having. According to a senior inside source at a major TV channel, they have since got together and agreed informally to 
cut down on such coverage that was serving only to glorify the murderer. 

The 24/7 news channels amplified the outrageous propaganda of the 'religious right' that preceded the murder of Taseer, apparently because he took up the case of Aasiya Noreen, the poor Christian woman sentenced to death by a sessions court for 'blasphemy'. Taseer tried to obtain a presidential pardon for her even before her case came up for hearing before the Lahore High Court, which must confirm the death sentence or acquit the accused. Taseer did not say anything that organisations like the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) have not been saying for years but he was flamboyant about it, while being a political thorn in the side of the Punjab government.

There was propaganda also against Sherry Rehman, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) parliamentarian who has submitted a bill to amend the 'blasphemy laws' in order to prevent their abuse and misuse. The propaganda against her included the outright lie that she was acting alone and had not taken other parliamentarians into confidence. The truth is that she had lobbied extensively behind the scenes and even got the opposition PML-N to agree not to oppose the bill once it was tabled. 

The agreement of the TV channels to avoid publicising Qadri's words and deeds, although belated, is a welcome step. The next step is to take criminal action against all those indulging in hate speech and incitements to murder. Some citizens have begun to register such complaints with the police. Will the government stand by them?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2011