|Government In A Quandary Over
Shahbaz Bhatti's Assassination
by TARIQ BUTT
No heads rolled when Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down in broad daylight on one of the busiest roads in Islamabad on January 4. And nobody has been penalised after Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead by unknown terrorists on March 2. It was mere coincidence that both the tragic incidents took place in the federal capital, which is the only area that exclusively falls in the domain of Interior Minister Abdur Rehman Malik as far as maintaining law and order is concerned. He is not concerned with keeping normalcy in the provinces and can only assist them when there is a formal call from them for aid.
Hardly anybody believes that the government will punish the negligent and delinquent officials in any way for the two high profile assassinations. This is because there is no realisation in top government circles about holding the lax lot, political or bureaucratic, accountable. Unless there is a clear and quick fixing of responsibility in such gruesome cases, there is no possibility that things would significantly get better in the near future.
After every such startling incident, the priority and emphasis of government leaders has always been on issuing umpteen bombastic statements day in and day out with the aim that the victims' heirs and the people at large would be greatly satisfied by the fact that the administration was very serious and alarmed about the assassinations and was out to do everything it can to track down the culprits. More reliance is placed on public statements rather than doing anything concrete to prosecute slack officials and to catch the murderers. The purpose of this exercise has always been to buy time in the hope that some other incident of a similar nature would overtake the high emotions caused by the previous episode. This is the standard practice that the government follows after every brutal killing.
However, after Bhatti's murder there were loud voices raised in the closed door federal cabinet meeting, also heard outside (meaning some discerning media men), were the demands that Interior Minister accept the responsibility of the grave security lapse. After the furore became too intense, Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani had to say that he was ready to resign because he heads the team that has the collective responsibility under the Constitution. But this drama did not lead to any solid result. Rather, it subdued the actual demand, asking for Abdur Rehman Malik's head. There are reports that the Prime Minister has been looking to get rid of Abdur Rehman Malik but could not do so because of the closeness of the Interior Minister to President Asif Ali Zardari. When cronyism rules supreme, there is little or no hope of any meaningful performance and improvement.
The matter did not end at the noisy interlude at the cabinet meeting that was held on the day Bhatti was gunned down. Even the National Assembly resounded with demands for the Interior Minister's resignation. His own Pakistan People's Party (PPP) colleagues happened to be in the forefront in urging him to step down as he has completely failed to not only protect the life and property of citizens but even dignitaries like Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer. Malik did not pay any heed to these calls, but responded that he would readily quit if a judicial commission found him responsible for any negligence in providing security to the slain minorities' minister. Demands of his resignation from the opposition benches are a routine affair and the government is at will to ignore them because its opponents are there to oppose everything and propose nothing. But when a set of its own MPs made such calls at the top of their voice, it means they too are sick and tired of the performance of the Interior Minister and want his ouster. But regardless of whatever happens, Malik is not going to be touched and would stay simply because of Zardari's love for him. He is known to be privy to so many secrets about the President. Zardari did not want to annoy him by throwing him out of the cabinet and make him bust everything, causing paramount damage. However, the Interior Minister's argument that Shahbaz Shahbaz Bhatti had himself refused security cover by 15 police and Frontier Constabulary guards during visits to his mother's house has substance. Maybe, the slain leader was fearful that if he had these guards with him he too would face the risk of being killed by one of them like Salman Taseer. But the Islamabad police and administration must have kept in mind that the minister has received constant threats to his life for his stand on the blasphemy law that he wanted to be changed to some extent. However, by not insisting on having security all the time, the government threw Bhatti at the mercy of the terrorists. Additionally, his refusal to get a second hand bullet proof vehicle was also not very intelligent. Till the time he would have got a brand new car, he should have used the old one for his own security. But keeping in view the severity of the threat, the President should have provided him a new one. The Prime Minister did well by rushing to the private hospital where Shahbaz Bhatti was shifted after the shooting. Again, Gilani's participation in his funeral rites in an Islamabad church sent a positive message at home and abroad that the government cares for the minorities and is strongly against terrorists. The government took the wise decision of declaring a three-day mourning period for the deceased. Besides, the outpouring of condemnation from the government and opposition, barring a few exceptions, did display a national consensus that the minorities have the constitutional rights, which should not be allowed to be trampled by any set of people.
The two assassinations raise extremely serious questions about the unprecedented security measures that abound in the fortified city of Islamabad. These gory incidents demonstrate that the tight steps that the administration has taken are not enough to deter terrorists. Had these measures instilled a modicum of fear in the minds of the criminals, they would not have killed Shahbaz Bhatti very conveniently on a busy road of a posh sector of the capital. The administration and police need to give serious thought to their strategy about the so called tight security measures. What these steps certainly do is cause hassle and nuisance to ordinary folks.
Undoubtedly, it is incumbent upon all the concerned state agencies to do everything possible to uncover the real culprits without loss of any time. Indeed, Bhatti's assassination has shattered public trust in the government and its agencies and created immense fear amongst the people. They become more scared for the mere fact that even a city like Islamabad was not safe. Public confidence would be largely restored if those responsible are caught in the near future and punished adequately. Even after facing a bout of attack, the Interior Minister remains entrenched in his office as expected. What he is now required to do is to personally supervise the process of tracing the terrorists, who painted Pakistan black in the international arena.