Perspectives on Pakistan
Guest contribution-a tribute to Shahbaz Bhatti
(The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The writer is Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK)
SHAHBAZ BHATTI: A TRIBUTE TO A BRAVE HEART
By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Shahbaz Bhatti’s memorial meeting at the Pakistan High Commission (March 16) was a profoundly sad occasion for all to remember a person who laid down his life for a united and strong Pakistan.
This tribute to him is a humble acknowledgement – in solemn gratitude – of his selfless struggle for the high and noble ideals he so cherished. Those ideals have been a clarion call for every Pakistani to make his country – our country – a place where every citizen has equal rights without fear or favour.
Bhatti laid down his life at a time when he was most needed. In his official capacity, he represented the interests of Pakistan’s religious minorities. However, Bhatti also stood for the vision of Pakistan’s founding father, Quaid-e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that in Pakistan all its citizens will enjoy equal rights, irrespective of caste, creed, colour or gender. Its politics was to be characterised by pluralism, the rule of law, the freedom to practice all faiths and that religion will have nothing to do with the business of the state.
Therefore, it would not be a befitting tribute to the fallen hero if he is just branded as a leader of the minorities or Christians. He belonged to all those brave hearts ready to sacrifice for the alleviation of the sufferings of the common people. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer died for the same noble ideals. So did Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.
The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti has been a great blow to Pakistan. And what is more shocking is the lukewarm attitude of the great majority including intellectuals, liberals and members of civil society. Lest we have forgotten, let us remember the famous statement of Martin Niemoller. If we keep silence we could all be next.
“First they came…” is the famous statement attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group as follows:
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
“Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
“Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
“Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me”.
At this juncture of our history when we are in a battle to “do or die” all Pakistanis will have to rise and raise our voices to counter those who are hell-bent in destroying Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan. The nation’s best revenge would be to revive Mr Jinnah’s vision of a tolerant, progressive, liberal and egalitarian Pakistan ensuring Islamic social justice to all its citizens – irrespective of caste, creed, colour or gender.
As a youth Shahbaz Bhatti was the rising star as the crusader for the rights of the less privileged. Bhatti founded the Christian Liberation Front (CLF) in 1985 while still a student leader. The CLF initiative was a brave decision to counter the deteriorating treatment of non-Muslims under the regime of General Zia (1977-88). His group was violently opposed from the start. In 1992 CLF launched the first national campaign against the blasphemy laws introduced by General Zia.
In 2002, Bhatti and comrades founded the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), and Bhatti was unanimously elected to lead this nationwide coalition of minority representatives and NGOs. It succeeded in convincing the government to replace the separate electorate system, described as “religious apartheid”, under which religious minorities could vote only for candidates of their own faith.
As federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti was always working for his people. His achievements include a 5 percent increase in quota for minorities in government jobs, the first minority seats in the Senate and a 24-hour minorities helpline. He further launched a network of “district interfaith harmony committees” to encourage dialogue and unite communities through common concerns.
Just as the Zia regime blasphemy laws should not be portrayed as a ‘religious minority issue’, Bhatti’s death reflects a problem of relevance to all Pakistanis. His focus was to stop the abuse of religion as a divisive force, seeking to lessen the space in which hate speech thrives. He encouraged open dialogue and cooperation between neighbours of different backgrounds and opinions by ushering in interfaith harmony.
It is a thought-provoking truth that the most important aspects of Bhatti’s work were never covered by the media. Over the course of 2010 he quietly and consistently negotiated possible amendments to the blasphemy laws with his political colleagues, including those most naturally opposed to change of any kind. He sought a consensus from which a bill of amendments was to be launched and approved by the National Assembly. Most importantly, he saw Pakistan leading the way by example through its ‘District Interfaith Harmony Committees’ and other such initiatives.
It is time for us to make a resolve that the work Shahbaz had started won’t be abandoned. As a living monument to his memory his dream for the establishment of an International Centre for Interfaith Harmony in Islamabad must soon become a reality. We must also hope that it will become possible for the other brave voices to step forward; for there are undoubtedly many already working diligently to improve the plight of their less privileged countrymen.
Let there be no doubt that overwhelming majority of Pakistanis will defeat the forces of obscurantism with determination and resilience. In conclusion I will refer to a verse of Holy Quran:
“…If anyone kills a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all people. And if anyone saves a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all people” (Qur’an 5:32).
*Wajid Shamsul Hasan, High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK on the Memorial Function for martyred Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti (March 16, 2011)