Salmaan Taseer, the assassinated former Governor of the Punjab in Pakistan

Aatish Taseer, the estranged half-Indian son of assassinated Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal on July 16, titled, ‘Why My Father Hated India’.

It is a well written piece that argues rather well the roots of Pakistan’s obsession and enmity with India. The only problematic part is that Aatish Taseer offers rather tenuous evidence of his father’s ‘hatred’ towardsIndia. It is also problematic because, by that very act, Aatish Taseer leaves in suspicion the attitude and intent of the Pakistani liberal towards India that Salmaan Taseer had come to represent.

The reactions to the piece had been heated. And the tortuous debate seems to have been reduced to just two mutually hostile narratives, brazenly dismissive of the complexities, as well as of each other. Those in Pakistan who have jumped to Salmaan Taseer’s defence see nothing but malice in Aatish Taseer’s assertions, going so far as to even defend Pakistan’s military and stooping to undignified name calling. It has somehow been lost on them that at least Aatish, even in his harshest criticism of his father, was never disrespectful or that Salmaan Taseer had fallen victim to the very seeds of intolerance that the Pakistani military had sown and nurtured. On the other hand, those in India have found in Aatish’s assertions what they had always suspected, that even the ‘liberal’ in Pakistan is rabidly hostile to India and that there probably is not a single soul in Pakistan who was not an existential threat to the idea of India as a tolerant, liberal, pluralistic nation. This by itself should not be surprising. But when many seemingly reasonable and ‘liberal’ voices on both sides align themselves to either of these two narratives, a reality check is urgently required.

Let me then begin by what Aatish Taseer had himself written earlier. Horrified by the adulation Salmaan Taseer’s assassin received, Aatish wrote a movingly nuanced piece, ‘The killer of my father, Salmaan Taseer, was showered with rose petals by fanatics. How could they do this?’ (January 8, 2011, The Telegraph), which perhaps depicts Salmaan Taseer far more accurately. This is what he wrote:

“And yet I do mourn him, for whatever the trouble between us, there were things I never doubted about him: his courage, which, truly, was like an incapacity for fear, and his love ofPakistan. I said earlier thatPakistanwas part of his faith, but that he himself was not a man of faith. His Islam, though it could inform his political ideas, now giving him a special feeling for the cause of the Palestinians and the Kashmiris, now a pride in the history of Muslims from Andalusia to Mughal India, was not total; it was not a complete vision of a society founded in faith…He was a man in whom various and competing ideas of sanctity could function. His wish for his country was not that of the totality of Islam, but of a society built on the achievements of men, on science, on rationality, on modernity.”

Like Salmaan Taseer the man, the relationship between the father and the son was a complex one. Aatish Taseer may have given in to emotion and overstated his case to claim that his father hated India. This inaccuracy however does not negate the larger reality he quite persuasively puts forth, of Pakistan’s hostility to India; of the suicidal policies that has radicalised its society and polity to a perilous level; or that “the primary agent of this decline has been the Pakistani army”. Those in Pakistan who had stepped forth to defend Salmaan Taseer and the Pakistani army in the same breath would do well to coherently explain the irony of why did Salmaan Taseer have to stand up opposing an idea so primitive as the blasphemy law or had to give his life defending a Christian woman condemned to die as per such a law? They would also do well to realise that just because an Indian happens to be the critic of the fatal flaws that Pakistanseems to be in the grip of, criticism is by no means untrue, inaccurate or exaggerated.

Those who in India find Aatish Taseer’s claim that his father hated India as further proof of “every Pakistani is an enemy” would do well to remember that while Salmaan Taseer may have been derisive of India, that does not necessarily make him any less a ‘liberal’. They would do well to remember that at least he could find the courage to defiantly stand against the intolerance that claimed his life when many others chose the safety of silence, or even worse, the opportunism of acquiescence. May I remind that what Salmaan Taseer finally chose to stand against and die for is the very intolerance that thrives as an existential threat to India too? So what that he did that not for the love of India?

Those who would now accuse me of ‘equalising Pakistan’s morality to India’ or even worse, a ‘traitor’, would do well to remember that we in India have fared much better than Pakistan not because we are by nature better, more liberal or have no intolerance. We have fared better because we have been much more sensible in drawing the right lessons from the acts of intolerance that have scarred our past. It may be easier for me to say so because I do not cloak in the garb of nationalism our own sins while we accuse those who we stand in opposition to.

I do not believe that Salmaan Taseer hated India. That does not mean that he loved it either. When he lived, I found Salmaan Taseer’s tweets derisive of India in bad taste, not what is expected of a statesman. But in his courageous defiance of intolerance, and in laying down his life for what he believed in, he earned my respect. He did not necessarily have to love my country to earn that. And as long as there are more such ‘liberals’ in Pakistan, I shall not lose hope. I can live with the fact that they may not love us. I can live with their derisive tweets too.

That is how I find myself here, defending in his death, a man whose tweets I often found infuriating while he lived. It is because, like him, I too believe in liberalism and abhor intolerance; so what that his worldview would have been vastly different from mine or that we were born on opposing sides of a difficult divide?

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