By Raja Asghar
Amid an international concern and national mourning over the assassination of Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, members of the National Assembly across party lines called on Thursday for a harder fight against terror and better protection to minorities.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani interrupted a house debate over Wednesday’s killing of the second state functionary falling victim to assassins’ bullets in Islamabad in less than two months over a controversial blasphemy law to make a belated announcement of three days of national mourning when, he said, the national flag would fly at half mast at government buildings.
Before that, in a rare move, all parliamentary groups on both the government and opposition benches joined a token walkout initiated by members of minority communities to mourn and condemn the killing of the cabinet’s only Christian member on an Islamabad street after an opposition Christian lawmaker set a defiant tone for the debate, complaining of a perceived atmosphere of discrimination against minorities in and outside the house and an apparent acquiescence of authorities to religious extremists.
The prime minister’s announcement of a three-day official mourning also came after all three Christian members who spoke before he arrived in the house had asked why the official mourning for Mr Bhatti was confined to a two-minute silence in the National Assembly on Wednesday while a national mourning was observed for then-Punjab province governor Salman Taseer after he was killed on Jan 4 by his own police guard outside a café in Islamabad.
International condemnations of the murder of a campaigner for inter-faith harmony included those from US President Barack Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Vatican, the British and Canadian prime ministers and the Indian government.
The debate in which more two dozen members spoke on Thursday, most of them calling for sterner action against extremist violence, was called on a suggestion from the prime minister on Wednesday to help his government formulate a new strategy to fight religious extremism.
He said then that he also planned to meet leader of parliamentary parties and convene a meeting of the Defence Committee of Cabinet, which also includes chiefs of armed forces.As the day’s main speaker from the treasury benches, Inter-Provincial Coordination Minister Raza Rabbani cited several constitutional guarantees of protection and equality for minorities and assured them the present PPP-led coalition government would “not only protect … but also implement each word of the constitution”.
But this assertion of the respected minister, who also urged all political parties to move towards a national agenda by putting aside their partisan agendas and promote a culture of tolerance to realise what he called the “dream of (Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali) Jinnah” in order to make Pakistan a true federation, was challenged by a razor-tongued opposition back-bencher.
The government “neither protected nor implemented (these constitutional provisions) because you have compromised with terrorists,” retorted PML-Q member Ms Marvi Memon, who also asked what action had been taken against the group that claimed responsibility for Mr Bhatti’s murder?
Mr Rabbani accused unspecified elements opposed to Pakistan playing its rightful role in the region of trying to break the culture of political tolerance evolved by political parties while opposing the Musharraf regime and said: “It is time for the Pakistani nation to do some inner reflection, because Pakistan is bleeding, Pakistan is haemorrhaging ….”
Initiating the debate, Ms Asiya Nasir, a Christian from Quetta, whose three colleagues from JUI-F had refused to stand up for two minutes silence in the house for Mr Bhatti on Wednesday, made the most poignant speech of the day, in which she chose to address the Quaid-i-Azam’s large portrait behind the Speaker’s chair asking if this was the kind of Pakistan he had visualised where she said the minorities were discriminated against and “treated like untouchables”.
She said her daughter told her on Wednesday after Mr Bhatti’s murder that “mom let us leave this country”, and she added she feared she could be next target. “It is time for us to be or not to be,” she remarked before leading the walkout by members of minority communities from all parties, to be joined later by all opposition parties as well as the PPP and its ally MQM.
Akram Masih Gill of the PML-Q said he was feeling “an atmosphere of prejudice” against minorities even inside parliament, regretting that despite the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Pakistan, it had been provided in the Constitution that only a Muslim could be elected president or prime minister of Pakistan.
PML-N’s Nelson Azeem told the house his son also begged him on Wednesday to leave Pakistan now but he said he would not do it “because of the graves of our elders here” and voiced fears that “a country attained in the name of Pakistan will be destroyed in the name of Islam”.
Senior PML-N figure Makhdoom Javed Hashmi made a passionate defence of equal rights of minorities, calling the killing of a moderate person like Mr Bhatti “a shot at the chest of Pakistan itself”, and said perpetrators of such acts were actually seeking to “deface Pakistan” and to lead it to “collective suicide”.
PML-Q chief whip Riaz Hussain Pirzada and some other speakers called for the constitution of a judicial commission to probe funds coming to extremist outfits.