What is crippling for the minorities and liberals within Pakistan is the deafening silence from all institutions of the state.

Not that more evidence was needed but the extent of intolerance that has come to haunt Pakistani society was again apparent in the National Assembly soon after the assassination of federal Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti on March 2. As the House rose to observe two minutes' silence for the Minister, who was gunned down near his residence in the federal capital earlier that day, three legislators kept sitting, refusing to show the most basic of courtesies extended to the dead.

As with Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, it was what ensued in the wake of Bhatti's assassination that denied the moderates of Pakistan the comfort of viewing religious fanaticism as something peripheral to their society.

Survival instincts made the political leadership — which anyway lives in perpetual wariness of its own shadow, courtesy various coups — run for cover. The always-ready-with-a-byte politicians were nowhere to be seen. Nor were their spokespersons bombarding reporters with condolence messages. To be fair, some of them, including Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, attended the funeral service but most preferred to keep a low profile.

Although the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) underscored that, as always, the blood of one of its own cadres had been spilled, the leadership's public statements placed the assassination under the rubric of terror instead of the larger malaise that is eating into the very vitals of the country. And, again there was reluctance to accord Bhatti the honorific of shaheed in a country where martyrdom is ordained on all victims of unnatural deaths.

Add to this the suggestion that Bhatti invited his bloody end upon himself, with his advocacy of amendments in the blasphemy law to prevent its misuse. And, the visual media — which otherwise tend ad nauseam to offer coverage of certain issues — were done with the assassination story within hours. Commenting on the coverage, journalist Urooj Zia wrote: “Perhaps they thought it didn't matter — Bhatti was, after all, ‘just another Christian' killed for his beliefs in a country that has made targeting minorities a sport.”

And, yes, the conspiracy theorists were not far away though the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan had left its footprint on the assassination in the form of pamphlets referring to Bhatti's position on the blasphemy law. These pamphlets could have been a decoy but the TTP did take responsibility for the attack by making calls to its regular contacts in the media. Still, the conspiracy theory that there was a “foreign hand” gained currency and made it to the mainstream media.

‘Foreign hand'

With the saga of Raymond Davis, U.S. Embassy staffer in Pakistan's custody since January-end for gunning down two ‘armed' locals in “self-defence,” still unfolding, the “foreign hand” theory was easy to sell. Particularly because the days preceding Bhatti's assassination saw the American's cover being blown and people treated to liberal doses of his Central Intelligence Agency links and the resultant stand-off between the American spy organisation and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence.

By design or default, the mainstream narrative moved away from Bhatti's assassination rather swiftly and it was left to the few vocal liberal voices to keep the issue alive against the odds. Even the debate in the National Assembly focussed primarily on a possible security lapse and the usual blame game.

What is crippling for the minorities and liberals is the deafening silence from all institutions of the state. Despite Bhatti's assassination exposing the futility of its strategy of retreat — adopted following the criticism of government-led attempts to amend the blasphemy law late last year and Taseer's felling — the executive opted to remain in its cocoon.

The writ of the state, according to civil society, is challenged on a daily basis but the executive has turned a Nelson's eye. This is true not just in the case of fatwas issued by clerics ordaining death for people deemed blasphemers but also hate literature. Banners have mushroomed in major cities terming the author of Blasphemy, Tehmina Durrani, “Pakistan's Taslima Nasreen” and demanding that she be hanged. These banners were found even in Islamabad, where the Capital Development Authority goes after the smallest violation and posters cannot be put up without permission.

From what Ahmed Rashid has to say, even the Army appears to be on the defensive. “For its part, the army has so far failed to express regret about either Bhatti's murder or Taseer's. The army chief General Ashfaq Kayani declined to publicly condemn Taseer's death or even to issue a public condolence to his family. He told western ambassadors in January [following assassination] that there were too many soldiers in the ranks who sympathise with the killer, and showed them a scrapbook of photographs of Taseer's killer being hailed as a hero by fellow police officers. Any public statement, he hinted, could endanger the army's unity,” wrote the author of Descent into Chaos in The New York Review of Books blog.

Mindful of the criticism from within and overseas, President Asif Ali Zardari sought to bill what is widely seen as appeasement of ‘religious' right-wing forces by his government as a calibrated approach shorn of hot rhetoric. Advocates of this line in the PPP say their government has become the “sole whipping boy for a malaise that grew over decades.” Can a Frankenstein created and unleashed 40 years ago be caged and killed in three years is their counter to the perception that the government, by erring on the side of caution and repeatedly stating the blasphemy law would not be amended, has given a fresh licence to the religious right-wing.

The PPP also insists that contextualisation of these assassinations under the rubric of terror with no reference to the blasphemy debate is not appeasement but a reflection of the ground reality. “The common denominator — in the violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Swat/Malakand, Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, Balochistan, South Punjab, Taseer and now Bhatti — is religious justification, a religious call to arms.

“Today, this violence has taken a mass, methodical, and targeted form to instil fear among people, politicians and state to achieve certain political objectives. That comes under [the] standard definition of terrorism. Earlier, it was just sectarianism, blasphemy and Kashmir, all nicely compartmentalised. Today, it is much more and converging. Count in the Davis affair also. All these scattered strands are rooted in one source: organised, religion-based politics and its use of systematic violence.”

With the legislature and, by extension, the political class — barring a few — beating a retreat, there is neither pressure on nor support for the executive to take on the religious right-wing. There are a few notable exceptions but even they, like the former Minister Sherry Rehman, have been advised to lie low in the wake of death threats. Ms Rehman has also faced criticism from within civil society over the timing of her draft legislation to amend the blasphemy law to prevent its misuse.

Of the view that silence is no longer an option and that blaming each other is counterproductive, Supreme Court Bar Association president Asma Jehangir wrote in The Express Tribune that the two assassinations compel “our political parties to now take a united stand against the extra-judicial killings of their own leadership by groups who believe they are acting in the name of religion.”

Commenting on the legal system, Ms Jehangir noted: “Lawyers are terrified to prosecute an accused of so-called blasphemy murder and judges hesitate to try such cases.” According to Citizens for Democracy — an umbrella organisation of civil society activists trying to mobilise opinion on the blasphemy law — a petition submitted in February to the Chief Justice of Pakistan to take suo motu notice of vigilantism and incitement to violence has not drawn any response so far.

But, as academic and spokesman of the music group ‘Laal,' Taimur Rahman, points out, civil society — often ridiculed in drawing-room talk as “armchair critics” — will also have to move beyond conventional approaches to deal with the situation that has developed because of collective inaction.

“In the final court of history, only people are the final arbiters of a new society. I believe the people are on our side provided we believe in them, educate them, and organise them. If we put 50,000 people on the streets today, we could reverse the tide of extremism. Indian civil society strongly believes in going to the people, and mobilising them for progressive causes. This is why they are successful whereas we try to find a way around this essential work every time. This is hard work and the long route but really, do we have a choice anymore?”

For now, however, fear has taken up residence in the face of institutional silence. There is also the apprehension that attacks on minorities and freedom of expression could easily morph into a diktat on how life should be conducted, what women should wear, … Though such prophecies of Pakistan going the Afghanistan way seem rather over the top even in the present scenario of widespread despondency, the fear is being voiced as the country staggers from one crisis to another. And those with dual nationalities — there are many who have a foreign passport — consider exercising the exit option.

More In: Lead | Opinion