The late Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Christian federal minister for minorities was gunned down in Pakistan on March 2, 2011 at the age of 42 after he criticized the widespread misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Although his life was cut tragically short six years ago, he lives in the hearts of millions of down-trodden Pakistani minorities.
Mr Bhatti’s first experience of discrimination was at college when a lecturer denied him a front row seat in a classroom instead telling him to go to the back of the room. From then on he vowed to fight for equal rights for the Christians in Pakistan. He began studying the patterns of discrimination against Pakistani Christians. In 1985, he founded the “Christian Liberation Front”. Mr Bhatti invited Christians from across Pakistan to join his newly formed platform to help him advance the struggle for equal rights for the Christians. Disadvantaged Pakistani Christian men, women and youth passionately responded to Mr Bhatti’s call. By the 1990s Mr Bhatti had won the hearts of millions of Pakistani Christians because of his bold stance against the misuse of the blasphemy laws.
In 2002, Mr Bhatti founded All Pakistani Minorities Alliance (APMA) and waged an admirable struggle for the rights of all religious minorities in Pakistan until his assassination.
In 2008, he was given the portfolio of the Federal Minister for Minorities. Mr Bhatti continued to speak out against the misuse of Pakistani blasphemy laws and called for clemency for Aasia bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been behind bars since 2009 after having been accused of having committed blasphemy, an offence that carries the death penalty, if convicted.
Mr Bhatti’s strong advocacy for Aasia bibi drew death threats from militant organisations in the country. Undeterred by the threats, Mr Bhatti continued to speak against the misuse of the controversial laws. He remained true to his people.
During his time as the federal minister Mr Bhatti proposed that minorities be given a five percent quota in all government jobs. The demand for the job quota was subsequently accepted by the then Pakistan People’s Party government. Mr Bhatti’s APMA gave shelter to the family members of many minority people who had been accused of having committed blasphemy. Mr Bhatti was a true patriot. In 2005, when a devastating earthquake hit several parts of Pakistan, Mr Bhatti himself oversaw the relief and rescue activities in the areas that were hit by the earthquake. Shelters and food kitchens were set up in the affected areas as part of the relief efforts. In 2006, Mr Bhatti set up a school in the village, Boli, 4 kilometers from Balakot, a town in Mansehra district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. In 2010, when massive floods hit Pakistan Mr Bhatti instructed APMA workers across Pakistan to participate in rescue and relief efforts. Food hampers were given to people affected by the flood across Pakistan regardless of their religion.
On August 11, 1947 Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan while addressing the first constituent assembly of Pakistan had said: “You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or cast or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State ... Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”. Addressing public rallies in Pakistan Mr Bhatti would often refer to the aforementioned section of Jinnah’s speech. He was profoundly concerned over increasing polarisation in Pakistani society on religious, political, linguistic, provincial and ethnic lines.
In his speeches he would express his unease at the failure of successive Pakistani rulers to credit Pakistani minorities for their vote in favour of accession to Pakistan. Likewise, he would underline the need for the recognition of the services of Pakistani Christians in the fields of education and health. A number of Pakistani elites including the former Prime Minister of Pakistan the late Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, attended a Christian missionary school.
In recognition of his efforts aimed at promoting and safeguarding minorities rights in Pakistan he was given various international human rights awards such as the ‘International Awaz’ in 1999, the ‘International Liberty Award’ in 2004, and the ‘USCIRF International Freedom of Religion Award’ in 2009.
A few months ago I went to Thailand to interview Pakistani Christian asylum seekers there and met Mr Bhatti’s personal driver, Gulsher. Gulsher told me he had no choice but to flee Pakistan following the assassination of Mr Bhatti.
According to Gulsher the police allegedly tortured him for 14 days. “They would beat me with a club until I bled or became unconscious”, said Gulsher.
“I was contented with my life in Pakistan before this tragedy happened”, said Gulsher referring to the brutal assassination of Mr Bhatti.
He described Mr Bhatti as a “courageous” leader who would not be deterred from voicing the concerns of the Pakistani minorities despite having received death threats.
During my time in Pakistan I had the honour of meeting Mr Bhatti in person and like millions of others was impressed by his unwavering commitment to the cause of Pakistani minorities.
As I was being driven back to my hotel upon conclusion of this interview I reflected on Mr Bhatti’s bold struggle for minorities; his audacity of hope; his vision and the confidence he inspired in me and millions of people from the minorities in Pakistan that we should always stand up to those who try to deny us our fundamental human rights which are enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan.
Shahid Khan is based in the United Kingdom. His interests include human rights, religious freedom and foreign policy. He can be reached via Twitter @shahidshabaz