What implications would celebrating a murderer have on our national heritage narrative?

Published: April 1, 2016
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Protesters leave after a four-day-long Dharna in the capital’s red zone following successful talks. PHOTO: AFP

Now that Islamabad is back to some degree of normalcy after a frenetic four or so days, let’s emphasise on a particular aspect of the protests which we might have overlooked.

When the protesters managed to work out a sense of coherence within, they put forth a set of 10 demands. These demands, unlike the 10 commandments revealed to Moses, are ominous of a much darker reality. It’s not clear whether the government paid heed to all or some of the 10 demands, but a particular demand, which asked for the recognition of Salman Taseer’s murderer’s prison cell as a national heritage site, piques interest.

This demand is not such a novelty in history, but rather, quite a clever way to negotiate a person’s status posthumously. One example that comes to mind is South Africa’s Robben Island. This is where the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for about 18 years prior to the end of apartheid. Today, Robben Island, including the prison cell that held Mandela, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a South African National Heritage Site.

When a nation or state decides to put a particular person, historical event or even an idea on the esteemed pedestal of heritage, it then officiates the particular narrative that the entity in concern espouses. Mandela, in South Africa, is the symbol of South Africa’s journey through and out of apartheid. Coming back to Pakistan, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario where the Pakistani government actually agrees to the protesters’ demand.

What narratives would the government endorse if they chose to consider Salman Taseer’s murderer’s cell as a national heritage site?

What implications, if any, would celebrating a murderer have on our national heritage?

Mandela, in South Africa, signifies revolution and freedom, what does Salman Taseer’s murderer represent in Pakistan?

At any given time, there is an official heritage and an unofficial heritage, just like an official version of history and an unofficial, more vernacular, form of history. What is considered as the official, dominant heritage is then a matter of mere recognition and not an intrinsic quality of the object or person being considered as heritage.

Perhaps, it can be said that other lesser regarded discourses of heritage are competing for recognition with the dominant heritage which will either result in recognition or a lack of recognition. Bluntly put, the idea of considering Salman Taseer’s murderer’s cell as a national heritage site is in direct contestation with the dominant heritage of Pakistan, which we ‘wish’ to portray to the rest of the world. The dominant heritage of Pakistan is something everyone is familiar with; we see it in our grandiose mosques, the forts, the beautiful languages that showcase how nuanced the population is, the colourful festivals, the varieties in cuisine etc. etc.

When faced with all of these, Salman Taseer’s murderer does not fit the bill. Or does he?

It is important to take into account that a lack of official recognition of heritage does not mean a lack in regard for that heritage, as is the case with all ideas (political, religious and whatnot) circulating at any time in the society.

Away from the eyes of the state, a revered object or idea may still thrive, even if it’s not upheld by the majority. Although, as mentioned earlier, the details of the negotiations between the protesters and the government were not revealed, in time we will see if the Adiala prison cell receives recognition of any sort.

This inter-play of the two heritage narratives in Pakistan is disturbing, to say the least. Because, to be living in a country where a character like Salman Taseer’s murderer is revered should be enough to make us question all the dominant narratives propagated in the country since the outset. In a country where murderers are heroes and sinister truth is shrouded by a facade of piety, one can only expect a reversal of heritage narratives; a swapping of real moral standards with the counterfeit, easily available ones, which are already rampant in the country’s various cults of lip service.

This may seem polemical, but to see a change in trajectory of the heritage narrative of this region that commences from the glorious Indus Valley Civilisation, to the Gandharan era, the Bulleh Shahs, to the Heer Ranjhas, the mighty Mughals, the Iqbals, the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khans and the Junoons, by including the name of someone like Salman Taseer’s murderer begs one to retrace their steps and then wonder, what went wrong and where?

But let’s come back to the ground, even if the government does not consider the Adiala jail cell as a heritage site, the truth is, we cannot do much when it becomes a part of Pakistan’s ‘unofficial’ heritage, especially in the circles of the selective few.

Hassan A

Hassan A

The author has an academic background in Cultural Anthropology and is interested in the intangible and tangible cultures of South Asia.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.