Waraich, Omar, The Independent (London, England)
Governor of Punjab and outspoken defender of minority causes
Speaking up for minorities came easy to Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab who was brutally assassinated by his own bodyguard last Tuesday. Half a century before he took up the cause of Aasia Noreen, a poor Christian woman facing a death sentence for blasphemy that she never committed, Taseer and his childhood friends resolved to protest the death sentence of Jimmy Wilson, a poor African-American.
"It was outrageous that he was going to be hanged for stealing a mere dollar," recalls co-conspirator Tariq Ali, the left-wing writer. Along with a third friend, the teenage subversives mounted a "Free Jimmy Wilson" demonstration to the US Consulate General in Lahore. But halfway there, Ali realised how few of them there were. Shrewdly, Taseer devised a fix. Somehow he swiftly gathered an excitable crowd of street urchins to make up the numbers. "They didn't even know what they were protesting about," says Ali, guffawing at the memory.
The move was typical Taseer. Quick-thinking was a trait that later served him well in business. A passion for loud, defiant political protest saw him take up unpopular causes. And develop a keen sense of humour. In a country where prospects for mobility remain slim, he was a rare example of someone who had risen from a modest background to become one of its most successful businessmen, and later, one of its most notable politicians.
Like Ali, Taseer was born into a prominent Lahore left-wing family. His father, M D Taseer, was a notable progressive poet, who married Christabel George, an English woman. "Christabel and her sister, Alys, came to India in the 1930s to support its struggle for freedom against the British," says Ali. Alys, Salmaan Taseer's aunt, married an even more famous poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. After his father died when he was just 10, Faiz bulked large in Taseer's life as a mentor. Without a father, Taseer, his two sisters and their mother, endured straitened circumstances.
Christabel couldn't afford to send her 17-year-old son to university, but bought him a one-way ticket to London. During the day he worked odd jobs to support himself and in the evening he studied chartered accountancy. Taseer seized moments to feed his political curiosity. Living with Faiz, exiled in Britain at the time, he encountered left-wing luminaries like Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. When the Vietnam War was raging, he marched on to Grosvenor, behind his old friend Ali.
"When I met Hillary Clinton, I told her that during the Vietnam War I used to hurl stones at the US Embassy in London," Taseer told me at our last meeting, just before Christmas at the Islamabad home near which he was slain. "You know what Clinton said? 'I used to do the same'," he said, flashing the broad, mischievous grin that often filled his face. …