PPP leadership under pressure to revisit go soft policy

Lahore: Pakistan`s ruling PPP leadership is facing increasing pressure from within its ranks to "revisit its policy of going soft on religious extremists" after the killing of Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the Cabinet who was a vocal critic of the controversial blasphemy law.

The PPP`s top leadership, President Asif Ali Zardari and Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani, had decided to "go soft" on religious extremists following the killing of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in January as they were of the view that political opponents like ex-premier Nawaz Sharif would cash in on any clash between the PPP and religious forces, sources in the party said.

The PPP even tried to give Taseer`s killing a political colour as it knew it could not take on religious and extremist forces behind the incident, the sources told PTI.

Taseer was gunned down by a police guard who was angered by his opposition to the blasphemy law while the Taliban claimed responsibility for Bhatti`s assassination on Wednesday saying that he was killed for challenging the harsh statute.

Senior PPP leaders, including some Cabinet members, have expressed serious concern over the party`s strategy towards religious forces, especially after Taseer`s murder.

They are of the view that the party`s "defensive and apologetic" stance has helped strengthened extremists.

The sources said the PPP`s top leadership was compelled to have a second thought about its strategy towards religious forces.

"President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani have discussed this aspect of Bhatti`s murder and they are going to take the central executive committee into confidence as to how to deal with the growing impact of religious extremism in society," a senior PPP leader, who wished not to be named, told PTI.

He said some leaders even commented that the "cowardly stance of the government had paved the way for the killing of Bhatti."

PPP lawmaker Safdar Abbasi said the crisis of leadership in the party is the reason behind growing militancy in Pakistan.

"It`s only just the murder of Taseer. The PPP government sent a wrong message to militants by not bringing the culprits responsible for (former premier) Benazir Bhutto`s murder to justice," he said.

The government`s weak stance against militancy has marginalised liberal and progressive forces in the country, Abbasi said.

Abbasi and his wife Nahid Khan were close aides of slain PPP chief Bhutto but have been sidelined within the party by Zardari.

He said the PPP-led government had also failed to restore political stability. "The government should initiate steps to curb growing militancy," he added.

"Had the case of Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Taseer, been dealt with properly, the extremists would have thought twice before going for the blood of another decent human being like Bhatti," said Sobia Saleem, who was part of Taseer`s media team.

She said: "We are standing at the edge of a precipice, watching our country implode. Today we lost another good man in the fight for humanism. After Taseer`s assassination, Bhatti knew very well what he was up against. But he chose to fight and be a beacon for the minorities of Pakistan.

"The question in everyone`s mind is who is next? How far this will go and who will stand up now if the government will not wake up to reality."