History has its own ways of testing a nation’s grit and capacity to face tough challenges when they seem insurmountable. Pakistan had hardly recovered from the most lethal consequences of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination when the PPP was dealt with yet another critical blow with the ghastly assassination of Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, at a time when the party needed him the most. Had Salmaan Taseer been alive today, the political complexion of Punjab would have been different, and perhaps in favour of PPP since he was one of the few PP leaders who had left of the centre credentials and who played on the front foot and meant business. It was his singular honour that he died upholding Quaid- e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s dream of a secular Pakistan with equal rights for all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, colour, or gender. Today 10 years after the assassination of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto when we do stock taking, we find, after her colossal loss, Salman’s elimination as the most destabilising eventuality for the Pakistani nation, Pakistan People’s Party, former president Asif Ali Zardari and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto. Salmaan was brave, courageous and daring – a great man who had imagination, a sense of direction and who went out of the way to do things. His upright stand for the rights of minorities such as Asia Bibi who is still incarcerated over blasphemy allegations cost him with his life. He was totally committed to the high democratic ideals and the egalitarian vision of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shahid Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. How immense was the loss due to his death could only be assessed in the light of Punjab’s politics tied very strongly to the apron strings of the legacy of dictator General Ziaul Haq. It was clear from day one that the Chief Minister of the province – himself being a legatee of the Ziast order – was either in cahoots with the retrogressive elements or had bought their protection and patronage by helping them financially and allowing them freedom of action and propagation. Since martyred Salmaan Taseer stood up against these regressive forces as a bulwark in defence of democracy, enlightenment, tolerance and religious freedom, as opposed to the bigoted attempts to make Pakistan a theocratic state – he had to be killed like his leader Benazir Bhutto. Had he been alive, one would not have seen the upsurge of religious extremist groups raising their head in the body politics of Pakistan in such a blatant manner as now. The best tribute to the man who confronted bigotry by laying his life for the survival of Pakistan will be a return to the Quaid’s secular vision, by separating religion from politics Salmaan was held in highest esteem by the people who respected his boldness to proclaim loud and clear that he believed in liberal and secular politics even during the Zia years. He was targeted for elimination by the extremists since he came out openly in defence of the rights of the minorities against the black and discriminatory laws introduced by General Ziaul Haq. I had known him for more than 30 years. What endeared him most to his friends was his swashbuckling nature, element of adventure in him and his insatiable dare. I found him to be an unflinching fighter for democracy and defender of the rights of the people. He braved worst persecution and prosecution at the hands of anti-democratic forces in power including the Sharif brothers. He was tortured and given third degree treatment for his commitment to democracy. I remember how badly his skin was peeled off when he was kept in detention by the blood-thirsty hounds of Punjab police on the orders of Nawaz Sharif. His most callous and remorseless assassination by his own security guard – at a critical juncture when Pakistan was deeply involved in an existential battle in defence of Islam’s pristine values of compassion and tolerance, to save the county from falling a victim to extremism – has carved for himself a permanent niche in the hall of fame among those great leaders who preferred death over surrendering to the evil forces. Salmaan was a man of many facets. Lively, colourful, jovial and overly friendly, besides being a sharp political animal, he climbed to the top of the ladder as a chartered accountant of international fame, very soon he made his mark as a leading entrepreneur and contributed immensely to the cause of objective and bold journalism by venturing into the media business. As a politician he had been a member of the Punjab provincial assembly, suffered long periods of incarceration, braved torture inflicted on him in the dungeon of notorious Lahore Fort – a hell on earth. The best tribute to the man who confronted bigotry by laying his life for the survival of Pakistan will be a return to the Quaid’s secular vision, by separating religion from politics. Those anti-Pakistan elements that create and nurture extremists and jihadis and the politicians and the people in media who support religious extremists and incite violence as accomplices to extremism shall have to be isolated. This is the need of the hour. If we remain complacent and follow a policy of appeasement of running with the hare and hunting with the hound – we will end up sliding down the eddy of doom, everyone will perish. As a brave man and a devout follower of the Quaid, Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and martyred Benazir Bhutto – a victim of terrorists and those in power behind them – his warnings were very apt: “Beware of the mullahs. They have to be confronted or they will take over our lives.” Taseer was a trusted associate of martyred Benazir Bhutto. According to leading journalist/author Ahmed Rashed: “Taseer could talk for hours on his favourite subject: the price that Pakistan had paid for jihad and the need to turn back from this ‘deadly legacy’”. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took to challenging the well-entrenched forces of status quo, Salmaan became his staunch supporter and later after ZAB’s judicial murder, he joined his daughter Benazir Bhutto to continue the democratic mission of her father and to save Pakistan from falling into the hands of religious extremists god-fathered by General Zia. Seeing political commitment in him, Benazir Bhutto fielded him as PPP’s candidate in 1988 general elections. Taseer won the seat in the Punjab provincial legislature, riding the wave of popularity for the young Benazir Bhutto. Throughout his life he remained a dauntless and fearless follower of Benazir Bhutto and opposed tooth and nail all anti-democratic forces including General Zia’s “baqiyat”. Salmaan made his mark as an outstanding secularist in a country when there were very few who could speak out for fear of intimidating religious extremists. In a Financial Times interview, little before his death, he insisted – with both pride and defensiveness – that Pakistan would not go the way of Afghanistan. “Pakistan is a vibrant democracy,” he stoutly believed. “It has an educated middle class, a civilian government and a free press.” Like his leader Benazir Bhutto, Salmaan did not fear fear. Many times, he was warned that “they were after him”. Always he brushed the death threats aside with contempt. Following Benazir’s footsteps, he preferred to do and die for the cause that was dear to him- secular democracy, empowerment of the poor, women and less privileged. The author is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist Published in Daily Times, January 4th 2018.