Crime & Justice

Where We Stand

Jan 26 2018 - On the evening of Jan 23, Dawn had the following lead news items on its website: the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child, a follow-up on the death of a young man murdered in a fake encounter, a student’s attack on a teacher, the ‘alleged’ gang rape of a transgender, a follow-up on the death of a professor and another on the death of a student beaten by his teacher, and the murder of a college principal. These were the ‘top’ stories of Jan 23.

Faisal Bari

The everyday levels of violence that we live with in our society, and the extent to which we have internalised this violence and ‘normalised’ it, is disturbing. Pakistan’s crime statistics, as reported, are not out of line with those of other countries. But maybe it is the nature of the crimes and the circumstances in which they are committed that are more jarring.

If a professor asks a student not to disturb the class, how do we go from there to the point where the student leaves the class, comes back with 10 other people, ransacks the school and assaults the teacher who had asked him not to disturb the class? What pathways of thinking make this option — of asking 10 people to join in — a feasible and plausible one? Why didn’t anyone of these 10 people tell the student that this is not the way we address grievances or deal with disagreements? Why was dialogue not an option? Why this quick escalation to the level of causing serious physical harm? Whatever the level and nature of the initial provocation, are there no thresholds before we move to physical violence and serious harm?

What is the responsibility of an individual who sees another person being harmed?

Take the case of the murder of the college principal. He had supposedly confronted a student about his absence from classes. He might have even tried to shame the student about his lack of punctuality and his priorities. But how come this came to point where the student actually shot the principal multiple times? The student reportedly said the principal had committed blasphemy. Even if he had, why did the student not invoke the law? Why did he feel that getting a gun and killing the principal was a good or viable option?

The case of the madressah student being beaten to death is equally bizarre and tragic. Is there anything that a 10- or 12-year-old can do that merits a physical beating to the point of inflicting serious bodily harm? Even if the child had not learnt his lesson, was a slacker, was disruptive, or had a bad memory, ie whatever the issue, how did the teacher think that beating him would address the problem? The pictures of the child’s body that newspapers carried showed that the beating he must have received was severe and that it was not the case of a single blow landing in the wrong place — the child was clearly hit repeatedly and with force.

First, are these the works of individuals with psychological and/or social problems or do these individuals fall within the spectrum of what would be considered normal in our society? And second, most of the acts mentioned happened in the public space and in front of others.

What is the responsibility of the individual when he or she sees something happening that is harming another person? Is action, to stop violence a duty in the legal, moral or social sense? Should it be?

All these cases seem to be of people who fall within the range of what is taken as ‘normal’ in our society. The ease with which small disputes escalate to the point of violence is hard to see as a deviance or as a product of people with psycho-social issues. If you have witnessed road accidents and how quickly people resort to verbal abuse and then physical violence, the acts mentioned here will not seem a deviation. There would appear to be little reason to invoke individual issues to explain these incidents.

The issue of duty in public spaces is even more problematic. What were the people standing around when Mashal Khan was lynched or when, some years ago, two teenagers in Sialkot were beaten to death doing and thinking? If they were active participants, this is problematic. If they were enjoying the spectacle, it is even more problematic, and if they were thinking what was being done was wrong but were not speaking out, it is still very problematic.

Unless you fear extremes of violence against yourself, not trying to stop violence against another should be socially unacceptable, morally repugnant and odious, and illegal.

If these incidents are not the result of actions of deranged minds, and it seems they are not, then we have to think more carefully about what we are teaching our children. And by teaching I do not mean what we are teaching in schools only, but what we are teaching our children at home and in social situations.

We are failing to inculcate the values of tolerance and debate, we are not being able to establish and reinforce lines around verbal and physical violence, and we are not realising the impact that violence is having by brutalising our society. A recent and continuing example is the clamouring for a ‘public hanging’ of the murderer of Zainab. The call for justice is a must. But to call for public hangings, in the hope that this will deter people while not taking into account the effect that a public hanging can have by brutalising our society is an example of the kind of thoughtlessness that has landed us in this place to start with.

This piece has just raised questions. I hope the academics and intellectuals of the country can help think through some of these issues.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

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