THE brutal killing of two young brothers by a mob in Sialkot while some policemen watched the incident without any sign of disapproval has exposed serious flaws in the working of law-enforcement agencies and public views on crime and punishment that cannot be ignored.There is some consolation in the fact that this ghastly affair has sent shock waves across the country. Similar incidents have occurred in the past but none of them made the people so angry as this one. The difference has surely been made by the live TV coverage of the incident. But the basic issue is: will all the parties concerned derive the correct lessons from the outrage? One may assume that the people wish to receive guarantees that incidents like this will not recur. But such assurances cannot be offered unless the factors contributing to the conduct of the culprits are identified.

The primary culprits are the beasts in human garb who pounced upon the victims and beat them with lathis with such force and venom that the boys' limbs were broken and they were drained of blood. Then these brutes played a leading role in exhibiting the dead bodies of their victims and hoisting them on a scaffold in medieval style.

They could do all this because the theory of instant and private justice has gained wide acceptance in Pakistan. There has been so much talk of the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the investigation and prosecution agencies and the fall in conviction rate that reliance on legal remedies is considered, by a large section of society, as a sheer waste of time and resources. The defence of the jirgas/panchayats as vehicles of criminal justice has tended to legitimise informal tribunals. Finally, the failure of the state and society both to condemn and stop killings in the name of belief has converted a large number of immature minds to the concept of private retribution.

Since these factors have influenced the psyche of many people besides the goons of Sialkot the danger of similar incidents taking place in other parts of the country cannot be ruled out.

The second culprit in the dock is the police. The reason the policemen present at the scene looked on with ill-concealed delight while the two victims were being clubbed to death and did not intervene is not far to seek. No serious effort has been made to persuade the police force to give up extra-legal killings as a preferred way to deal with criminals, suspects or personal rivals. Every year scores of people are killed in so-called encounters and most of the perpetrators of these murders go scot-free. There have been instances of policemen killing persons in their custody because they thought they were enjoined to do so by their faith.

Further, police officers themselves started the practice of putting the bodies of their victims on an open truck and driving through the town and being garlanded for this feat. Thus, when they find the community following a precedent set by them they consider their tactics vindicated and their licence to kill renewed.

On this charge the senior police officers in the city also stand indicted. The grisly affair continued for quite some time. If the senior police officers did not come to know of it they deserve to be penalised for presiding over an inefficient system, and if they did not act in spite of learning about the enormous crime they are liable to punishment for not knowing their job. In any case their attitude too stems from their belief in instant and private justice.

The third accused party is the public that saw the young men being tortured, joined the procession of the corpses, and clapped when the lifeless frames were strung upside down. They are perhaps bigger culprits than the lathi -wielding rogues and the policemen on the watch because their callousness emboldened the former and disarmed the latter.

Their attitude confirms the view that Pakistani society has been brutalised over the past few decades to the extent of losing not only respect for the human person but also all sense of right and wrong. The Sialkot outrage has again presented a microcosmic image of the insane violence that is eating into the vitals of Pakistani society. Unless coordinated efforts are made to stem the rot, and these efforts may be required over a considerably long period, this affliction could prove fatal for our society.

It has been noticed that the public attitude towards extra-legal killing is determined by the perception of the victim's guilt or innocence. If the first reports, however reliable or unreliable, say the victim was innocent he does receive some sympathy. If the victim is branded a criminal, and often this is done by the police, he is believed to have met with a just end.

That this attitude is wrong is obvious. Even the worst criminal is to be presumed innocent until proved guilty. Unfortunately, the state has been contributing to violence against suspects by consistently upholding the theory of retributive, as against reformative, justice. Moreover, the further Pakistan moves from the secular imperatives of governance the greater the chances of Sialkot-like incidents recurring will become.

The primary responsibility for demolishing the cult of violence of course lies with the state. But a state whose writ is based solely on its capacity for violence cannot rear a peaceful society. The repeated spells of authoritarian rule have obliterated whatever tradition or capacity for civilised life we had and the need to restructure the state on the principles of peace and justice can hardly be exaggerated.

The task of de-brutalisation of Pakistan cannot succeed, cannot begin, until the main pillars of civil society — political parties, trade unions, the media, human rights and social activists — start playing their vanguard role. They must move beyond politician-bashing all the time. They need to ask themselves how many of them felt hurt when a poor worker was killed in the name of belief, or protested when a police officer offered reward for anyone who killed a 'dacoit'? How many have the courage to denounce the killing of couples by militants on suspicion of immoral behaviour?

The dictum that silence in the face of injustice amounts to connivance has been turned into a meaningless cliché. The stark reality is that the whole nation is responsible for each act of injustice or cruelty that affects any member of the much-scattered Pakistan family and each citizen has to do something to ensure that peace and justice are restored.

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