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A pie for an eye

Updated September 13, 2013
  Shahrukh Jatoi (R) gestures while his accomplice Siraj Talpur looks on from a court lockup. -Photo by AFP
Shahrukh Jatoi (R) gestures while his accomplice Siraj Talpur looks on from a court lockup. -Photo by AFP

The story began in the heart of last year’s wedding season, in the lingering end of December, when the streets near the sea are filled with revelers, coiffed and bejeweled and hopping from one nuptial to the next. The gunshots echoed through the darkness, and like the darkness they were familiar to everyone; Karachi rises and sleeps and celebrates to the sounds of guns. December 25th marks one birthday everywhere else in the world, and another in Pakistan. The birth anniversary of our founder, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah does not rely on the moon, and henna ceremonies and nuptials and the feasts, and festivities are hence reliably pinned to it.

The wedding of Shahzeb Khan’s sister was no different. On the evening of December 25th 2012, he was driving home from the Valima ceremony. Seated beside him was another unmarried sister. Home was an apartment building nearby where the siblings lived with their parents. The altercation began as they made their way up to the apartments, when the loitering entourage of another tenant began to tease Shahzeb’s sister. At first it looked like it would be a routine tiff, a boy standing up for his sister against the heckling of strange, leering neighbors. Twenty-year-old Shahzeb managed to get his sister upstairs and to hold his own.

It would not end that way. As the late night waned into the early morning, Shahzeb ventured out again for another leftover errand. He never returned. His bullet riddled body was found by his family near the car he had been driving. He was still wearing the suit he had worn to the reception. The killers were the neighbors, the boys he had fought with earlier that evening. Two angry sons of two old and powerful families, Shahrukh Jatoi and Siraj Talpur never tried to hide what they were doing. Not only did they shoot Shahzeb in the open, witnesses alleged, one of them returned and riddled the corpse with bullets a second time, to ensure that the boy was really dead. Then, they disappeared.

The Shahzeb Khan case has since become the emblem of a war between the cultures of entitlement and the cultures of achievement, the anguished tussle of which plays out in the middle class suburbs of Karachi. Every bit and piece of the case — the botched investigation, the initial reticence of the police to even register a case, the absconding murderers — have been skirmishes fought avidly by both sides. If the entitled have money, the achievers, sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and accountants, have a voice. As the entitled hid their boys, the achievers began a public campaign. They wrote on blogs, the raged on twitter, they came out on the streets in peaceful marches. The killing of Shahzeb Khan must not go unpunished, the young of urban upstarts yelled.

The Supreme Court was listening, and perhaps the emblematic nature of the case, its distillation of the anger of those that study and try and fill out forms and go on job interviews against those that claim an inheritance, a vast architecture of familial protection and wealthy influence, was clear and visible to it. As almost never happens, the already fled feudal was summoned back from abroad and the two accused, Siraj Talpur and Shahrukh Jatoi, were both imprisoned pending trial for murder. The warriors of achievement rejoiced. Their absence of hereditary heft, of names that inspired awe and deference, of honchos that harassed seemed finally forgiven.

There was even more cause for relief on June 7, 2013. On that day, the accused boys, Shahrukh Jatoi and Siraj Talpur, were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. It seemed a resounding victory for the purveyors of achievement, those that still rely on Pakistan’s institutions to mete justice, to stand in for their absence of tribes and clans. A new Government had just been elected and many old names had been pushed from power by the verdict of polls. It seemed a new Pakistan, one that represented them, accepted them, acknowledged them, was in place. The killers of an ordinary boy, the son of an ordinary man, had been caught, convicted, and sentenced. There was justice in Pakistan after all. The culture of achievement had defeated the culture of entitlement.

It was a premature announcement of victory. After the verdict — when the fervor of those that had fought had faded and the girls who had seen themselves in Shahzeb’s sister and the boys who had seen themselves in Shahzeb’s bullet ridden corpse had gone back to their studies, their searches for jobs and for visas, to their quest for becoming something more than their fathers or mothers had been — there was more news. On September 9, 2013, it was announced that the parents of Shahzeb Khan, the mother and father of his still living sisters and surviving brother, had pardoned the killers. The fattened boys, who had allegedly been permitted to have all their meals delivered from home while they were imprisoned, held up victory signs as they walked out from prison. They were free and forgiven.

Since then, the thwarted champions of achievement, those who had been able to extract some shred of comfort from the idea that there would be some justice if they were shot, some investigation if they were murdered, have wept. Flailing in their anger, they have railed even against the family who forgave; there was talk of deals and deception. The usual cache of conspiracies that accompanies a lack of information and mirrors the dissatisfaction with the truth has accompanied their tears. In the midst of the miserable mix is the law that enabled the pardon, The Qisas and Diyat Ordinance permits the family of an accused to pardon a killer, for money or for nothing at all. It was the mechanism through which the other laws, of evidence and proof and criminal convictions were set aside.

The story of the case, the ultimate victory of the landed and lauded, is not one about the divisions of religion or ethnicity or sect that are usually listed as the dotted lines along which Pakistan can be divided. Along with other countries in South Asia, Pakistan and particularly Karachi is one of the fastest urbanising areas in the world. The consequences of these demographic realities is a division between those who live in an urbanised modern reality, where the individual makes themselves and the ties of family have frayed in the quest for the better job and the better life. Against this form of life, however, are still the residues of the ways of old, those that see the cultures of urbanism and achievement as a challenge to what always has been and what must always be. Theirs is the still-robust architecture of revenge and retaliation, of self-sufficient systems that require no state and no Government.

Suspended between the old and new, the individual and the collective, urban Pakistan faces some choices between the past and the present. In this case, the conviction of murderers by a court means nothing if the family of the perished cannot be afforded the protection required to fight off the murderer’s furious family, foaming at the mouth for revenge. The battle between the cultures of achievement and entitlement hence continues. The parallel laws that convict in one forum and provide room for pardons in another represent again the confusion between the new Pakistani, the individual and urban Pakistani who aches for the modern state to provide what the clan or tribe or family did in bygone days, and those that never believed in the state and never relied on it, the purveyors of landed wealth and tribal identity that scoff at the state, its procedures, and its laborious processes. In one Karachi apartment building, these two worlds collided and the world of the old and the entitled won.