What would urge a person to eat human flesh? Are they mentally ill, sadistic or a combination of the two? The question and subsequently the answer is neither simple nor straightforward.
“You do not expect a normal person to want to eat human flesh,” says assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at DHA College Mohadesa Mohammed adding, “However, while cannibalism is not a mental illness it can be the result of one.”
Taking a similar stance, Chairperson for Department of Behavioural Sciences at National University of Sciences and Technology (Nust) Salma Siddiqui explains, “Take the example of suicide, a person in a healthy state of mind will not try to kill themselves. Suicide is the act; we need to understand why it was committed. The same applies for cannibalism.”
Both Mohammed and Siddiqui stress the need to further ‘explore and analyse’ any case before they can give a conclusive diagnosis.
The debate on the issue stems from the recent arrest of two brothers from Bhakkar district which made headlines nationwide for their repeat offence of consuming dead human flesh. The lack of laws on cannibalism in Pakistan prevented the brothers from being charged under a penal code specific to their crime in March 2011.
The charges that were filed against them at the time did lead to a conviction and the cannibals were incarcerated for two years. They were released barely a year ago from Mianwali jail and were arrested once again for resorting back to the same practice.
“The solution should be to get them treatment, to understand why they are doing what they are and whether or not they have a full comprehension of their actions,” says Dr Rukhsana Kausar who is the director for Institute of Applied Psychology and Centre for Clinical Psychology at University of Punjab.
“We are not living in a jungle here,” says Dr Naim Siddiqui, a consultant psychiatrist at Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT). “But when behaviour is abnormal to that extent (digging up graves for bodies and eating their flesh) then we could start labelling it as insanity but I would be very careful before I label them (the brothers).
All the experts interviewed agreed that cannibalism should be criminalised but suggest alternate punishments to prison.
“Sentencing people with such behaviour to prison will just harden them, we want to correct their behaviour,” Nust’s Salma Siddiqui says. “My personal and professional opinion is that we prepare the legislation criminalising such behaviour but focus on solving the crux of the issue as it is likely people in a similar state will exhibit other problems of similar or higher psychological intensity as well.”
“If you read about these brothers you will understand that they were socially ostracised addicts who had barely any interaction with the outside world,” says DHA’s Mohadesa Mohammed speaking from her nearly twenty years of experience in the discipline. "They could have chosen to prey on animals but they chose to dig up graves and eat dead human flesh, there is clearly a pathology here."
The objective is not to sympathise with the cannibal brothers the experts immediately clarify, rather to enforce the need for corrective treatment to ensure people with such behaviour no longer pose a danger to themselves or society.
This time the brothers were charged under the Anti Terrorism Act which once again is not specific to their actions.
Thus when preparing legislation the experts strongly suggest taking all the psychological factors into consideration and highly recommend a full mental evaluation of the accused in determining the course of punishment.
A petition to draft legislation on cannibalism was submitted in the Lahore High Court on Thursday, however the date for its hearing has not been finalised.
When discussing counselling SIUT’s Siddiqui recommends taking the psychological impact of the people affected by the deviant behaviour into account as well. In this case the relatives of the people whose bodies were dug up and eaten by the brothers.
"Our society is conducive to criminal behaviour with acts of terrorism, target killings, muggings, robberies and similar offences consistently splashed across the news. It is essential to take a closer look at the mental health and well-being of the society we live. It is even more crucial to create acceptance towards adopting a preventative approach to mental illness which targets larger communities."