Guarding the guardians

Published May 10, 2016
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

THE inquiry called by army chief Gen Raheel Sharif into the custodial death of an MQM worker is an important benchmark to monitor. While we wait for the findings, maybe the army could share conclusions of the previous such inquiry ordered by ex-COAS Gen Ashfaq Kayani on the footage of the executions of unarmed civilians in Swat in 2010.

Security forces get away with a lot in their campaign against terrorism, and not just in Pakistan. Last week, the Pentagon declared that the air strike that destroyed the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz and killed 42 people was not a war crime and no one would face criminal charges. Sixteen US service personnel got away with only letters of reprimand.

The current inquiry could underscore the importance of dismantling impunity even while gaining ground against terrorism. There is clearly a problem in the paramilitary forces, the Frontier Corps (FC) in the western two provinces and its direct counterpart, the Rangers in the eastern two provinces.

The military has not traditionally been involved in gross human rights violations within what is now Pakistan. Torture and excessive force against citizens has been the domain of the police. But then, the spillover of police tactics is inevitable as paramilitary forces increasingly take over the job of policing in the country.

The spillover of police tactics is inevitable as paramilitary forces increasingly take over the task of policing.

The system of impunity for the paramilitary is evident in Balochistan. The disappearance and kill-and-dump strategies weren’t invented there of course, but allegedly exercised in naked form. Deployed elsewhere, it was given the legal cover of oppressive laws such as Action in Aid of Civil Power Regulations, the Pakistan Protection Act, the 21st Amendment and Zarb-i-Azb. The need for such cover grew once the security apparatus rolled back its reliance on old proxies and engaged directly in conflicts within the country.

It is particularly interesting then, that the first such recent accountability measure by the army was against officials of the FC in Balochistan, albeit for corruption. No one can or should defend corruption. In addition to its economic costs and distortions, it maintains the trust deficit between people and state institutions. But neither can Balochistan be packaged as only a crisis of corruption. Before people worry that some vile, venal bureaucrat is stealing the province’s development budget, they have to contend with the daily fear that they will have to identify the dead body of a family member.

People blame the FC and the Baloch ‘death squads’ for disappearances and killings. The missing persons have been mostly supporters of the Baloch insurgency but the ambit of fear is far wider. When a man came home late, possibly because he was sitting at some tea stall, in those two hours for his family members, he became a missing person. The previous chief minister Abdul Malik Baloch stated that death squads are no longer functioning. In which case, it is important to move towards reparations, including the public acknowledgment of injustice and prosecution of those responsible, even if it means particular persons take the fall for wide-ranging practices.

The Baloch militants don’t have clean hands either. They have targeted bystanders and hapless civilians on ethnic grounds. Foreign presence and funding were well known even before Kulbhushan Yadav surfaced. Infighting among groups is legion. Before the 2013 elections, locals fled in droves to escape their threats. But the grievances they articulate resonate with the local population.

This raises the question about how to deal with the dissenting, violent citizen. What gets primacy: the dissent, the violence or the notion of citizenship? Does armed resistance and challenging statehood cancel out citizens’ entitlement to due process and fair trial? Or is the concern citizenship itself; or at least the desirable citizen against whom the undesirable is identified and contrasted? Who embodies the right kind of a national, and how can the national be dispensed with in the national interest?

Others have challenged operative impunity. It was questioned in the case of the Adiala 11, who were abducted by security agencies after the courts freed them; four of the accused died in custody and the surviving seven were brought in at the court’s insistence, tortured, starved, incapacitated, holding urine bags.

The impunity was ruptured a little during the Supreme Court’s suo motu notices on missing people in Balochistan and the then chief justice’s judicial activism. But it led to the formation of a task force on disappearances, which has yet to take concrete steps. It was shaken a bit by the media outcry and the life imprisonment sentence against the Rangers officials who shot and left a man to die in Karachi. But an inquiry called by the army itself, and that too by its chief, has an internal impetus.

The security establishment is now keen on enabling development in the province, especially involving the youth. But unless ‘across-the-board accountability’ addresses human rights violations, the discontent will continue to fester.

Or maybe there is an even deeper malaise. Can it be just a coincidence that the extremities of what was the British Empire in the subcontinent are embroiled in similar contexts? Balochistan was the furthest point in the west, India’s northeast provinces the furthest point in the east (Manipur, Assam, Nagaland), and Kashmir was the furthest point in the north.

All have faced constant uprisings, and all seem to be governed by some modern version of the colonial Rowlatt Act, which allowed suspected terrorists to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial, summarised by Gandhi as ‘no daleel, no vakil, no appeal’. The furthest point south, Sri Lanka, has recently emerged from decades of civil war and similar governance. What is it about border regions and frontiers that they continue to be seen as needing to be tamed, settled and politically subdued into stable hegemony? These things don’t seem to go away. In the ongoing profane and profound crises in the Middle East, the expediency of colonial boundaries has morphed into a spectre on which no amount of exorcism seems to work.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2016



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