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April 23, 2017


CLOCKWISE FROM THE TOP: A mob in Lahore sets dozens of Chirstian homes on fire in the Badaami Bagh area due to an alleged incident of blasphemy in 2013; young anti blasphemy protesters in Islamabad in 2012; another mob in Karachi trying to tip a bus over after it hit some schoolboys back in 2004 | WhiteStar file photos
CLOCKWISE FROM THE TOP: A mob in Lahore sets dozens of Chirstian homes on fire in the Badaami Bagh area due to an alleged incident of blasphemy in 2013; young anti blasphemy protesters in Islamabad in 2012; another mob in Karachi trying to tip a bus over after it hit some schoolboys back in 2004 | WhiteStar file photos

A lack of commitment to a cause or process, inordinate delays in completing a task, cutting in line — these are typically ‘weapons’ of society’s weak and vulnerable. They are responses to the everyday violence and oppression heaped on them. Such is their lowly standing in society that they cannot respond in kind; they are forced to adopt these subversive, often small measures of resistance.

In Pakistan, such responses are widespread and reflect society’s ugly dichotomies. But sometimes, the outpouring of rage goes beyond these everyday acts of resistance. Anger gets diverted on to the streets, and in some cases, at individuals who are alleged to represent the original oppressor or at property deemed to be connected with the oppressor.

Enter the mob.

It’s not just religious matters that bring out the mob, societal issues that cause helplessness and vulnerability also evoke the same response

Contrary to popular perception, mobs are in fact an organised activity. They are not a spontaneous occurrence that has burgeoned from a sense of deprivation. Mobs are an insidious activity, carried out by a handful of orchestrators who provoke and manipulate others into acting a certain (violent) way. They use the cover of the crowd gathered around them to camouflage their identity and evade law enforcement. And once their objectives are met, it becomes doubly difficult to affix responsibility since mobs can disperse instantly as well.

It is because of these dynamics that mob-based violence is a nuisance for law-enforcement. Can a mob even be controlled?


Mobs are defined as large, disorderly crowds. There are four types of mobs: aggressive, escape, acquisitive and expressive.

An aggressive mob is typically most common in Pakistan. These ones attack, go on rioting sprees, and terrorize citizens and law enforcement. Think of the attack on the headquarters of Pakistan Television during the sit-in staged by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

An escape mob, on the other hand, is attempting to flee from something. These are found in situations where panic has set in and people have lost their ability to think rationally. The stampedes during Hajj are an example of this type of mob. An acquisitive mob is one that is motivated to acquire something, usually property.The London riots of 2011, where citizens went on looting sprees, are a good example of such mobs.

Lynching is now considered a crime in the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 and is punishable by a jail term of up to three years, a fine, or both.

An expressive mob is one that expresses passion following some sporting event, religious activity, or celebration. Egypt, for example, saw its goriest football-related violence this century in February 2012 during a match being played between El Masry and El Ahly at the Port Said Stadium. El Masry won the match 3-1 and its supporters invaded the pitch and other stands in the aftermath. As a result, 74 people were killed and more than 500 injured after El Masry fans attacked El Ahly fans with knives, swords, clubs, stones etc.

Although the different classifications exist to help law enforcement differentiate civil unrest from panic, it is clear that there are many different motivations for what drives a mob. Although perceived affronts to religious sentiments draw out the mob the most in Pakistan, these are not the only types of cases that draw mob-based responses.


Consider the following: a woman suspected to be a burglar was thrashed by a mob in August 2016 not because she was attempting to steal. The mob believed that she was a child kidnapper since the 10-year-old boy accompanying her did not resemble her. The child turned out to be her son. In November 2014, a mob thrashed four men believed to be robbers. The victims were actually employees of the power utility, K-Electric, and included a supervisor, three linesmen and a driver.

Interestingly, in neither of the cases was anyone charged for a wrongful attack on unarmed civilians. In both cases, the police released the victims after ascertaining that they were not guilty of committing crimes that the mob accused them of.

“The law is very clear on this, it provides safeguards to officers of the state to protect themselves and to protect others who might be in mortal danger,” argues former inspector general of police (IGP) of Sindh, Afzal Ali Shigri. “This falls under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) provisions that deal with the right to protect the body. It even extends to protecting others in harm’s way, not just yourself.”

The laws that the former IGP refers to are provisions 96-106 of the PPC (see box). In situations where a victim of mob violence is at threat of being killed, the victim retains the right to private defence. An action carried out in defence cannot be construed as an offensive act (Section 96). Per Section 97, every person has a right to defend their own body as well as the body of anybody else whose life is under threat.

Shigri might have risen to the rank of Sindh IGP but he started off his career in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then North West Frontier Province) over two decades ago. His first posting was as an assistant superintendent of police (ASP) in Charsadda, which at the time was home to a peasant uprising against local feudal lords.

Shigri’s first assignment was to quell the unrest to pave the way for the feudal lords to return to their land. “Over 17 people

were killed and at least 40 injured as the police skirmished with the peasants,” recalls the retired IGP. “The peasants shot at law enforcement first and we were forced to retaliate.”

A judicial inquiry was lodged in the aftermath to ascertain whether it was a case of police high-handedness or if the police were actually pushed into opening fire. The inquiry report submitted that the police were not at fault.

The former IGP discusses the case as an example of how the law protects the police and other law enforcement in situations where they are confronted by a mob. “Back then, senior officers as well as politicians would stand by the police as they upheld the law,” says the retired officer. “Today’s officers don’t have that confidence anymore because they fear they’ll be dragged into superfluous proceedings.”

Shigri argues that in most cases today, politicians will try and appease the public and turn the screw on the police in order to maintain their credibility. “It is very easy to drag a police officer down with Section 302 [which deals with murder, causing murder or the intent to commit murder],” he says. “It has to begin with political will.”

Under the new laws, if someone is levelling false charges for a crime that carries a death penalty, they can be jailed for seven years.

The former senior officer lays the burden of lawlessness on law but also on various attitudes that have permeated society. “The criminal justice system has failed. There is an attitude now that the system will not protect victims nor will it punish the perpetrators,” he says. “All the anger tends to get focused in one incident. In postings and transfers too, the mindsets have changed. Government officers think of themselves not as servants of the state but power-wielders.”


“Controlling mobs can be difficult as the police also have to ensure that excessive force isn’t used that results in a disproportionate loss of life,” argues Reema Omer, legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) for South Asia.

In fact, state brutality is among the issues that Pakistan had pledged to tackle when it signed on to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) back in 2008. Pakistan ratified it in 2010, which meant that it now had to comply with the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment.

At the UNCAT hearing, held on April 18 and 19, 2017, Pakistan’s position was represented by Barrister Zafarullah Khan, special assistant to the prime minister on human rights. He informed the CAT committee that a law on lynching has been passed in Pakistan to combat the menace of mob violence.

The changes Barrister Zafarullah referred to are part of alterations made through the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2017 in February this year. Lynching is now considered a crime in the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 and is punishable by a jail term of up to three years, a fine, or both.

“Our government is working on a new narrative for Pakistan, one that shuns a medieval mindset and embraces human rights,” argued the PM’s advisor at the UNCAT hearing. And yet, he also evaded the question of how a three-year penalty for murder becomes a deterrent.

“Even though there is a possibility of other offences being joined to this (so for example, murder or other offences committed along with lynching), this does raise the question of why this offence was introduced and what’s the purpose?” contends Omer. “It also raises the concern that it may give prosecutors the discretion to charge people with [amended law] 11WW alone, even for murder, in cases like Mashal Khan’s murder.”

Barrister Zafarullah also referred to punishments introduced against those who levy false blasphemy charges at the UNCAT hearing. Under the new laws, if someone is levelling false charges for a crime that carries a death penalty, they can be jailed for seven years. If the false charge is for a crime that carries a life imprisonment term, the accuser can be jailed for five years.

“But do note that despite these laws, people who bring false complaints have never been prosecuted,” argues Omer. “Even Barrister Zafarullah didn’t give any examples.”

Meanwhile, Shigri contends that with the law on their side, courts and law enforcement should turn to pictorial or video evidence as proof. “In mob matters, witnesses don’t tend to come forward,” he says, explaining that lack of testimony is not just a Pakistan-specific phenomenon but a global one.

But there are solutions too: “In the London riots of 2012, courts used pictorial evidence to fix responsibility,” he recalls. “A pack of soft drinks was stolen by a man. The courts discovered that the perpetrator was a bank manager. They handed him a very harsh sentence, and when asked why for such a trivial offence, they said that we wanted to make an example out of him because the criminal was an educated man and had a responsibility to be a responsible citizen.”

But while the United Kingdom’s legal justice system is still functioning, there is a lot left to be desired when it comes to the Pakistani one. As one senior Sindh Police officer puts it, the fact that even the media are not on the same page when it comes to mob justice means that there is little motivation to repair Pakistan’s broken criminal justice system. “Narratives are constructed out of thin air,” he says. “Sometimes, these are against the objectives that the state is trying to achieve.”

For a criminal justice system that needs to be rethought and rebooted, there is much to consider. “The story of Mashal Khan’s burial [where his village stood up for him] is the message that needs to be sent out — that from now on, vigilante justice will not be acceptable,” contends Shigri.

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 23rd, 2017