THE rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab in Kasur, and ensuing events and conversations in its aftermath, provide yet another exemplary display of what all is broken in Pakistan’s political system. Firstly, as the 12th such case reported over a couple of years in a two-kilometre radius, it tells us (again) just how badly compromised Punjab Police is as an institution. This was visible first through its indifferent attitude towards the investigation and then through a display of ingrained incompetence and brutality as it fired upon protesters.
Secondly, the fact that these events took place in Kasur, a city no more than half an hour away from the over-governed provincial capital, lays bare the hollow claims of political performance in the province. This wasn’t some peripheral region whose political economy and historical conditions make it difficult to run rules-based institutions; this is as heartland Punjab as it possibly gets. If this is the standard of governance that Shahbaz Sharif proclaims to champion, one shudders to imagine a not-too-distant (and wholly likely future) where the entire country is run the same way.
Third, the collective hopes and aspirations of justice for an entire population have once more been outsourced to (ephemeral) media attention and ‘notice-taking’ efforts by state elites of various shapes and sizes, from the chief minister, Punjab, to the army chief to the Lahore High Court and Supreme Court chief justices to the chairman, Senate. This begs the question of what happens when an equally gruesome incident does not, for some reason or the other, garner as much attention as this one.
Our political system is responsive in particular moments of heightened media frenzy and public attention, but callously indifferent in most other instances.
At the heart of these three failures lies a long-festering vacuum in Pakistan’s political sphere: the absence of societal channels for articulating accountability and reform. In functioning countries, this articulation is carried out by robust and cause-specific civil society organisations, which can take up issues that require particular social and policy changes. For instance, child abuse cases would see an outpouring of societal resources, a well-thought-out cultural and legal response, and sustained pressure to ensure requisite organisational changes take place. In such countries, an incident like the Kasur child pornography scandal would’ve been the absolute final straw, and not been allowed to wilt at the altar of a ruling party’s expedient politics. It goes without saying that Pakistan is not one such country.
Over the past decade and a half, Pakistan has seen the rise of party competition and a concurrent explosion of private media, which many perceive as necessary conditions for making the state more responsive. In some rudimentary ways, this is correct. Parties compete to be seen as better suited for the task of governing, while media attention is supposed to keep citizens informed and decision-makers honest.
Unfortunately, it seems many have also deemed this to be a sufficient condition for responsive government. Some have vested their aspirations in parties, proposing that one party may do better where others are clearly failing. Those who’re disillusioned by the weakness and expediency of political parties, pin their hopes on other forms of state intervention, such as suo motu by the court, or the various forms of notice-taking that the military frequently carries out.
In a country with a long history of authoritarianism, centralised deployment of executive power, and a deeply ingrained (and purposefully cultivated) fetish of strongmen, these are exactly the kind of responses one would expect. And as is clearly visible, these responses do not appear to be taking us very far.
By now, the limitations of our political system are clear. It is responsive in particular moments of heightened media frenzy and public attention, but callously indifferent in most other instances. It is somewhat competent in coming up with social justice-oriented legislation, but completely incompetent in implementing it. It can deliver infrastructure and other brick-and-mortar projects, but has no will or incentives for reforming systems of governance.
These assertions are not just built on one or two tragic cases in Kasur, but are clearly visible over the past two decades, and stand regardless of whether the country was being run as a military dictatorship or as a procedural democracy. Therefore, for anyone interested in a more responsive system of government, the question of forcing the state to do its job on a regular basis, rather than praying for a change of incentives or a sporadic outburst of attention, becomes key.
And the answer, to put it simply, is that making the state more responsive and competent requires socially mobilising in a sustained manner, well beyond what the public is accustomed to at this point. It means building autonomous institutions and organisations that can lobby, advocate, and force the government to act. It means building networks across the social spectrum in order to garner as much public support as possible and to popularise the right kind of solutions to particular problems. It means dropping a tiresome reliance on various state institutions, given the fact that they too are wholly incapable of solving every problem or pushing through the kind of reform required at this point. And it means seeing private news media as one instrument of political pressure, rather than as the sole articulator and protector of the public will.
None of this is easy in a country where the extant civil society landscape consists of NGOs largely dependent on international donor funding, or professional associations interested only in protecting and perpetuating sectional privileges. In instances like the Kasur tragedy, it also means intervening — as Shehzad Roy has bravely done — in an obtuse cultural field where the religious right carries both discursive and coercive authority. Yet this remains the only long-term solution to the myriad of state failures this population is forced to experience on a regular basis.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2018