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The dignity of person

September 20, 2018

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The dignity of man and, subject to law, the privacy of home, shall be inviolable — Constitution of Pakistan

The chief justice’s warning to the National Accountability Bureau against violating a suspect’s dignity of person has come none too soon. Indeed, the rebuke should be addressed to all sections of state and society because abuse of the dignity of person is endemic in Pakistan.

The chief justice admonished the National Accountability Bureau on being informed that a citizen in its custody was made to bark like a dog and crawl on the floor, in addition to being subjected to the standard procedures used during interrogation through violence.

The inhuman treatment meted out to the NAB victim violates not only the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, duly ratified by Pakistan, but also Article 14 (1) of the Constitution. This article is a distinctive feature of the 1973 basic law as no comparable provision was included in the earlier constitutions or, for that matter, the Indian constitution.

Apparently borrowed from the German Federal Republic Basic Law of 1949 (though references to the inherent dignity of all persons are found in several UN declarations), this article has a very broad sweep. According to Justice Munir, “All punishments which are inhuman or cruel are violative of the dignity of man, as for instance whipping, solitary confinement, barbarous invasion on human personality. Even hanging may be considered as a violation of human dignity.”

The state is becoming more and more violent. It only issues orders and does not talk to the people.

In Nawaz Sharif’s challenge to the National Assembly’s dissolution in 1993 (and his dismissal as prime minister), the Supreme Court had held that president Ghulam Ishaq’s description of Nawaz Sharif’s speech (assailing the president) as subversion violated Article 14 (1).

Unfortunately, the right to dignity of person, the only right of Pakistani citizens that is not subject to the law, is perhaps most commonly abused. It is violated at home and in the street, at educational institutions and workplaces, inside police stations and places of detention, and on the court premises and in the chambers of justice.

How widespread the violation of the dignity of man/woman is and what forms it may take can be judged by scanning newspapers within a few days of the chief justice’s observations.

In Multan, a married woman was abducted and subjected to rape, one of the most horrible forms of abuse of human dignity as the scars caused by it never heal. A newly married woman went to court complaining of marital rape and sexual abuse by her husband. A school principal was reported to have taken a Matric class student to her residence to be ravaged by a man supposed to be her husband.

A lawyer slapped a witness in an anti-terrorism court in Lahore, 10 men beat up a lawyer outside the Kasur DPO’s office and a 70-year-old woman was reported to have beaten her 80-year-old husband with her shoes on the compound of the sessions court in Lahore. A class II student at a village school in Sahiwal district received 10 stitches on her private parts that had repeatedly been struck by the headmistress as punishment for using the latter’s toilet.

Except for an incident in Sanghar, all cases reported by the Lahore dailies were from a small part of Punjab. The situation in the rest of the province and across the country might not be materially different.

What needs to be pondered by the judiciary, social scientists and behavioural experts is Pakistani citizens’, especially the males’, propensity to settle matters through violence to the other’s person.

The main culprit is the state in view of its increasing reliance on brute force in dealing with citizens, its abandonment of benevolent functions and greater use of coercive means, and growing disregard for the presumption of innocence and due process.

The police humiliate most people they arrest by handcuffing them, which is not a mandatory requirement. Investigation means torturing a suspect till he confesses to all the crimes committed by Adam’s progeny. The state of Pakistan is becoming more and more violent. It only issues orders and does not talk to the people. Its failure to check illegal trade in arms and the latter’s acquisition by anyone borders on criminality.

Further, Pakistan’s culture sanctions the use of violence to discipline children, grants feudals the privilege to manhandle their field workers and molest their women, and blinks at middle-class families’ violent ways towards young female domestic help.

Teachers are still told that they may strip their pupils of their flesh as the parents own only their bones. Girls are still told when they are getting married that they must stay at their husbands’ homes regardless of how inhumanly they are treated there. The religious allowance to Muslims to lightly strike their wives with a thin branch of a tree to chastise them for disobedience is interpreted by predatory husbands as a duty to beat their spouses at will.

In short, patriarchy, feudal practices, refusal to accept the rights of the poor and the marginalised, and the ulema’s reluctance to properly interpret religious injunctions create a cultural blend that not only allows the people to commit excesses against one another’s dignity but also provides justification for the state’s doing so. This societal attitude contributed not a little to a Senate standing committee’s reluctance to pass a bill to ban corporal punishment; it expressed its inability to ignore the people’s cultural sensibilities.

Obviously, the state has a duty to return to governance by persuasion and consent, eliminate the vestiges of feudal norms and otherwise promote the people’s freedom from oppressive customs and mediaeval cultural practices. This requires, to begin with, reform of educational curricula, enfranchisement and empowerment of women, and offering a fair deal to the disadvantaged.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2018