A system betrayed

September 06, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THIS is a script for a blockbuster film. Right from his name, Salahuddin Ayubi, to the images of what was said to be his tortured and badly bruised body, the man carried so much drama about him. He first appeared on the stage making faces, daring the camera monitoring those accessing the bank’s ATM. He departed mocking an entire system that is often desperately dependent on violence as a means of sustaining itself.

There’s mobility in the story of Ayubi, a man from a small town in the Gujranwala district of Punjab, whose brief public appearance has let loose torrents of accusations and self-lament. From Kamoke, not far from Lahore, the scene shifts to Faisalabad where an ATM is said to be broken into by our central character. This is the site where the mocking footage was reportedly recorded. From there, the story moves to Rahim Yar Khan in lower Punjab, but by then the video of Ayubi’s exploits in Faisalabad has been given enough airtime on national TV. His identity as some kind of an extraordinary individual who might require special handling has been firmly established in the eyes of the beholder.

It is unclear what those people who are said to have delivered Ayubi to the police are thinking now. If the details of the reports that have reached us so far are true, they were doing their duty. This group in Rahim Yar Khan, it has been reported, saw Ayubi working suspiciously on an ATM. They say one of the men recognised Ayubi from the footage, which had already been running on TV, and it was decided that the police were best equipped to deal with the subject. There were initially some suggestions that those who had handed over Ayubi to the law enforcers could have done so after thrashing the captive suspect, but these insinuations have since faded away and it is by and large the police’s conduct in this episode that is under the microscope.

According to the latest information provided by the hospital in Rahim Yar Khan, they had received Salahuddin Ayubi dead on the evening of Saturday, Aug 31. Adding further to the mystery, the concerned regional police officer has told the media that there were no torture marks on the body. Not just that, he said the pictures that showed torture marks on a body and claims that it was Ayubi’s amounted to desecration. A judicial probe into the incident is going to establish what actually happened and, hopefully, who was responsible. It will be tough to prove otherwise, because the people have already been sold on what they have seen unfolding before their eyes. Especially difficult to deny will be a one-liner Ayubi left behind, which has pretty much been accepted by people as a sort of final indictment: “Aap nay maarna kahan say seekha?”

There is a difference in the script here, however: the haunting voice of Salahuddin Ayubi saying “Aap nay maarna kahan say seekha?”

The pace of the story as it has been told by a thousand tongues is fast, and the subsequent images following his capture are indeed that of a body — allegedly Ayubi’s. It has been a thorough, quite complete job, and there are torture marks pretty much all over. Quite routine stuff, those in the business of discovering bodies would tell you. There is a difference in the script here, however: the haunting voice of Salahuddin Ayubi apparently sitting inside police premises and seemingly talking to a police officer, saying “Aap nay maarna kahan say seekha?”

There are various explanations about how this footage was secured and how it was leaked to the world at large. But it is easy to be excited by the prospects of catching the police red-handed yet again. It appears that the classic sentence where Ayubi is mocking the police about their training in torture comes from a passage of conversation between practitioners of two distinct techniques or professions. Here, Ayubi could be merely responding to his interrogators’ question about his methods by counterposing: “Where did you learn to torture, sir?” Given his already established penchant for sarcasm and jeering, he could well have meant that these habits of breaking into ATMs and unleashing torture on fellow human beings come commonly and naturally to people — depending on the circumstances they are provided to perfect their skills.

There has been some discussion of the circumstances that gave birth to Salahuddin Ayubi as we know him. His family says he was a mentally ill man who had previously been caught by the police many times. It is also said that he had been treated for his illness at some Lahore hospital. The family pointed out that they had tattooed his name and address on one of his arms in the event he ever got lost. They had obviously not bargained for Ayubi receiving so much fame and recognition before his death, and providing an opportunity for all-round expression of lament and mourning.

Just as the pictures of Ayubi’s white-haired father are flashed in front of a captive grief-stricken audience, news from Lahore says that the recent stories of people dying allegedly of police torture are a source of embarrassment to the force. Once again, old incidents of police violence against citizens are recalled to highlight the brutalisation of the department that has such a permanent central presence in our daily scheme. Among the more recent instances that have found a mention in the protesting chorus is the shootout in Sahiwal a few months ago that left a Lahore family poorer by a few members but had little impact on anyone else around.

Once again, there are loud demands for accountability, reform — and even for revenge. But those who are comparing a staged encounter or any other unwanted police shootout with deaths by torture inside a police cell often miss a basic point. The intention of the dark silhouettes who work over suspects inside the police dungeons is seldom to kill. They are employing violence, but in measured quantities, which the subject is expected to survive. It is not expected of your average Pakistani to betray the system the way Salahuddin Ayubi has allegedly done.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2019