Violence as justice

Feb 10 2020

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

ON Friday, the National Assembly passed a resolution calling for the public hanging of convicted child molesters and rapists. Moved by the state minister for parliamentary affairs, it received majority support, including that of various opposition legislators. When news of its passage broke, the PPP and at least two cabinet members (among several other politicians) condemned it, citing the suggested punishment as a violation of Pakistan’s international commitments and, in the words of Fawad Chaudhry, an example of barbarism.

The resolution is non-binding and has no legal status. As a political act it serves one of two purposes: In the first instance, it provides observers with some insight into how the legislature is thinking about complex socio-legal issues. Or, secondly, it provides insight about what legislators want their constituents to think they’re thinking. Either way, it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing.

Even though the gesture solicited strong disapproval from human rights advocates and organisations such as Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan, it gathered considerable support from various other sources on social media. One film and television celebrity cheered it on as a necessary intervention. Its critiques were dismissed as liberal confusion and cowardice, which manifest as anger when the crime is committed but balks at the introduction of ‘decisive’ steps needed as deterrents.

Public opinion polling from the Gilani Research Foundation back in 2016 found overwhelming support for capital punishment.

The state of this general response is unsurprising. Public opinion polling from the Gilani Research Foundation back in 2016 found overwhelming support (almost 80 per cent) for capital punishment. The case for reinstating it over the past five years has been made by the state itself on the back of rising militancy and events such as the APS attack. The stated logic often meanders between its wider impact as a deterrent, and, more worryingly, as a ‘fitting punishment’, ie retribution.

Let’s place the large body of evidence that questions the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent to one side. Let’s also place to one side the equally, if not more, voluminous evidence on the social drivers of sexual violence, deviancy, and paedophilia, which often looks at the complex interplay between marginalisation, socialisation, cultural exclusion, and material gain, as possible causes that require attention. These would matter if the current debate was on framing a response grounded in actual evidence, rather than one aimed at showboating and establishing performative seriousness.

Instead, let’s just focus on the legislature’s desire for capital punishment and public executions and what that says about the nature of the Pakistani state.

That public opinion poll I cited earlier surveyed a nationally representative sample of Pakistanis. If the question was framed around child molestation, it’s reasonable to expect that the percentage of those in favour would be even higher. The recent spike in high-profile child rape and murder cases and the ensuing palpable sense of anger around them might also mean that an even more severe punishment, such as public executions, would receive considerable support.

These numbers help make sense of what the National Assembly did. The public supports the death punishment; it supports making an example out of those convicted of heinous crimes involving children; ergo those elected to represent the public have given voice to this sentiment by passing a resolution. The Pakistani state, at least its representative aspect, is simply a reflection of Pakistani society.

But that’s not the only job of the Pakistani or, for that matter, any other state. Leaving aside tiresome arguments about realpolitik and self-serving elites, the fact of the matter is that the state, especially in its democratised variant, can and has been conceived of as an instrument of change. It is capable of addressing inequities of wealth and status; it can work towards improving life chances and enhancing mobility; and it can work towards setting desirable norms for the society it represents and governs through its resolutions, laws, and administration.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani state has failed at its norm-setting task repeatedly. Its Constitution, the document that sets out the most desirable version of the state, guarantees many rights while simultaneously discriminating along the religious (and gender) axis. The legislature and the executive frequently resorts to base-level behaviour in both the laws that it passes and the behaviour that it engages in. Extrajudicial killings, abductions, judicial violation of fundamental rights, and administrative retribution against activists of various shades are fairly commonplace. Such steps are loudly proclaimed as necessities for security, a claim which is then repeated ad nauseam by cheerleaders who think morality — other than their misplaced self-belief — has no place in governance.

The resolution passed on Friday is another sordid example of retribution, securitisation, and violence being presented as the solution to a social problem. Regardless of its non-binding nature, it will pollute discourse and move the parameters of response further away from tangible evidence of what actually works; it also completely sets to one side liberal notions of justice and the sanctity of human dignity. While we have as small mercies the clear-headed criticisms levelled by sitting government ministers and the PPP, they remain minority voices (as is so often the case).

Such behaviour is often enacted without any thought given to long-term consequences. By preaching retribution, rather than reform, what example is the state setting for notions of justice held by common people? By subverting laws, rights, and international commitments, what expectation can there be for adherence and compliance within society at large? In other words, playing to base-level sentiment and persistently bringing out the largest stick to deal with any problem, the state is making its own job of governing and ensuring order difficult in the long run. The worrying bit is that even after decades of being stuck in cycles of ethnic, communal, and other types of social violence, there is still very little recognition of how the state’s own behaviour continues to feed the problems it apparently wants to solve.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2020