One was at loss to make sense of a news last week which reported that two boys in separate incidents were subjected to extreme violence. In the first incident, two men attacked a seven- year-old boy with acid for crossing their fields in Bahawalnagar and in the second, a five-year-old child was hung upside down from a tree for stealing guava from an orchard by four adults in the district of Faisalabad. Sense of bewilderment in no way implies that violence against children is entirely a new phenomenon. Some form of violence has always been used against children with a view to educate, train and discipline them. Violence against minors is in fact an element of the component that regulates and controls future social life. What’s new is its intensity and scale. Community instinct seems dead along with the traditional modes of social control and conflict resolution. In the past, not distant, if a child messed around, vandalised or stole something, he would be shooed out of the place or the men would give him/her a mock chase, giving him ample time to run away. In case of serious trouble, a complaint would be lodged with the child’s parents. Adults, male and female, had a moral right to admonish any child found saying or doing things which were thought to be unbecoming of him/her. Men and women used to treat the children of others as their own. And children were taught to accept them as uncles and aunts, giving them the status of family members. The only places infested with violence were seminaries and schools where corporal punishment was the norm to discipline the children. Parents at the time of their child’s admission would say to the teachers; ‘chumm tuhada, haddiyan saadiyan [child’s skin belongs to you and bones to us]’ which meant the teacher was given a free hand to discipline the student with all means of persuasion and coercion at his disposal. Violence was employed as a sort of ancillary pedagogical tool.

Violence was part of the social structure in the traditional society, but a network of formal and informal institutions kept it in check. The former derived their authority from the state and the latter from the traditions. Panchait [local council] was a formal body with legal and at times quasi-legal status to deal with the local affairs concerning the community. It used to be dominated by influential people reflecting contours of social stratification. But, nevertheless, it tried to maintain a semblance of impartiality and fairness by being easily accessible and open to all and sundry for the purposes of arbitration and conflict resolution. Since it dealt with the affairs of a tightly- knit community, the actual details of the cases that came up for hearing would be widely known, making it difficult for the members of council to be visibly partisan and unfair. Social and moral pressure on the members wasn’t something to be easily dispensed with in a community where everybody knew everybody. Whosoever flouted the norm got his reputation blemished with the ensuing loss of moral authority. Moral authority was usually weightier than the legal one in a tradition-driven society. Among the informal institutions ‘Sayp’ [in Punjabi language] was the oldest and socially and economically very effective. ‘Sayp’ was an ancient system of provision of goods and services based on traditional bond/contract that existed between artisans and agriculturalist classes. Artisans mainly included blacksmith, carpenter, potter, weaver, barber, baker, minstrel, folk musician and cleric. They provided the goods and services, and were seasonally paid in kind. The system worked because on the one hand it created jobs and on the other ensured security of job. Thus it worked as glue of society and created harmony. By preempting social unrest, the system prevented the emergence of crime syndicates. Consequently, the need for the use of violence to deal with the situation didn’t become common practice. It was a classic sub-continental way of keeping things from falling apart.

Another feature that defined the traditional society was its inspiring practice of sharing which it could be rightly proud of. Sharing was in fact an important element of their survival strategy. It evolved into their second instinct. They shared things, almost all things. Range of such things can baffle the contemporary mind. They shared agricultural produce, vegetables, seasonal fruits, agricultural implements, crockery, handmade cloth, dairy products and above all cooked food. Sharing was actually what facilitated them to form strong bonds with one another. It was an unbreakable stick they beat the frightening scarcity with. If we probe deeper we may end up discovering that sharing came out of the womb of scarcity and helped humans to kill scarcity which stalked them as if it were a gorgon like mother.

Now the problem is that massive vertical and horizontal intrusion of capitalist market forces has changed society to the extent that its rupture with the past is almost complete. A little is left of community instinct, joint family, local level bonding and pressure of moral values. Individualism has emerged as a supreme value and possession as an ideal that is supposed to guarantee happiness. What one owns is meant for their exclusive use. When sharing is considered wastage a child can be hung upside down from a tree for stealing guava and one can attack a seven-year old with acid for crossing one’s fields. Nothing can prevent such happenings because traditional mechanisms of social regulation have been replaced by laws which are applied selectively. Selective application of law caters to the specific needs of self-important upper class that thrives on exceptionalism. Historical problem is that transition of the traditional society to capitalist one in our part of the world has not been organic. The process of change has rather been triggered by extraneous factors beyond our control. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2020