Pappu and politics

Updated 18 Sep 2020

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

A WHOLE jungle of wild voices have resulted from the horrors of the motorway incident. Some comments have had to be later clarified but no apology is expected, nor has one been sought from the maker of these remarks which have been quoted verbatim.

“I wish Imran Khan had mentioned about Pappu case in Zia-ul-Haque time ... the culprit was sentenced to death in a case of child rape and his body was publicly hanged at Chauburji Chowk, this served as a deterrent as many years. This is the solution to the problem in such cases.”

This is a veteran from the general’s stable speaking from his heart in the latest race to nail the guilty. His profound words are additionally inspired by the policy line given by Prime Minister Imran Khan on the horrifying crime that shook the country.

Prime Minister Khan favours public hanging of the highway rapists. He favours castrations as punishment so that no one can again think about committing the act. On cue, the prime minister’s team members — for instance, Senator Faisal Javed Khan — have made it quite clear. Ideally they would like a consensus for public execution post-conviction.

Zia’s urge to hold a whole party, actually an entire country, in awe of his menacing powers, must have been at its strongest.

The sentiment is echoed by many in this country. Inevitably, the one example that is cited in support of the demand is the sole public hanging staged in Pakistan more than four decades ago.

The Zia veteran quoted here is a ringside witness of many a champion who has ruled this country. He may have naturally been struck by the similarity in tone of our prime minister now and the general who was out to create fear of his writ under martial law then.

The hanging of those convicted of the rape and murder of Pappu in Lahore took place in the year 1978 — one day short of Pakistan Day in March, according to the peerless chronicler duo, Raziuddin Razi and Shakir Husain Shakir.

The message was sent across alright — but to whom is a point in contention. Less than a year into his ambitious rule, Zia needed to reinforce his position as a stern, no-nonsense dictator. This was not for the benefit of petty criminals. The urge to hold a whole party, actually an entire country, in awe of his menacing powers, must have been at its strongest.

It so happened that four days before young Pappu’s murderers were hanged in what is recalled by a witness 42 years later as an eerily quiet day in the city of the zinda dilan, the Lahore High Court had sentenced Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to death. Now while the fate of Pappu’s killers had been sealed the moment the gavel lent finality to the judge’s order for their extermination, the public hanging, the first and the only one in the history of the country, cast them in a role in a drama that had political ramifications.

The protests were on and PPP politicians were being rounded up. The mercy pleas by countries such as Iran and Qatar had just landed and there were reports of students at demonstrations falling to the Lahore police’s bullets. The Masawat newspaper was shut down. There was a reason for a public hanging now to clear the way for a secret execution of another, of a former prime minister, a year and two weeks later.

Through the next few years, intimidation and rule by fear were the main ploys employed by Gen Zia — although towards the latter half of his rule, he did find merit in flashing his human side before an appreciative audience. However, not even this trendsetter warrior on the right path could bring himself to take human lives publicly — notwithstanding the ghastly nature of the crime.

He may have had his reasons for not attempting to institutionalise public hangings, instead carrying out floggings to make an example. The debate on turning executions of capital convicts into terrifying spectacles of deterrence has gone on through all these years, albeit with a due amount of politics thrown in.

Perhaps it was not the smallest attempt at legerdemain to take the political context out of the public hanging of Pappu’s killers. You routinely run these days into a message pasted next to a smiling Gen Zia in which this model public hanging is said to have taken place in 1981 — at a sufficient distance from ZAB’s sentencing and his non-public and quite secret hanging and burial.

Only with the gap established, do supporters of public hanging hail it as an event which ensures there were no such crimes in the country for the next decade. God knows in which wonderland these angels of justice were distracted. For counting from 1981, the next 10 years would have included the two-and-a-half-year term of ZAB’s daughter, even if it is assumed that the little period of time in the decade when Mian Nawaz Sharif was at the helm was expected to follow the calm perfected by his mentor.

This veteran now prescribes Zia’s medicine in Imran’s era as a most loyal understudy. He was a vital part of the machinery then and is a handy part of the system now. His association with the origins is just too deep and long for him to come out of that age. The disappointing part is that others — not least of them our prime minister— have to begin this debate by taking extreme positions.

‘Castration’, ‘hanging’, ‘public hanging’ … these terms are certain to be repeated as the discussion on the issue at hand heats up further. An in-charge of an operation, where the government is unable to prevent a suspect from disappearing in the fields right before its eyes, will only be adding to the outrage and frustration by resorting to personally favouring punishments that, according to his own admission, have been replaced by other evolved substitutes.

To tell you the truth, pledging punishments and public hangings and then saying these may not be possible in the face of international pressure is in itself a withdrawal plus an unnecessary admission of foreign influence. Better avoid the company of apologists such as the opposition leader in the National Assembly and the CCPO Lahore.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2020