Discipline and punish

Published July 27, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE brutal murder of a young woman in Islamabad on the eve of Eid saw some quick work by the law-enforcement personnel. Zahir Jaffer, the accused, was arrested immediately and presented in court. By the weekend, his parents were also arrested and the therapy centre, which had come in for considerable criticism, on social and mainstream media since the crime, was also sealed.

Interviews and statements by the police have kept the interested citizenry updated while they have also provided interviews to journalists. But the attention to this case and the alacrity shown in its handling has also led to some soul-searching among those watching its progress. Questions have been asked if the background of the victim and the accused have played a role in the way this case is being discussed and handled. After all, many other cases of violence against women do not get the same attention and neither do they hurtle along to the ‘logical end’ this rapidly.

Read: Gender-based violence in Pakistan is an outcome of the state and society simply not caring about women

The pressure on the police in this case needs no explanation. Civil society is up in arms as are the ordinary but relatively powerful residents of Islamabad who can make their voices heard in more ways than one. Mainstream media aside, social media is exploding with anger (and sometimes not entirely constructively). All this has led to considerable pressure — the visits of the government officials to Noor Muqaddam’s parents reflect this.

In fact, it reminded me of a recent discussion at the launch of a newly published book, where a guest mentioned in passing how a rapidly changing society had increased the pressure on the police which was struggling to respond to it. The remark refused to get lost in the nooks and crannies of the brain, as most such comments do. After all, we are so used to thinking of the police as this fossil frozen in time and in clichés — politicised, overstretched, more responsive to the executive and the politician than the people — that the notion of any evolution is rarely considered.

The changes we see in the police are to a large extent limited to individual efforts.

The change is there — it can be seen in the reaction to this case or the Usman Mirza case, where the publicity and outrage from the people led to quick action and a constant flow of information by the police.

But it is undeniable that there are, as many have pointed out, a certain context to these examples — the urban setting and a case which is easily identifiable for the city dwellers who can then create enough pressure and outrage (which then translates into coverage on the media). Not every case even in cities leads to this sort of a reaction from the people or the police but the few that do, forces a response, which perhaps would not come otherwise.

This change has its limits though. For as a senior police officer pointed out, the changes we can see in the force are to a large extent limited to individual efforts, rather than an institutional policy. Perhaps this is why the alacrity is seen in cases which create an outrage. As the officer pointed out, little such effort is seen in less urban settings where the relationship between the police and ordinary people continue to be one of fear and distrust.

The larger issue is that many within the police and more importantly the state view the role of the police, even now, as not one of service but of control. And this is why the final outcome is not as satisfying as the earlier progress — for in the absence of a larger intent to change the working of the police, investigation and prosecution remain lacking.

Consider the recent case. The accused was arrested from the crime scene itself and for those watching it was an open-and-shut case. But in the court, much of this will depend on the forensic evidence, say experts, where our lack of capacity is well known. Later, on the weekend, the parents of the accused were also arrested and it was reported that they were suspected of hiding evidence. A lawyer pointed out that this could mean that the police were still not in possession of sufficient evidence for a conviction. Why else would they arrest the parents for hiding evidence, he asked.

Similarly, consider the decision to seal the therapy centre, which had come under heavy criticism for its allegedly unethical practices. But was this decision made after putting together the evidence which proved wrongdoing, or was it simply a reaction to the outrage pouring in? Will the local authorities be able to keep the place sealed or will it simply open doors after the hype has died down?

Perhaps this is also why few questions are being asked about the mental health of the accused and whether or not it can be used in the eventual court case?

The point of these questions is not to simply add to the existing despair and outrage about the unchecked violence against women but to underline the larger context in which crime takes place and is prosecuted.

Individual cases can put state organisations under pressure and be seen as ‘test cases’ or ‘watershed moments’ but they may not prove sufficient to change the unspoken function of the police and how it is expected to perform — even in urban centres. And until the overall approach and notion of police functionality changes, it will not lead to internal accountability, which is essential, in addition to public pressure, to improve the ‘system’. This is why external pressure leads to, for example, quick and multiple arrests as well as throwing an entire gamut of offences at suspects in the FIRs and initial charges without much thought for what this will achieve. This is what has happened in the Usman Mirza case and seems to be happening in the Noor murder case. If the initial flurry of activity leads to a quick conviction in the lower courts which is later overturned, chances are there will be little to no repercussions.

This internal accountability will become possible only once there is a realisation and need for the state and its functionaries to change the manner in which they view the police. That may be the ‘watershed’ moment we should be looking out for.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2021

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