Truth & justice

May 14, 2011

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“There is something in human history like retribution; and it is the rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.”

— Karl Marx quoted by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 'If I am Assassinated'

THUS was Karl Marx quoted by ZAB a little before the latter's execution. The words testify to Bhutto's conviction that his judicial murder would never be confined to the dustbin of history. Perhaps more importantly, Bhutto provided the blueprint for the kind of justice that Pakistan needs so desperately to rectify the historical record and come to terms with the legacy of the myriad political crimes that litter our past.

The imperative of truth and reconciliation emerges in those societies which face a transition from authoritarian and totalitarian to democratic rule.

In such societies, the question of how to deal with recent political and state crimes assumes tremendous significance. How do we account for crimes such as torture, disappearance, rape, apartheid, murder, ethnic cleansing and genocide?

Justice as it is commonly conceived demands that the perpetrators of dreadful state crimes and political violence be properly exposed and punished. However, the pursuit of retributive justice involves political costs and poses serious dangers to transitional democratic gains. Even threats to punish wrongdoers tend to alienate powerful political forces with a faint commitment to democracy.

Strategies of democratic regimes in post-authoritarian periods mostly focus on finding the middle ground between criminal prosecution and blanket amnesty. Elected rulers have to make a range of hard choices to satisfy both the needs of justice and political compromise. In such situations, truth for amnesty becomes the only workable solution.

The acknowledgment of the truth is the basis of the kind of historical retribution which ZAB wrote about before his judicial execution. In short, the offender is required to 'perform' the acknowledgment of the truth in exchange for forgiveness and amnesty. From the perspective of victims-survivors, truth recovery is the minimum condition for justice and reconciliation. Any democratic transition devoid of this factor is a form of elite bargain that cannot help to further the cause of justice and reconciliation.

Pakistan has experienced democratic transition on three different occasions, including the present experiment. However, to date there has been no serious effort to account for state crimes and political repression under the outgoing military dictatorship. On each occasion of democratic transition, civilian governments have had to accept the demand of our powerful security apparatus and unconditionally closed the book.

The decision of President Asif Ali Zardari to send a reference to the Supreme Court of Pakistan to review the Bhutto trial should be viewed as the first serious effort to address the larger issue of alleged past state crimes and political repression. Interestingly enough, it is the judiciary — allegedly complicit in the political murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — which has been sought to clarify the truth. Surely this counts as historical retribution?

Many of our scholars advocate that we build upon the 'positives' and reject the notion that Pakistan is on the brink of becoming a crisis or failed state. They argue that we should re-imagine the future of Pakistan and explore potential paths to a post-crisis equilibrium by identifying the policy response that can bring about such an outcome.

But they fail to recognise that the future needs to be liberated from the unbearable material weight of our tragic past. Moreover, it is not policy but a major consensus narrative which we require in this hour of extreme divisions and vulnerability.

'Major consensus narrative' is the expression used as an explanatory synonym for the truth or a collective perception of reality. A nation-state cannot survive and evolve without a major consensus narrative rooted in a shared perception of the truth and justice.

The consensus narrative that our security apparatus has tried to promote for the past six decades has collapsed. This narrative is built upon prejudice, denial of historical identities, violent and exclusive interpretations of Islam and the suppression of memories of injustice, crimes and wrongs. The only means to move beyond the impasse we find ourselves in and reframe our major consensus narrative is through the deliberative remembrance of our critical past.

The presidential reference on the Bhutto trial provides an opportunity to our state institutions and public to ground the present reconciliation into truth and justice. The acknowledgment of historic wrongs along with public apologies is the prerequisite for any reconciliation to be successful. Moreover, it is the only way to end the deep distrust and enmity which Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto referred in his last book by quoting the following Urdu couplet.

Na wo badlay na dil badla na dil ki arzoo badli

Main kaesay aitbaar inqlab-i-asmaan kar loon

The writer teaches at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.