The Tenth Circle of Hell

June 05, 2012

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Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan

The moral health of a society can be gauged by how it treats its weakest members. In the same vein, Pakistan’s social rot is most evident when we consider the plight of its least empowered citizens. Consider this: when was the last time you saw a wheelchair ramp in a public building, or saw a positive news report regarding the public education system. Within the legal system, matters are even worse. Have you ever heard any discourse on how to implement an effective system of legal aid? Do you know that there is only one woman currently functioning as a superior court judge in Pakistan?

One of the great contributions made by western civilization in the twentieth century was its unflinching rejection of structural inequality in any form (within its own society). The United States of America played a key role in the development of the idea that any of its citizens, regardless of wealth, race, religion, class, or social background, could rise to the very top. This is a truly great idea, and one which has failed miserably to penetrate Pakistan’s middle and upper classes.

The most common reservation which Pakistan’s supposedly educated lot have towards this idea (and towards the closely linked concept of democracy, from which it stems) is their firmly entrenched belief that not all people are equal. There is an incredulity which surrounds the notion that within this system, no prerequisites exist for an individual to be permitted to decide how he wishes to be governed. “We must be deferent to those who are wiser (or smarter, or more educated)” is their common refrain. “They know better than the simple-minded farm labourer, what is good for his future.” The fact that sixty-five years of sub-continental history bear witness to the falsity of this paternalism, have done little to dent its pervasive appeal.

Nowhere is this hubris more clearly on display, than in the context of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Pay close attention to that phrase. The Tribal Areas are administered by the Federation. Two implications arise from this: firstly, that the tribal areas are something other than the Federation itself, since they are being administered by it; and secondly, that they are not being governed but rather ‘administratively managed’.

The Constitution itself makes it very clear that FATA is to be treated as a lesser territory. Consider the wording of sub-article (2) of article 247: “No Act of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) shall apply to any Federally Administered Tribal Area or to any part thereof, unless the President so directs...” To put it in plain English: the Tribal Areas can’t legislate for themselves. Let’s move further to sub-article (7) of the same provision: “Neither the Supreme Court nor a High Court shall exercise any jurisdiction under the Constitution in relation to a Tribal Area...” i.e. the Tribal Areas do not have any recourse to a legal system, as we know it.

These words, which we have for nearly 60 years tolerated within the successive Constitutions of our nation, have very real, very practical implications. Today, FATA stands a world apart. It has only the most tenuous links with the actual state of Pakistan. It is geographically and socially, a barren desert. In effect, nothing more than a playground for the Pakistani military to build sand-castles in. This is the real reason why foreign nations do not find it reprehensible to keep bombing this region. It is a region which we ourselves have subjugated and colonised – it is populated by a people who we treat like beasts. By way of context, Hindustanis were more enfranchised (in every sense of the word) by Great Britain prior to Independence, than the Tribal Areas are within the ‘modern’ state of Pakistan. In fact, I have little doubt that a strong argument can be made that the Tribal Areas do not even constitute a part of the state of Pakistan in any real sense, regardless of what the Constitution might say.

When Pakistanis express puzzlement over the bizarre conviction handed out to Dr. Shakil Afridi by an ‘Assistant Political Agent’ (whatever that means), or the manner in which the civilised world seems to overlook Western transgressions in the Tribal Areas, they fail to realise that they are reading news reports not emanating from Pakistan but from a world apart – a world inhabited only by the Tribal Areas. It is a special circle of hell, devised by the people of Pakistan themselves, for the very weakest who live among them. A place where punishment need have no justification or evidence to support it. A place where fire can rain down from the sky without rhyme or reason.


The writer is a lawyer practicing in Karachi.


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