A year ends, another begins. But memories remain. This happened so many years ago but I still remember this event vividly.
It was my turn to tell a story at the tavern tonight and I chose this one. Why? Because I fear that we may forget what we went through and forced to relive the past.
Soon after he took over, the general [Zia ul-Haq, who came to power in a military coup in 1977] arranged a big public flogging-show and I, as a reporter, was sent to watch. The victims were lined up in white pajamas, loose white shirts and white caps. They looked like circus animals waiting for the crack of the trainer's whip. All were men, most of them middle-aged. They looked pale, and they shook with fear. Some even wet their trousers when the flogging began, but it had little effect on their captors or the doctor whose job it was to examine each victim and declare him fit to be flogged.
The stage was built in a big open space between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Normally, children played football, cricket and hockey there. It was an open platform, about 15 feet high, and could be viewed from every corner of the huge ground. A wooden frame was fixed in the middle of the platform where every victim was to be tied, his hands and feet separately, as on a cross. His face would be turned towards the stage where the policemen, the magistrate, and other important people were sitting; the press had special seats so that they could watch the flogging closely and report every detail. His hips, which would receive the whip, were to face the audience. A microphone was fixed on the frame, near where the victim's mouth was to be, so that everybody could hear him scream.
Centre stage stood a tall, well-built man wearing only a loincloth. He was rubbing oil all over his body. Then he did some push-ups to show his muscles. When he finished, he picked up a big stick, soaked in oil, from a corner where about half a dozen such sticks were kept for him to choose from. He picked one and tried it in the air. The whip made a horrible hissing noise every time he cut the air with it.
The whipper, who was a convict himself, had been brought specially from the prison to perform the job, which earned him privileges inside. He received superior food and spent most of his time exercising. He was in great demand and toured Pakistan from city to city to flog whenever the government thought it needed to scare people. He looked very intimidating. He was now ready to flog. All his muscles tightened and bulged like the feathers of a rooster ready to fight.
As those on the stage prepared for the flogging, thousands of people had already gathered to watch it. The ground was full to capacity. So were the neighbouring roads and side streets. There were people on the rooftops of nearby buildings. Some even clung to the trees and electricity poles around the ground. The poor watched with a cautious nonchalance; they have learned not to appear too interested in such things because they tend to supply the victims whenever their rulers need to demonstrate their strength.
The rich behaved differently. They had come by car and on their motorbikes and were cruising around, waiting for the spectacle to begin. The young among them were dressed in tight jeans and bright shirts and some of them had brought their girlfriends with them. Some might have committed the same sin for which the 15 victims were to be flogged: drinking alcohol and having sex with women other than their wives. But they did not seem bothered. They were safe in doing whatever they did because they belonged to the so-called 'VIP' class where no law, religious or secular, applies.
They also had better, safer places in which to drink or have sex and did not have to frequent cheap hotels which the police would raid whenever their bosses felt the need to impress the public with activity. All the victims were arrested from a hotel in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood of the old city. The raiding party, so it was said, had found more than 50 people drinking alcohol and having sex. All of them were convicted in a trial completed in three days. Most of them were over 50 and so found unfit for flogging. The women involved in this crime were also convicted but were spared the whip. Those men found fit were brought for flogging.
Now the flogging was to start. The man with the stick indicated that he was ready. An official came on to the stage, detached the microphone from the wooden frame and announced the name of the first man who was to be whipped. He then read out the allegations against him and signalled the guards to bring him on to the platform. Two constables brought the convict on to the stage.
He looked utterly helpless. He was not trembling. He did not even look afraid. He looked more like an animal about to be slaughtered and unable to understand what was happening to him. He could not follow verbal commands. So to make him move, one of the constables had to give him a little push. He moved, and then kept walking so that he would have fallen off the opposite end of the stage if the other constable had not stopped him. It was as if his mind had stopped functioning. There seemed to be no coordination between his thoughts and his actions. Each of his hands and feet appeared to be moving separately.
The constables led him to the frame. Then the doctor came, examined him, listened to his heart with a stethoscope, and declared him fit for flogging. The man listened to the pronouncement with indifference, as if it did not concern him. He even nodded his head twice, as if endorsing the doctor's decision.
By now the crowd was completely silent. Even the hawkers, selling ice cream and fresh fruits to the crowd, were quiet. The constables lifted the man up on to the frame, and tied his hands and feet to the scaffolding: his face was turned towards the stage and his buttocks exposed to the crowd. They tied another piece of cloth above his hips to mark the target. Then they moved aside.
Now all eyes were fixed on the whip-man who was fiercely slashing the air with his whip. The crowd was so quiet that the microphone picked up the slashing of the whip and carried it everywhere. The man on the scaffolding also heard the sound. So far he had been very quiet but the slashing sound changed him. He started trembling and then cried, very loudly. The loudspeakers carried his voice to the crowd and beyond, but nobody spoke a word.
A magistrate, also sitting on the stage, asked the whip-man to begin. He tested the whip for the last time, slowly hitting his left palm, and then came running, stopped a foot or two from the scaffolding and hit the victim with full force. The whip touched his skin, went into his flesh and came out again. The man shrieked in agony. Those sitting on the stage could see blood oozing from the wound. One, said the official counting the whips. The man was sobbing now which could be heard on the loudspeakers.
The whipper went back to his mark and came running again when the magistrate signalled him to resume. The whip hit the flesh, the man shouted for help; the flogger withdrew, came back again, hit him and withdrew. This sequence was broken once when the doctor came to examine the victim. After his examination, he invited the whip-man to continue. The constable untied the man after the fifteenth lash and he fell on to the stage. They removed him on a stretcher and brought the next man.
This was my first public flogging. Several months later I went to a maidan in Rawalpindi where a blind woman was to be flogged for sexual misbehaviour. An audience of hundreds of men surrounded the stage where she was to he whipped. They displayed neither sorrow nor passion. They chatted about politics and sport as they waited for the flogging to begin.
Then a police officer came and asked them to go home because a higher court had suspended the flogging. Soon the maidan rang with voices of disapproval. The men wanted to watch the tamasha, the hullabaloo. They were there to watch the woman's helplessness and to enjoy it. But the policemen were ready with their batons, so they had to disperse. And the truth was that I shared their disappointment. Although I had been writing against public flogging ever since it began, I wanted to watch it. I might go back to my typewriter and condemn it, but I did not want to miss the spectacle.
This was an unpleasant discovery to make about myself. A sorrowful, angry disgust – with myself and the environment I was forced to live in – thus became a feature of my life.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.