RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Mob Brutality Raises Painful Questions

  • by Zofeen Ebrahim (karachi, pakistan)
  • Monday, August 30, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Whatever one calls the sight filmed on video by at least two television stations — of two teenage brothers being clubbed to death by a group of men in the eastern city of Sialkot in Punjab province — it brings out into the open many difficult questions that Pakistanis are asking about their society.

Shock over the Aug. 15 lynching — which the crowds did nothing to stop — spread after the footage was shown last week on all local televisions channels, and carried in international media reports. The video provoked calls for the government to step in to put a stop to vigilante justice.

'The Sialkot outrage sums up the degeneration of Pakistani society and the state institutions,' I A Rehman, secretary-general of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IPS.

The grainy footage showed the two brothers, 19-year-old Mughees Butt and 15-year-old Muneeb, being beaten with sticks and wires by the men before being hung, alive, from metal poles.

The reason for the killing remains under inquiry, and reports said the men who beat up the youngsters were students from a ‘madrasah’ or Islamic religious school.

A local journalist interviewed by IPS said the lynching was related to a woman and not one of crime or theft. But other media reports said that when Interior Minister Rehman Malik met the brothers’ family on Aug. 22, he referred to their having tried to rob a house but saying that even if guilty, 'they (the public) cannot act as the investigator, prosecutor, judge and executioner'.

'The fact that the criminals resorted to such extreme violence was disturbing enough,' says psychologist Asha Bedar, but found even more appalling the fact that so many people stood and 'watched and not one of them was shocked, horrified or sickened enough to intervene'. Seventeen of the 18 suspects in the lynching have been arrested.

This desensitisation to violence is combined with what peace activist Q Isa Daudpota says is the breakdown of the judicial process, which makes some think they can take justice into their own hands.

This is reinforced by incidents of 'fake police encounters', adds Farooq Tariq, spokesman of the Labour Party Pakistan. ‘Police encounters’ is a euphemism used in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to describe extrajudicial killings in which police shoot down alleged suspects before they can go through trial.

Yet mainstream media and the public gave glorified cases where police have killed suspected criminals in fake encounters, Tariq says. He cites the example of Zulfiqar Ahmed Cheema, deputy inspector general in Gujranwala, a town neighbouring Sialkot, who was conferred the ‘Tamgha-e- Imtiaz’ or medal of excellence, the fourth-highest government honour given to members of the military and civilians. 'He paraded them (killed suspects) in the city and got showered by rose petals by the citizens,' he recalls.

'As a matter of policy, police kill suspects in the so- called encounters and they see no reason to stop citizens from following suit,' Rehman says, recalling that a police officer once appeared on television to announce awards to be given to citizens who killed criminals.

Rehman traces the brutalisation of Pakistani society to the 11 years (1977-1988) of martial law under dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. This was also the result of Islamisation starting with Zia’s Hudood laws, or Islamic decrees introduced in 1979 by General Zia that cover a range of crimes and apply to non-Muslims, adds senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin.

In short, Pakistan is paying 'for the militancy of bigots', Rehman points out. Tariq adds that often, mob justice is also strengthened by religious teachings that uphold stoning to death and cutting off the hands of thieves. This can become difficult to control in places like the Punjab that have 'a history of religious militancy', independent researcher Mansoor Raza says.

'All major militant outfits have their head offices there. The recruits and headcount of ‘martyrs’ (a euphemism used to refer to suicide bombers) are also from these seven districts,' says Raza, referring to Lahore, Faisalabad, Kasur, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, Toba Tek Singh and Sialkot. The number of ‘madrasah’ has grown in the Punjab, resulting in more intolerance, and 'they are immune to logic and in adversity are quick to resort to muscle power,' he says. Rehman adds that very few protests have been heard when extremists carry out abuses, including toward religious minorities and those suspected of having done immoral acts.

All these come together in a 'herd mentality', explains Pervez Hoodbhoy, a peace activist who teaches physics at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University. In the mid-August lynching, he says, 'Gustave Le Bon, the famous French sociologist, would surely have used this example to bolster his theory of social contagion which hypothesises that crowds exert a hypnotic influence over their members.' 'Mobs behave like this when there is a total breakdown in social order and when the moral and intellectual foundations of a society begin to crumble,' adds Salahuddin.

Bedar warns of more episodes like the Sialkot lynching, which was 'neither the first nor the last of its kind.' Added Bedar: 'Unlearning the deeply ingrained and powerful attitudes that instigate, support and allow such incidents is what will ultimately make a difference. And that is the real challenge.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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