Friday, February 6, 2015

The shadow of the gallows

Kamila Hyat Thursday, December 25, 2014 
From Print Edition

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

The sinister shadow of the gallows, with bodies swinging at the noose, has been appearing everywhere in Pakistan; a number of condemned prisoners have been hanged within days after the six-year moratorium on the death sentence was lifted in the wake of the horrendous attack in Peshawar which killed 132 children and nine adults. 

The reaction seems to be a straight desire for eye for eye revenge. No one appears to have bothered to think through what the impact will be, how these hangings go to further brutalise a society already numbed to pain and death, and the degree to which the action by the state not only gives out a very definite signal that killing people is acceptable but also threatens to trigger retaliation by the militants. The fear of this has already compelled schools in the Punjab to shut down while the fog which engulfs Lahore carries with it a strong element of invisible, but almost discernible, fear.

What is happening makes things even grimmer in our state, with no signs that anything that could really stop the militant menace is taking place. Bodies swinging in prison yards at dawn will change nothing. There is of course plenty of evidence from around the world that capital punishment does not bring down the rate of crime. In fact, it sometimes has the opposite impact. Studies proving this come from the 32 US states which retain the death penalty and the 18 which have abolished it. There are now less than 58 countries in the world which retain the death penalty for crimes other than treason. Around 140 have banned it altogether. 

The pressure on Pakistan to join the list of more civilised nations, which recognise that killing citizens has little impact on stopping crime, has been immense. It is also true that within our flawed justice system it is the poor that hang, and the rich and powerful who get away. This is as true in the case of terrorists as anyone else. 

One instance of this has come in the controversy over the planned hanging of Shafqat Hussain, who was only 14 when he allegedly committed the crime of murder and kidnapping for which he was sentenced to death. An international outcry has been created over the appearance of his name on the list of prisoners to be hung first of all.

So, let us accept that hanging is no real solution to the problem we face. What then is the solution? We need to come up with answers and we need to discover these answers as fast as possible. It has been too long already. One weight that rests on many minds is the issue of whether we are truly able to eradicate militancy at all. There are many of us who wonder that because its roots have been allowed to grow so deep into our soil and poison layer after layer of it as they push their way through. Revenge will not work; so what will?

We need to undo the hatred that was injected into our society in the largest doses during the 1980s, with the syringe readied even before this. How will this happen? There are no simple answers. But we have to begin with the hope that within the coming two decades we will be able to see something resembling change; something we can call hope. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect any fundamental alteration to come before this – but it should be possible to see some semblance of movement taking us towards the target of a society within which people feel safer and all opinions are respected.

Where to begin is not a very difficult question to answer provided we can muster up the desired will and the desired resolve. Clerics who spread hatred such as the Imam of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad need to be arrested. With his stone cold eyes, Maulana Abdul Aziz, refusing to even condemn the mass murder of children in their schools represents all that is wrong with our society. There are others like him. They run groups that function under new names to bypass the ban placed on them mainly in the 2000s. Astonishingly, these outfits are allowed to function and their leaders permitted to preach hatred. 

An effective law against hate speech is still to be put in place and implemented. Those that exist are virtually not used at all and even many policemen are entirely unfamiliar with them. The result is the existence of groups who through their names and actions advocate the killing of Ahmadis and other communities whose beliefs they find fault with. This situation, through legal reform carried out by parliament and through action taken by the government through its security agencies, has to be changed first of all.

We must also find a way to rein in a media that has become a monster out of control. Yes, of course, freedom of speech is a basic right and must be protected. But it should not extend to giving air time to people who spread intolerance, hatred and messages of violence by using television channels and their anchors to do so. We have seen this happen even after Peshawar – the attack that seems to have woken up a nation but which may still go without bringing about the kind of long-term reform we so badly need. 

School curricula are of course another place where mindset can be adjusted. We must use these books wisely. Their purpose has to be to spread knowledge, encompassing a wide set of views, with pupils taught to think and determine for themselves what path they most closely believe in. Blockades have been placed consistently in this process over the years, and have come most recently in KP where steps taken to broaden minds have been taken back and the fences of the past erected once more around the ability of children to think more freely and to look out at a world broader than the one most of them live in.

Ending militancy is also closely tied in with other realities of our society. These include ignorance, poverty and illiteracy. They allow militant groups to recruit young people who have nothing else to set their sights on and of course it is these young men who are converted into suicide bombers willing to give their own lives in order to take that of others. 

Development is the key to stopping this malignant process from spreading further. Rather than digging up road after road and paralysing cities such as Islamabad and Lahore with an ill-conceived metro project which has also caused vast environmental destruction, the money we have available must go into hospitals, into schools and into village infrastructure. Yes, placing MRI machines in hospitals, furniture in schools or drains in a village through which no pipe water flows is not as glamorous as announcing mega projects. But it is what we need most of all. 

At the same time we need to close down the madressahs which have cropped up because we have abandoned our public school system and allowed it to literally rot away. Right now, all these issues are being spoken of. It is time to do something about enforcing the steps discussed, since it is all too easy to predict our bloodlust and hanging people will solve nothing at all.


Source: [last accessed 06.02.2015]

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