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January 12, 2018

Two kinds of power


January 12, 2018

Eight-year-old Zainab’s rape and murder has drawn intense outrage on the streets of Kasur and on social media this week. It is the twelfth case of this nature to surface within a two-kilometre radius in Bulleh Shah’s Kasur in a year. The case has emerged from a city where a gang of paedophiles – which involved members of an influential family – was busted in 2015.

The 2012 brutal killing of Shahzeb Khan also spawned public outrage and the killers were awarded a death sentence in 2013. But since then, the influential murderers have been manipulating the judicial system to get off the hook. Shahzeb’s case shows how those with strong political connections tend to abuse power to try literally get away with murder. However, Zainab’s case demonstrates that it is only when the power of the people manifests itself on the streets that can you get the political elite to listen.

The fundamental difference here is the nature of power-wielding. In Shahzeb’s case, it was the abuse of power by the elite while in Zainab’s case it is the use of power by the people. We see the abuse of power every day, be it in cases of murder or money-laundering, the practice of closing down roads for VIP movements or even the shameless cover-up of scams and scandals. We often see people using their power erratically. But when they do, it rattles the hollow system of governance. It is the only time when the powerful pay attention.

Zainab’s mother said it all in one pithy, heart-wrenching sentence: “I want justice’’. She should have asked for the sky instead. Zainab’s mother must be reminded that she is an ordinary Pakistani and, therefore, furthest away from obtaining justice – an elusive, revolving planet that shimmers only when the light of the powerful shines on it. For the weak and the poor, it is all darkness.

What is this justice anyway? That is what Socrates asked as well, as reported in Plato’s ‘Republic’. Polemarchus answered that justice was “the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies” while Thrasymachus argued that “justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger”. The first definition is the ideal while the second is the reality.

Zainab’s killer is likely to be apprehended and punished because, following the public reaction to the incident, it has become politically correct to do so – especially prior to 2018 elections. Shahzeb’s murderers may also receive what they deserve for cutting short a young life. But would the cause of justice be served in earnest? Isn’t real justice supposed to be swift instead of being delayed by vested political interests, institutional lethargy and inbuilt corruption? And does justice in these cases strike at the root of the disease and not just its symptoms? Will it ensure that law-enforcers are held accountable from now on? Not likely. The system is rotting and the rot is too far gone for remedy.

What about those who are left behind and doomed to unimaginable pain for the rest of their lives? What about the signals that the delays in justice have already imparted to society? What about thousands of other Zainabs who may be denied freedom of movement or even education because our streets are not safe? What about the insecurity that such recurring events instil in the hearts of all parents? Occasional justice will make us smile for a day, only to go back to our tearful inner lives as the next tragedy strikes.

There can be no justice – swift or delayed – unless you have the power to enforce it consistently and without caveats. Man-made institutions possess genuine power only if such power is derived from the people; if the sole purpose of these institutions is not to protect the powerful but to uplift the weak and the underprivileged; and if these institutions exist to ensure social justice without the fear of punishment or the greed of reward. The system can be strengthened if the nature of power is based on justice and compassion.

And those who abuse power in this country will never allow that to happen. The desire of the powerful to capture state offices is driven by the lust for wealth and privilege and has, over the last seven decades, created three social classes: the state-sponsored oppressors; the unprotected oppressed; and the smugly-disgruntled, who love to whine and complain – online, of course – and then return to their laptops and mobile phones.

Why did people only come out on the streets of Kasur to seek justice for Zainab? Why did the rest of us sit back after self-righteous anger was duly articulated on social media? The modern-day problem is that we are glued to our cellphones and enjoy living in a virtual reality that is completely oblivious to the people who are sitting next to us. If this is civilisational progress, give me the tenth century any time.

Small wonder then, if change eludes us – meaningful, genuine change, that is. (Otherwise, of course, a great deal has changed from who our role models are to the vacuum in our lives that we continue to fill with either international brand-names or religious rituals.)

As long as we are silent spectators who are selective in condemning injustice, change will always be meaningless. And selective we are. One doesn’t have to subscribe to Dr Tahirul Qadri’s questionable brand of politics to argue that the 14 people killed in the Model Town incident in June 2014 were murdered in cold blood by the Punjab Police in a scene that was captured and replayed on our TV screens. Yet the case remains unresolved.

Socrates pointed out that:“just men are superior in character and intelligence and are more effective in action’’ while unjust men is “ignorant and stupid”. Given the quality of both the character and intellect of our powerful elite, is it surprising that we are faced with cases like the rape and brutal killing of Zainab, the murder of Shahzeb Khan and the Model Town incident?

The sociopolitical system that has controlled our lives for the last seven decades – whether under a period of military rule or a so-called democratic one – is just too rotten at the core. It cannot be reformed or ameliorated. It has to crumble and collapse and be replaced with a more balanced system if we are to survive as a nation.

The present system will take ages to crumble if we, as bystanders, do nothing. We can hasten its demise by shedding our learned helplessness. We, the people, have to choose the kind of power that we want to protect our children and the future of our homeland.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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