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April 16, 2018

The rot in our system


April 16, 2018

The incident had shocked everyone in the area. Asma Nawab, a girl of hardly 20, was accused of murdering her parents and brother. It was 1998; I lived in Malir, Saudabad – not far from where the murder occurred.

One day when I returned from work, the entire area was abuzz with the story of a triple murder, reportedly committed by Asma and her paramour. If I remember correctly the story went something like this: the girl was in love and used to invite the boy over whenever nobody else was home.

On that fateful morning when she was at home with her lover, the mother suddenly came back and was killed by a panicked Asma and her partner. Then her brother came in and met the same fate; so did her father. The entire locality was in shock and many refused to believe that Asma, who was known to be a quiet girl, could be an accomplice in the murder of her parents and brother. But the police version was that Asma was one of the murderers.

Tongues started wagging in the entire neighbourhood about how doomsday was nigh and how a coy and shy girl could be so ruthless that she murdered her own family. The newspapers were abuzz with the police version and almost nobody questioned it. Sensational news stories were carried about the purported love affairs of the girl, but no one questioned the authenticity of the police report. Instead, they started putting more restrictions on their daughters. These were the twilight years of the 20th century when most young girls were forced by their families to put on a burqa, not too common a sight in Karachi in the earlier decades.

There were many in the neighbourhood who narrated absurd stories about the Nawab family and the readers devoured them. Almost nobody questioned the police narrative that was quick to accuse Asma of her family’s gruesome murder. Her relatives abandoned her, apart from one uncle who occasionally visited her in prison. Sometime later, the people of the area forgot all about the case and the girl; others, like I, moved out of the locality and almost never thought about that story again.

The story is suddenly back in the news. As, finally, after 20 years in prison Asma has been acquitted of all the charges. From the very beginning, her version of the story was that when she came home from school or college, she had found her family lying in pools of blood. According to her, the police gave this colour to the case because they are always quick to implicate one of the family members to rid themselves of the burden of locating the real culprit. The police collected the evidence and prepared the case in such a manner that there was no escape for Asma.

This case is a sad example of how rotten our society has become. The false sense of piety imposed on our society by the likes of General Zia has radically transformed our communities. Who is the real culprit in this case? It is not just the police and newspapers that are responsible for this case, but this entire rotten system. First, our society fails to accept the fact that people, especially young ones, do tend to fall in love and that putting more restrictions on them and reducing their social interaction is not the solution but a catalyst for crimes.

This refusal has engendered in generations a sense of fear about falling in love and being caught. The so-called Islamisation of the state during Zia’s regime has reduced opportunities for young boys and girls to interact in a healthy manner. After the 1980s, our society was pushed into the kind of hypocrisy that denies the young people their rights. It is true that Gen Zia died in 1988 but he left a society that stinks. The use of religion to fulfil his ulterior motives has left this society in a perpetual decline.

It was well-nigh impossible for the political governments of the 1990s to pull the country out of the morass of the 1980s. By the end of the 1990s, we had seen many democratically elected governments that were shown the door. And Pakistan was only one of the three countries in the world that had recognised the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, the other two were Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

So who is responsible for the loss of 20 years that Asma spent in prison, that too after losing her parents and a young brother in a gruesome murder? The primary responsibility is with those who have failed to give the people of Pakistan a right to decent living. A society devoid of education, harmony and tolerance, engenders communities that turn their backs on innocent people, whereas neighbourhoods steeped in false religiosity perpetuate self-righteousness. We have become a people who derive pleasure from other people’s miseries.

A legal system that keeps an innocent girl behind bars for 20 years reeks of rotten fish. The millions of cases pending in courts need the top judiciary’s primary attention. If there is anything that needs overhauling it is the law-enforcement and legal justice systems. Asma Nawab’s case is a stinking example of how our society has suffered from the hypocrisy imposed on it by dictators, and how our judicial system has set wrong examples.

Malir, Saudabad, where I spent my childhood and youth, and where Asma was accused of her family’s murder, witnessed ethnic politics in its worst form in the 1980s. Then in the 1990s, the locality saw multiple operations against the MQM, followed by General Musharraf’s almost unconditional support to Altaf Hussain. The locality where I went to school and then helped my father at his shop has seen many transformations. The one thing that has remained constant is the ever-increasing population and the provincial government’s utter neglect. To top it all, increasing religiosity coupled with hypocrisy has deprived young people of a healthy interaction with each other. If you visit the area now you will see piles of garbage strewn all over the narrow streets. Malir, Saudabad is a locality that was built in the 1950s with some help from King Saud of Saudi Arabia.

The lawyers, especially Advocate Javed Chhattari, who helped Asma in this case for 20 years, deserve medals of courage. Asma’s is not just one case, there are hundreds of thousands of cases that are lingering in courts and the judiciary needs to pay immediate attention to them. The attempt by our bureaucracy to go beyond one’s call of duty results in a system that makes innocent people like Asma Nawab suffer immensely.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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