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December 4, 2018

The one who cannot be seen

Opinion

December 4, 2018

In a far-off island of New Guinea, surrounded by dense fog, engulfed in rain and covered by thick forest – such that one cannot even see the sky from the ground during daytime – there lives an aboriginal tribe unaffected by modern society. The tribe is called the Asmat, which means “those who are true humans”.

Life on the island is merciless and tough, with many deadly and poisonous animals and humans continuously living in fear of each other, and survival only possible if one lives and hunts together, sharing daily tasks.

The Asmat people, whose origins are ancient, speak a simple and straightforward language in which grammar is hardly used, and each word is an entire sentence. For them, their tribal culture and norms are crucial and cannot be compromised at any cost. That is why they call all other living beings, including humans who do not belong to their tribe, ‘Manowe’, which means “living species that can be eaten”. The Asmat people have been classified as cannibals.

The worst crime that can be committed by an Asmat is if he, forced by circumstances and starvation, kills and eats another Asmat. Such a crime damages the very foundation of the tribe’s existence. But the punishment prescribed is unique and special. The criminal is not put to death, as one would expect. Instead, he is given a special name: the one who cannot be seen.

As soon as this name is given, it is almost as if the person ceases to exist for the entire Asmat tribe. This, for any Asmat who is used to doing everything together and collectively, is traumatic and worse than death.

The typical way in which events unfold thereafter must be considered. As soon as the punishment is announced, his first reaction is to go to his family in a state of panic for help. But the strength of society’s principles is so strong and its reaction as a whole so immediate and united that his father, mother, brothers, sisters, wife and children simply look through him as if he is invisible.

From then on, no Asmat speaks to him. He cannot hunt, eat or sleep with them. Even the fruit which he eats to survive doesn’t taste the same because the sense of oneness is so strong among the Asmat people that they even share their food from each other’s mouth.

He cannot move out of the tribe because he will be killed by non-Asmats. As time goes by, he starts believing that he has actually disintegrated in this living hell. In desperation, he goes to the mountain top and prays to the skies so that one day he can be seen. But nothing works. When nobody calls out to him as the rain starts falling heavily, the roar of thunder becomes louder and lightning strikes the nearest tree, he breaks down, cries, and eventually lies down to die.

When this happens, the punishment takes another twist. The elders of the tribe get together and nominate a judge, giving him the title of the one who can see the one who cannot be seen. This judge then goes to the one who cannot be seen, who after realising that he can now be seen, falls at the judge’s feet, fervently rubbing his head on the ground for forgiveness, and begs that either his name be changed or he be killed.

If, and only if, the judge is convinced that the criminal has truly corrected himself internally and cleansed his soul, the criminal is required to identify and give the details of all the gains and assets – from the weapons to the minutest beads – that he has derived and acquired from society, and to unconditionally return them back to the tribe in exchange for being allowed to be ‘seen’ and for having is punishment suspended. In this way, the culprit is then allowed to start a new life as a better person. This primitive society has a way of redressing any wrong done to the people through sheer power of shunning.

Corruption is a crime that has eaten away and broken the very fabric of our society in Pakistan. For us, it is as terrible a crime as cannibalism is within Asmat society. Accountability must no doubt be strict and those who have stashed ill-gotten wealth and looted people’s money must be caught and punished.

Although the process has started, we must remember that white-collar crime is extremely difficult to detect and even more difficult to prosecute and prove in a court of law. The corrupt usually create such an intricate web around themselves and their assets that it is sometimes impossible to connect them with the proceeds of their crimes and any wrongdoing.

Many corrupt elements have been tried, but we cannot find any evidence to convict them. The result is that some people have become billionaires with corrupt money and either aren’t within the tax net or are paying a minimal amount of money in taxes. Most of their assets are undeclared and in benami property or hidden abroad. These elements are, in fact, those who should not be seen.

When Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the UK, enthusiastically supported the US and joined his country’s forces in the unjustified invasion of Iraq, the people who were opposed to the move also resorted to similar means to indicate that their prime minister had acted against the moral code of the people. Whenever Blair appeared in public, he was shown no respect. Instead of giving him appropriate applause, the audiences resorted to a soft applause that could hardly be heard, conveying their disapproval of the prime minister’s decision.

Pakistan’s 20 crore people have to play their role effectively. In the past, I remember people in my village talking about ‘huqqa panni band’ (ostracising) against those who broke the norms of the village to ensure that they corrected their ways.

If our society wants to eradicate corruption, it has to play its role effectively. Soft applause or ‘huqqa panni band’ in the form of not showing these corrupt elements overt respect or not inviting them as chief guests in functions, and not rising to show them respect when they do attend public functions, will convey the contempt harboured by the people against those who deserve not to be seen. Otherwise, a time may come when the nation as a whole will be labelled by the world as the ones who cannotbe seen.

The writer is a Supreme Courtadvocate, former caretakerfederal minister, and former president of the SCBA.

Email: [email protected] com

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