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Legal Eye

September 21, 2019

The right to dignity


September 21, 2019

Article 14 of our constitution declares citizens’ right to dignity inviolable. But much like Article 9 guaranteeing liberty, Article 14 sits smugly within the constitution essentially to mock the gap between law and its practice. In our polity, subversion of human dignity is in our face every day. You can’t avoid it even if you try. But there is hardly any jurisprudence on what the right to dignity entails, and how it is to be upheld by the state and enforced by the courts. Have we dehumanized ourselves to an extent where indignity provokes no feeling?

The most harrowing sight this past week was 10-year-old Mir Hassan consumed by rabies dying in his distraught mother’s lap outside the commissioner’s office in Larkana. While anger on social media was guided toward Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the event exposes the failure of state and society at so many levels. Doctors explain that rabies is usually fatal once symptoms appear and the virus has spread to the spinal chord and brain. Maybe the injection could do nothing for Hassan at his stage of rabies, but how does one explain the shortage of this life-saving vaccine?

In a civilized society, valuable lives being lost to curable disease is unacceptable. That people keep dying of rabies either due to their ignorance and not knowing that shots must be administered within days of the dog bite or due to shortage of vaccine is a serious affront to human dignity. But what is more distressing is the loss of Hassan’s dignity even in death. Why wasn’t he being administered palliative treatment with compassion in a hospital? Why was he discharged to die outside a bureaucrat’s office?

While we direct our angst at politicos of choice after each incident that shakes our conscience, our focus never shifts to institutional structures. Why is it even possible for life-saving drugs to run short? Even small companies have automated enterprise management systems that regulate and administer vital day-to-day processes. Why must our system rely on the conscience and efficiency of individual politicos when it comes to the day-to-day processes of the state that can uphold or deny citizens’ right to life and dignity?

Equally distressing was the news of Ramesh Bheel dying along with his brother Kewal Bheel in a road accident while trying to transport his two-year-old son’s dead body from Mirpurkhas Civil Hospital to his house. There can be nothing more painful for a parent than to endure a child’s death. Imagine the state of the poor fellow’s mind and his financial desperation that must have informed his decision to transport his son’s corpse from the hospital on a motorbike. What kind of a society are we if we can’t even protect the dignity of our dead?

A forensic report confirmed this week that the police had tortured Salahuddin Ayubi (the ATM thief whose family claimed he suffered from a mental condition). This is after police officers repeatedly denied that Salahuddin’s was a case of torture-custodial death and a post-mortem report that had validated the police story. So it wasn’t just that police investigators employed torture as the standard inquiry method in this case but also their superiors and everyone in their circle of influence, including the medico-legal team, joined hands to help with a cover-up.

We are comfortable with the knowledge that torture is our criminal justice system’s go-to investigation tool. Yet response to revelations of torture is also standardized: transient public outrage after a horrifying incident, followed by zero effort to fix the institutional structures and behavioural ethos that sustain torture. Anyone preaching rights of the accused or the convicted to dignity is heckled. And grave crimes incite calls for mob justice and public hangings including in cases of custodial-torture of the accused by the police. Isn’t the inherent contradiction obvious?

Studies support the argument that certainty of punishment as opposed to its severity is the more effective deterrent. Punishment systems are thus guided by considerations not just of deterrence but also retribution and reform. What are we saying about ourselves if we argue that infliction of severe pain and indignity is the only means to deter crime in our society? Have we dehumanized ourselves to a level where we have lost all faith in our ability to distinguish between right and wrong and our human agency to control and guide our actions?

Little Zainab’s rape and murder shook the conscience of this country. We were angry and wanted quick revenge. The killer was caught and hanged. Has that been enough to deter child molestation, rape and murder? Kasur erupted once again this past week. We are hearing familiar demands of public hangings. As a parent, there is nothing more painful than the thought of a child being molested and put in harm’s way. But why is it so hard to understand that child molesters won’t disappear because another molester is killed publicly and painfully?

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's (thankfully recalled) move to inflict the abaya on little schoolgirls on the pretext of protecting them from molestation seemed all the more farcical in the aftermath of Kasur. If abayas will protect little girls from being molested, should little boys sport abayas too? And are we saying that not just molesters and rapists, but ordinary folk are likely to lose control over their senses and indulge in sex crimes if exposed to appealing clothes? What accounts for the inability of a huge segment of our population to indulge in logical thinking?

This week the PTI regime announced that it would refuse A-Class facilities to those accused of indulging in corruption of over Rs500 million. The stated motive is to promote the cause of equality amongst prisoners, but without explanation for why such noble pursuit is limited to accountability cases alone and doesn’t cover those accused of or convicted for indulging in other crimes. Is it not obvious that the NAB process seems to view denuding the dignity of the accused as the prime goal of accountability?

If PM Imran Khan is losing sleep over the rights of poor prisoners, maybe he can pay a visit to the Bakshi khana in Islamabad (the detention center where the accused are kept when brought for trial). It lacks ventilation, usable toilets, is small and stuffy and overcrowded. At times, trials have to be adjourned for lack of space to accommodate the accused on a particular day. The fainthearted could pass out just by its stench during the summer months. It is no exaggeration to say that pre-Eid cattle markets seem luxurious in comparison to the Bakshi khana.

Dengue emerged as an epidemic a few years back. Shahbaz Sharif was mocked for doing nothing other than running after mosquitoes that summer. But lessons were learnt and the problem brought under control. Thus dengue stayed in check while SS was in office. In the first dengue season post-SS we are being threatened by another epidemic. Why should outbreak of disease have any correlation to the head of the province? Why can’t dengue prevention SOPs be carved in stone so it doesn’t matter whether or not we have a Buzdar?

As a polity we seem to have begun to view expression of anger and propagation of hate against individuals as adequate responses to collective societal problems. As a consequence we seem to have lost the ability to think in the logical sequence of cause and effect, and conceive solutions that focus on anything larger than an individual. This lack of institutionalized approach is in turn denuding citizens of their rights and dignity. Holding an officeholder accountable and seeing him as a solution or saviour are two vastly different things.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]