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March 19, 2020

Dangers of retribution

Opinion

March 19, 2020

Retribution is often seen as positive in a society where it is widely believed that crime or wrongdoing must be met with an act of retribution such as a jail sentence or in a decreasing number of countries even death. But sometimes retribution can be dangerous.

The Truth and Justice Commission set up in South Africa in 1996 at the end of the apartheid era demonstrated just how much can be achieved through a process of dialogue and most significantly of all putting the truth out on the table for everyone to see and know. The commission, despite its flaws, helped unite a South African society that could so easily have fallen apart along the lines of race, tribe or wealth.

In Canada too, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in 2008 to establish the truth about institutions where indigenous children were forcibly taken away from families and housed has helped heal in part the deep wounds left behind by the forcible removal of indigenous Canadians, with the last such residential school finally closed down only in 1996. This says a great deal about the racial nature even of a society which claims to be well integrated and a true melting pot of people, regardless of ethnicity or origin.

Retribution and vendetta, much desired in a society where they are deeply ingrained, can have disastrous consequences. They add to hatred in societies where too much exists already. They create yet new lines of divide and new kinds of violence. The Subcontinent has seen such retribution too often. It is being experienced in India today by the Muslim minority under the fascist Hindu supremacist government of Narendra Modi and has been experienced in Pakistan, Bangladesh and other places. We need to work towards establishing the idea of justice, without retribution, bias or the deliberate targeting of persons who are for one reason or the other disliked, even hated, by those with influence and power.

The recent actions taken by the National Accountability Bureau against politicians, businessmen and media owners are essentially acts of retribution. If any of these persons is guilty of a crime, they must be brought before a court, relevant proof provided and punishment under the country’s laws meted out. Those in charge of running the country’s affairs should remember that vendetta and a concerted campaign against those they perceive as enemies can do more harm than good to the country as a whole. We are seeing such a campaign. The IHC in an excellent ruling delivered this month has already warned against placing people under arrest when there is no proof of guilt and no evidence that they are not willing to cooperate. When such basic elements of justice and civilised behaviour are ignored there is a build up of acrimony in society and a greater element of viciousness and unwillingness to work together. We are seeing this unfold before our eyes today.

The series of arrests we have seen recently, with many already out on bail because no evidence could be presented against them, build hatred. The lack of proof makes it obvious that they have been detained, often in inhumane conditions without even bedding to sleep on simply to settle scores. Such an approach can be enormously dangerous.Nelson Mandela spent 27 years, or indeed the best part of his life, in detention mainly in complete isolation in a cramped cell on Robben Island. He was allowed to receive a letter only once every six months, and receive a visitor once a year. He had no bed and no plumbing.

But what makes Nelson Mandela one of the most revered leaders of our time is the fact that he had the capacity to look beyond the inhumane treatment he received, forgive his white captors and hold back people from inflicting on them acts of violence or even mass imprisonment. His Truth and Reconciliation Committee was intended to undo the wrongs seen in South Africa by building for his country a peace which united and allowed harmony. It takes truly great men to forgive. The other kind instead seek vengeance for every slight, every act that they see as arising from animosity and then engage in petty vendettas. We are seeing this happen in our country today.

Reconciliation does not necessarily mean there should be no punishment at all. But this punishment must come only if a crime is proven, and it must be meted out fairly, to all, regardless of their affiliation and without nepotism. When there is a failure to do so, democracy suffers. We see only an increase in feelings of outrage in the face of open prejudice and clearly outlined discrimination. It is not an act of weakness to find a way to forgive enemies and move towards reconciliation. It takes the strongest men to do so. This is what we should be attempting at this time. There is already too much political friction and too much hatred within our country.

Men, and of course women, with vision and foresight need to understand that to save our democracy and indeed our country as a whole, they must demonstrate the ability to show magnanimity and bring people together rather than divide them further and turn the important act of accountability into something that resembles a farce.

Going beyond the matter of personal vendettas, there is also the question of bringing together entire regions and their people. The perception of injustice in Balochistan, in the former tribal areas and in other places has already damaged our federation. In Balochistan, there are children who have seen the tortured bodies of their fathers. There are other children who desperately hold up signs asking for fathers, brothers, grandfathers or others who have ‘disappeared’ to be returned to them. The same is true in other parts of the country.

A plan to draw all these troubled areas back into the mainstream of the country is vital. We need a strong, unified federation. When there are pockets of people who see no hope of justice and who continue to be discriminated against, there will be only a worsening of affairs and increase in violence. Yes, wrongs were committed by many parties in the past. It is time to forgive and to consider how significant the act of reconciliation can be. It could make the difference to our future and build a present which is viable and able to withstand the blows it constantly faces.

The writer is a freelancecolumnist and formernewspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]