Friday, March 5, 2010

On Vigilante 'Justice'

The media catchphrase of the last couple of days: "Chhitrol" (flogging). This, of course, after rather explicit footage first emerged from Chiniot, of policemen stripping arrested men and giving them some heavy duty spanking in full public view. After this footage was broadcast on almost all television channels (Express I think had it almost a day before others), more footage of similar such incidents was sent in by various people from all over Punjab. Geo took the lead in running as many as it could find, most of them sent in by viewers who probably recorded it on their cell phones. I counted at least five new bits of footage tonight.

Of course, the footage was accompanied by some requisite hue and cry over the blatant abuse of human rights (it is!) and the process of law due to the accused, a number of policemen were suspended, some fiery vows were made to prosecute the errant policemen under the anti-terrorism act, and even one PMLN MPA was implicated in allegedly condoning the barbaric acts. But perhaps the most telling aspect of the whole scenario was a news report carried by Aaj TV, in which average people asked about the issue in one town Jalalpur Bhattian unanimously defended the policemen as having done the right thing. The people interviewed claimed that the men flogged in public view were apprehended red-handed by local residents while committing a dacoity and deserved everything they got and that they, the members of the public, had, in fact, demanded it of the police. It would do well to remember that in many of the footages shown, there are crowds of people observing the floggings.

This, to me, is the crux of the issue. Remember at least two instances in Karachi in the recent past where robbers caught by local residents were beaten and set alight before the police could even arrive? Remember the support in the North-West and FATA regions for the Taliban brand of brutal and quick "justice"? I am not in the least trying to justify what is ultimately barbarism but there is a pattern here.

What motivates normal, law-abiding citizens to take the law in their own hands, or approve of authority meting out on-the-spot punishments, without trial or opportunity of defence to the accused? Is it a lack of awareness of the benefits for everyone of due process? Is it some inculcated respect for fascism? Is it fear that if such pressure is not exerted by the public, crooked policemen will collude with criminals? Or is it resignation that the corruption and bureaucracy of the legal system will see real culprits go scot free?

It could, in fact, be a combination, of all these things. But whatever it is, this is what needs really to be addressed. When the average citizen sees nothing wrong in vigilante "justice", no amount of fiery rhetoric and punishment of policemen is going to solve the problem.

On a slightly different tangent but taking the chhitrol footage as a peg, Mubasher Lucman - usually a blowhard host I am not very fond of - conducted an excellent and probably the most restrained programme tonight about extra-judicial killings, with some really shocking and damning footage. The last time I saw such clear documentation of blatant extra-judicial murders was in the 1990s when the Herald and Newsline investigated the same issue in Karachi (except, of course, Lucman had actual before-the-act video footage and photographs which are far more damning). Curiously, instances of summarily knocking off alleged criminals in faked "police encounters" seem to pick up in the Punjab every time populist Shahbaz Sharif is in power, which may reinforce what I was speculating about earlier.

In any case, here are clips from Point Blank hosted by Mubasher Lucman on Express TV:


Khizzy said...

I'm glad you presented both sides of the argument. and ultimately i feel it comes down to the resignation and lack of faith in our justice system.
although it no way justifies the act, and i realize it ended up making people more sympathetic towards the dakoos, completely forgetting their crime.
the word i've been using is 'tricky'. having been held along with family, at gunpoint and feeling that sense of helplessness, and then later rage at the men, i could be an advocate for such punishment. the men were never caught.
but if i saw the same men being stripped down and lashed publicly, hearing their screams, i'd want it to stop.
i want them to be punished, but i don't want details. this is turning into a huge debate amongst myself and people close to me. i don't understand the 'blood lust'(harsh word i know)... and have never even understood when people sit down to watch a man get executed (in developed countries like the US).
just knowing that appropriate punishment was dished out, should be enough... by wanting to be witness to this torture and public punishment and enjoying it...isnt it blurring the lines that divide us and them(the bad guys)

i have no final opinion on this. still confused. this was a rant.

Hamza said...

You know, if there were awards in the Pakistani electronic media world, I think Mubasher Lucman should win one for his program on extra-judicial killings. That was a really well put together examination of the "encounters" that occur far too often in Punjab under Shahbaz Sharif.

XYZ said...

@Khizzy: I appreciate your honest rant and agree with you mostly that it is a tricky subject, which is what I was alluding to: that unless you have faith that the "bad guys" (and only the bad guys) will receive their just punishment, you are likely to believe that such excesses are tolerable. Unfortunately, our anger and our sense of helplessness also clouds rational thinking about crime or why in the long-term such excesses do not benefit society as a whole (as you point out, for one, they transfer some sympathy to criminals themselves, but also because of the possibility of wrongful punishment of actually innocent people). It's certainly not easy to restrain oneself when one is sure about the target of one's rage.

@Hamza:Yeah, Bombastic Lucman - who would ever have guessed!

temporal said...

well said khizzi:)

and well presented xyz:)

the bottom line is the unrepresented and voiceless awam's frustration with applied justice in their everyday life

while the grand pirs of the courts obsess over the fine prints of the constitutional law, the awam largely suffers the indiginity of surviving in an ostensibly lawless society

fatima-ahtesham said...

Hey nice videos and wonderful blog i like it very much

Vanguard said...

My two cents:

With the lawlessness prevailing, and privatization of security in the form of private security companies, I believe the law and order situation in the country will not improve until people start taking law in their hand and administering justice themselves. Obviously, some innocents might suffer (and they are already suffering much) but it might actually force someone in Police/judiciary/government higher ups to really get their act together.

I don't know the correct distinction but I like to differentiate between justice as meted out by the victims (vigilante) and as meted out by Police/government (extra-judicial). Latter is what I really find distasteful because if the government/police does not believe in the judicial process taking its course bringing justice, how can the common man on street expect to get justice from the courts.