The Roots of Savagery

ACCORDING to the high priests of public morality, many normal Pakistanis have become so heartless that they rape and kill little girls or sell deadly poison under the label of essential drugs, or foodstuffs — because the moral order has collapsed. But they are unlikely to offer this explanation for the recent carnage in Sehwan.

Such simplistic answers prevent identification of the material factors contributing to the wave of savagery in the country and make remedial action difficult, if not impossible.

The foremost cause of the rise of beastliness in society is that the law has ceased to be a deterrent to crime. The state’s effort to meet this situation by making penalties for offences harsher misses the point that the majesty of the law rests not so much on punishments as it does on the public belief that nobody can escape paying for his misdeeds. In today’s Pakistan, most wrongdoers believe they can get away with anything.

One major cause for this is a sharp fall in the conviction rate, generally believed to be less than 10pc. The main contributing factors are known to be: primitive and flawed investigation, inefficient and corrupt prosecution, and the privilege of the rich and the influential to beat the law.

For example, in a recent case of illegal trade in human organs the defence team comprised about 60 advocates, headed by one of the country’s most talked about lawyers. The ability to engage the topmost lawyers is considered conclusive proof of a party’s being in the right. A glance at the legal armada assembled for the defence of Lahore’s Orange Line train project is enough to confirm this.

In murder cases, however, the conviction rate is much higher than the average. But resourceful offenders are able to secure reprieve by buying out key witnesses and often the complainants too. The recent instances of complainants’ dropping the charges against rich young men should have surprised only the less informed citizens. The use of money and social/political power to defeat justice has been going on since ancient times.


The foremost cause of the rise of beastliness in society is that the law has ceased to be a deterrent.


The capacity of the legal system to punish for murder has been grossly undermined by making the offence compoundable and a private affair between the killer and the victim’s family. Anybody who has resources to pay blood money to the victim’s family or who is capable of causing the latter further harm can get off scot-free at any stage, from within days of the occurrence of murder to minutes before the time of hanging. Stories of corruption in judicial ranks, often confirmed by the superior courts, have done not a little to rob the law of its grandeur.

Pakistan is also paying for the disconnect between its legal code and socially accepted practices. The law says the giving away of minor girls to compound a crime is an offence, but the state has done little to undercut the social sanction for such transactions in large parts of the country. Women’s vulnerability to offences against them has been aggravated by ignoring the social and psychological fallout of discriminatory laws, such as Zia’s evidence law. By prescribing capital punishment for rape, gang rape and abduction, the state has given the offenders an incentive to kill their victims and thus dispose of the most essential prosecution witnesses.

Besides, the law has suffered considerable decline after the emergence of pressure groups in support of its violators. The public clamour against houbara hunting has no effect because influential waderas and sardars have hitched their economic fortunes to this game. They ensure that the stock of houbaras on their lands is not depleted by indigenous poachers; they also provide the foreign princes with local guides and trackers who like to stay in five-star hotels, ride in luxurious vehicles and get expensive gifts.

Further, Pakistan always had a tendency to follow the theory of the ends justifying the means. The use of tribals in missions that could be disowned became an excuse for keeping them out of the mainstream. Gen Zia did a great deal to sanctify this theory. Charlie Wilson’s role in the Afghan war justified his being draped in the field marshal’s uniform and the grant of a licence in Zia’s own handwriting to hunt any endangered species. The general saw no harm in socialising with thieves and smugglers who did his bidding. One doubts if such blatant circumvention of the law has ceased.

We must also realise that many of those who excel in callousness began with petty crime when they were denied fair opportunities to make a living, or their merits were rejected, or they simply wanted to emulate the ways of privileged sections, including the rulers themselves. While lamenting the progress of a criminal from petty larceny to direct or indirect homicide, it is perhaps equally necessary to question the non-criminal sections of society about their guilt in passively tolerating much that must never be tolerated. The principle that society must accept a part of the responsibility for each crime an individual commits is inviolable.

As if all this were not enough to wreck the system of retributive justice firmly embraced by Pakistan , we are now challenged by a new breed of zealots who justify their utterly brutal acts as a duty enjoined by their faith. They have turned the principles of jihad upside down and given everybody a licence to slit the throat of anyone suspected of nonconformism.

Mausoleums and shrines have been targets of these extremists for years. The massacre in Sehwan, which the orthodoxy will not attribute to a collapse of moral values, was the inevitable follow-up of the bloodshed at the Noorani shrine in Balochistan, and the latter was the inevitable follow-up of the attacks on the Rahman Baba shrine and others. Mischief tolerated at its birth grows exponentially.

How long will it take for the custodians of power to realise where the roots of organised savagery lie?

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2017

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