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Who is killing the good ones?

Recently, civil society activists gathered in several towns to shed their tears for their brutally cut down heroes — Perween Rahman, Rashid Rehman and Sabeen Mahmud prominent among them. Was their wail heard in the halls of power?

For years and years, the people of Pakistan have been treated to a parody of responsible governance. Whenever a popular human rights defender is killed those responsible for ensuring his/her security rush to issue pro forma statements. The so-called law-enforcement agencies are told to catch the culprits within three or seven days — depending on the deceased’s rating in the protocol office.

The media blares out a stock headline — ‘the sarkar has taken notice of the horrible incident’. Then both the rulers and the ruled revert to their favourite pastime — sleeping. Now and then, friends of the dear departed get together to hold memorial functions or to light candles (if vigilante brigades are not around). The file is closed when the crime is attributed to somebody killed in an encounter. The dead cannot take the tale any further and the quest for justice, never carried out in earnest, finally ends.

Each time a good Pakistani is felled, the wounds caused by the killing of others are reopened. But times are changing — even if those in authority are not aware of it. Each time a good Pakistani is felled, the wounds caused by the killing of others over the past many years are reopened. The list of victims is getting longer and longer — and more and more strident becomes the call: Who killed Sabeen? Who killed Rashid Rehman? Who killed Perween Rahman? Who killed Irshad Mastoi or Saleem Shahzad? Who killed academics Waheed-ur-Rahman and Shakeel Auj in Karachi and Shabihul Hasan in Lahore? Who killed scores of doctors in Karachi and a heart surgeon in Chenab Nagar? And who killed the Baloch/Pakhtun/Sindhi dissidents whose mutilated bodies have been found lying in bushes?

The state does not respond directly; it speaks through its standing apologists. The Sabeen Mahmud case is a good example of defence by proxy. When the popular promoter of social discourse in Karachi was gunned down soon after organising a discussion on enforced disappearances that focused on Mama Qadeer, the establishment’s leading bête noire, many people saw a link between the killing and the event preceding it. Up went a chorus by the media choir leaders — ‘Sabeen had been receiving threats for quite sometime’.

The state’s duty was clear — it had to catch all those who had threatened Sabeen and anyone else whose tender toes she had stepped on. The people have no interest in putting any innocent person or group or service in the dock. They will be satisfied if the government can find the culprits (and no dead bodies, please). So long as that does not happen the aggrieved citizens will be free to arrive at their own conclusions, however unfounded or unfair to some that might seem.

Since the name of a security agency has been hinted at in the public debate over Sabeen’s premeditated murder, a few words on the matter may not be out of order. It is certainly unjust to accuse any agency of wrongdoing without a reason. But if an agency is routinely blamed for everything that goes wrong in the country its leaders must ponder the reasons for such unenviable popularity.

Further, one should like to ask the country’s top intelligence agency for a small favour. It possesses the most complete record of all criminals in the country, be they politicians, or bureaucrats, or mafia leaders. Could it utilise its resources, believed to be superior to anything available to the other state services, to unmask the killers of human rights defenders, social workers and, the most wretched of them all, the victims of enforced disappearance? That might silence the unpatriotic rumour-mongers.

The question, however, is much bigger than the liquidation of fearless activists. The issue is the state’s warped understanding of crime and its own culpability. The state must realise that it is responsible, to a certain extent, for each targeted killing, indeed for each crime that takes place in our society. A scientific approach to criminology demands attention to be focused not only on the hands that pull the trigger but also on the conditions that shape a killer and those who sow the seeds of crime in his mind.

No civilised authority can go on churning out statements to the effect that armed gangs of ideologically motivated militants or plain thugs are playing havoc with citizens’ lives. What has been done to seize the private hoards of weapons? Has anything serious been done to stop the torrents of hate speech unleashed from both the public platform and the pulpit?

The state of Pakistan is facing a crisis of legitimacy. It has to ask itself whether it has put a premium on crime by deriving its authority more and more from the means of coercion at its disposal and by abandoning the moral ground of rule by reason, understanding and compassion. The rot in Pakistan starts at the top. The target killer may be using the logic the state functionaries do while shooting down citizens who have not been found guilty of anything.

There is an urgent need to review the theories of crime and punishment the state has been following. Let nobody guilty of an offence go unpunished but let no one be forced to the path of crime by factors beyond his control. A state that would have the constitution and the law amended instead of living within them loses the battle for the protection of human rights defenders at the very first line of defence.

Tailpiece: The four-year-old child, who received me at her family’s mansion in Karachi’s DHA, broke the news of her great grandmother’s death thus: “nani qatal ho gayee” (grandma has been killed). To our little ones’ minds people do not die anymore; they are always killed. This is how Pakistan is bringing up its next generation.

I. A. Rehman, "Who is killing the good ones?," Dawn. 2015-05-07.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Social needs , Human rights , Social security , Social justice , Social media , Mass media , Civil society , Society-Pakistan , Perween Rahman , Rashid Rehman , Sabeen Mahmud , Shabihul Hasan , Mama Qadeer , Pakistan , Balochistan