The writer is contributing editor, The Friday Times
In his novel Shame Salman Rushdie’s character Saleem remarks that “no people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time”. Earlier in the novel, the narrator finds it difficult to tell the story of Khayam, remarking that “it seems that the future cannot be restrained, and insists on seeping back into the past.”
Writing a book review in August 2008, Khaled Ahmed ended his argument thus: “Jadeed (modern) in Arabic comes from the root jdd meaning grandfather.” Even in “modernity” we seek the past!
So, what’s the point?
The video, dear reader, of a mob beating two boys to death while policemen watch them being murdered. And how does that relate to our inability to differentiate between yesterday and tomorrow, both being designated as kal in our language? Consider.
At one level the incident can be explained rather simply. The policemen thought – let’s assume – that the boys were armed robbers, had killed two people and got caught by the mob. Let them get what they bargained for. If the mob kills them, the police won’t have to go through with the procedures and investigations and perhaps see them walk away without being punished. After all, the police often “encounters” bad characters.
So, the policemen stand there while two men, one in white, the other in a black shalwar kameez, take turns to beat the boys to death with sticks. That was the initial story, the one about the boys having killed two persons during an armed robbery. Now, as the saga unfolds, we are told that it may not be true, that the boys might have been killed by rivals because of old enmity. The Supreme Court of Pakistan and the Lahore High Court have taken suo motu notices of the incident, ordered inquires and suspended 14 police officials.
What actually happened and why, we will know when the inquiry report comes in. But let’s assume here that the mob caught them after they had killed two people. While in some cases one can understand a mob’s rage, especially in a society that has got used to conflating and confusing justice with revenge, what of the police? Could they have allowed something like this? Simple answer: no.
Quite often we ascribe this kind of retaliation to lex talionis, an eye for an eye. But at the root of that principle is one of the purposes of law which referred to the provision of equitable retribution for an offended party and by doing so defined and restricted the extent of retribution. Lex talionis was not about lynching. If anything, it forms the basis, if biblical mentions are anything to go by, of due process on which the entire modern legal edifice stands.
The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, prohibits the federal government from imposing cruel and unusual punishments and the US Supreme Court has ruled that the amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to the states also. Our constitution has Article 9 which guarantees protection of life.
In South Waziristan, standing inside Qari Hussain Mehsud’s compound and looking at the raised platform where the Taliban slaughtered their victims, I wondered what kind of person could do that. Seeing the video from Sialkot, the answer is: you and me.
In Malakand, before the people became wise to what the Taliban stood for, most I talked to in several trips there would tell me how quickly the Taliban dispensed justice. Proximity is what the tribal spirit looks for. Modern society is not a function of proximity; nor is it about the personal. It rests on structures and layers and judgement based on institutional and legal responses.
We have obviously regressed; or maybe we never reached the point from where we could regress. The Taliban in Fata and the mob and the police in Sialkot are kindred beings bound by an aversion to tomorrow, tomorrow being a metaphor for modernity and progress towards due process and individual rights. Clearly, it is important to have two separate words for yesterday and tomorrow or our future will continue to seep back into the past.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2010.