Lifting the shadow of Sialkot

Lifting the shadow of Sialkot —Zaair Hussain

Once the contract breaks down, it all breaks down. We cannot choose when to take the law into our own hands. If we snatch the law unto ourselves for a good reason, we will do it for a bad reason and eventually for no reason at all

In recent weeks, we stood and fought a natural tragedy, but sat and wept at one manmade. We have been living in the shadow of Sialkot.

We cannot imagine the terror of the brothers in their final moments, or the heartbreak of their parents. For this, we should be eternally grateful. We are a nation still in shock, not at substance, but at symbolism. The senseless and completely gratuitous bloodletting, the extreme youth of the victims, the crazed mob, the listless onlookers and criminally negligent police — all caught on video. The elements came together to plant a dystopian nightmare straight into the national psyche.

To us, the floods are an ‘it’ and the Taliban are the ‘them’, but the Sialkot killers…they are us. Ordinary citizens, who had presumably led previously blameless lives. And they turned into monsters. The killings shook us because they showed us demons hiding not in the shadows, but in the mirror.

No human mind can remain untouched by the grisly minutiae of this enormity, but we have been drowning in despair. The pundits of the nation have cast us, with furious vigour, as bestial savages. The shocked and the shock mongers proclaimed Pakistanis to be by nature vicious and bloodthirsty, revelling in an orgy of wanton pain. Self-appointed defenders of the flag took up the charge, to insist that Pakistanis were, in fact, by nature peaceful and victims rather than victimisers.

No doubt, other viewpoints along this spectrum were expressed. I take issue with the spectrum itself: any scale that claims to be a gauge of people from the inside is intellectually bankrupt. We are by nature neither saints nor sinners, we are by nature people. That is the triumph and the tragedy of all people, everywhere.

The line between good and evil, ventured John Fowles, does not run between people but through them. No nation lacks either angels or demons. We must look upon our reflection without flinching, but should not allow ourselves to be consumed or numbed.

If Pakistan is the country of the Sialkot killings, it is also the country of Edhi. Our neighbour to the east produced devout followers of Gandhi who faced beatings and death armed with nothing more than serene convictions, living the creed of ‘turn the other cheek’ better perhaps than any others in modern history. That same country, so well regarded now in the international community, birthed the nightmare in Gujarat, mobs that murdered men and raped women and butchered children with boiling lust, capped by the re-election of the complicit Modi.

The difference in people’s actions lies in the context of their lives, not the content of their souls. The latter is immutable; the former we are given to shape.

In the gulf between those two poles lies hope.

We cannot blind ourselves either to the worst of our nature, nor the best. Like any conscientious Pakistani, I am shamed by the symbol of Sialkot. But I salute, elsewhere, our charity and courage in the face of a torrential calamity, in the midst of a bewildered government. Private relief camps and charities and shelters, fuelled only by the compassion of our people, have sprung up like implausible flowers in the darkness. Even Imran Khan has suspended his political adventures and swivelled back to his true talent after cricket: social service. His organisation Pukar has enjoyed incredible early success, and it is one of many.

The context of Sialkot is worse than the crime itself. The true horror is not that the Sialkotians butchered the social contract, wherein we sign away our right to vengeance in exchange for a right to justice. The true horror is that no such contract existed. This is the crucial point that many of us miss in the savage crime, perhaps because few of us have ever been personally placed in a context of justice forever deferred, forever delayed, forever denied.

Jirgas, lynch mobs, vendettas spring up like poisonous weeds whenever the soil is barren of the true seeds, the institutions of justice. They promise justice, swift and certain, and their temptations are very great for people — so many people — who fall into the blind spot of the state, who feel they owe the state nothing. But justice is a public good, and these faux tribunals — whatever form they take — can only achieve violence, and sometimes vengeance.

We cry for the heads of the mob and the policemen. But what then? Will we retire from the whole shameful affair, satisfied with our pound of flesh as, indeed, the onlookers in Sialkot were?

I have no sympathy for that murderous pack. But if heads roll, it must be the ‘state’ that removes them. Not a jirga, not another mob, but the state, the repository of our common rights. Let the people, and not a mob of persons, have their retribution.

What happened on that awful day in Sialkot? No one, not even its supposed guardians, trusted the law to deliver justice, deferred or otherwise. Why? Mob mentality has prevailed before. Why did we fail to raise a hue and cry then? The clues, again, lie in the context.

Crime in Pakistan is omnipresent, rarely punished, and staggeringly bold. The law has retreated and the vacuum calls for vigilantes. Too many people, every time they venture forth from their hearth and home, step into the state of nature, into Hobbes famous bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. And it is a war with no prisoners and no battles, only victims of different shades.

Once the contract breaks down, it all breaks down. We cannot choose when to take the law into our own hands. Whenever we do not persecute anti-Ahmedi hate speech, whenever we find ourselves praising jirgas for their quick results, whenever we condone an extra-judicial killing — no matter what the circumstances — we are creating another Sialkot slaughter, somewhere down the line. If we snatch the law unto ourselves for a good reason, we will do it for a bad reason and eventually for no reason at all.

If we do not turn the full measure of our energies and dedications to the institutional failings that create this context, if the courts and police are not remade into true guardians of the law, then we will forever scream for vengeance and never find justice.

Zaair Hussain is a Lahore-based freelance writer. He can be reached at

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