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The Dreadful Panchayat System And Its Speedy (In)Justice

The panchayat system is clannish, patriarchal, prone to elite-capture, often violent, and based on a social ethos that should have gone extinct in the 21st century. To end panchayat-ordained atrocities, the system needs to be brought under local government laws, writes Hasnain Haider.

In 1997, at age 14, I witnessed my first-ever Panchayat. The venue was my family’s dera in the southernmost reaches of Multan district on the banks of the Sutlej. My late grandfather, being the preeminent landowner and hereditary sardar (head) of the area, was the adjudicator at the proceedings. What I remember most vividly is that amidst a throng of onlookers, a young man with a heavy moustache was held face-down and administered about 20 hard strokes on the buttocks with a khussa, the traditional footwear in rural southern Punjab.

Being a city-boy primarily, my stomach churned at the spectacle: the man’s howls of pain, and his old father’s pleas for mercy with my grandfather and the plaintiffs by placing his turban at their feet. As having only known love and affection from my grandfather, his cold sternness in that moment scared me.

The man being punished was found guilty of being a ‘thief’, caught red-handed by the plaintiffs trying to enter their home at night. The term ‘thief’ was euphemistically applied, however, because the man was actually intent upon a theft of ‘honor’, i.e. elopement with the plaintiffs’ daughter. Touchy a subject as honour is in our rural societies, the matter was resolved promptly with 20 strikes of a khussa, the forced separation of two lovers notwithstanding. Both plaintiff and accused seemed to be satisfied, as evident in both families’ continued support for my family in electoral politics, and justice was seen to have been done. Therein, continue to lie the foremost reasons for the longevity of the Panchayat system: cheap access and quick service-delivery.

The Panchayat system is intrinsically flawed: clannish, patriarchal, prone to elite-capture, often violent, and based on a social ethos that should have gone extinct in the 21st century.

From the Mukhtaran Mai case in 2002, to the frequent Panchayat-ordained atrocities in between, to the latest incident in Gujranwala, we are all amply aware of how awfully, inhumanly wrong Panchayat decisions can get.

It is, therefore, no wonder that on the basis of these extremes, the urban intelligentsia of this country simply, perhaps simplistically, synonymizes the ‘Panchayat’ concept with pure evil. The question then arises, why does this evil continue to haunt us in a post-colonial, largely post-feudal and rapidly urbanizing society?

Some answers are obvious enough to an educated mind: the vested interest of the rural elites in remaining the primary arbiters of the people’s lives, mental backwardness in rural areas and among the urban hoi polloi due to low levels of literacy, the jaundiced notion of honor etc. All generally valid arguments, but what often eludes the critical thinker is that there has been a dismal failure on part of state and society to inspire confidence in the available alternatives.

Consider the policing system, the first point of entry to the justice system for a citizen with a grievance. Barring the major cities, where the citizenry is increasingly vocal and the media glare intense, where the rulers try their best to stay on the good-side of the public, can it really be said that our police has changed much since the colonial days?

It is common knowledge that junior police officers jostle among themselves for SHO postings to the most remote areas. At these remote stations, not much happens without bribery or the blessing of the local politicos. In this scenario, what are the weak and the poor to do, if they cannot afford the premium on this initial access to justice?

What if it is the police that tells them to resolve the issue among themselves, or refers them back to the Chaudary or the Khan or the Makhdoom, whose intervention they may have sought to avoid? On to the honorable courts. Even assuming (naively) a totally service-oriented police, and a completely professional, clean and corruption-free judicial system, is the prospect of prosecuting a grievance, big or small, a rational undertaking, in purely financial terms, for a person of limited means? And, given the legendary backlog of our lower courts, would they have any hope of a timely redressal.

Add to the above the fact that while we have pretty much copied the British legal, legislative and jurisprudential systems blindly, we are yet to espouse the basic underlying principle of European political development that all people are equal under the law.

As the privileged and the underprivileged inhabit two wholly separate and unequal Pakistans, as the law and its agents are greatly partial towards the rich and the powerful, as your place on the socioeconomic ladder pretty much defines your relationship with the law and state, how can the wretched poor hope to be served by the formal channels of dispute resolution?

All of the above is further compounded by the fact that throughout our history, besides its abject failure in effecting even a modicum of social and economic justice, the state has persistently shirked its responsibility to affect social change through the foremost tool at its disposal: public education. Our education systems have done very little to engender within our society a sense of individual human dignity and a respect for human rights. To the contrary, education in Pakistan is often seen to reinforce bigotry, parochial identity and patriarchy, of which a misplaced notion of honour is a direct consequence.

In this context, the only thing of value left with the underprivileged at the local level is the vote, which the local elite covets.

And every local leader worth his salt knows that he will be a leader only so long as he is fair at some level among the people, in his tiny state within a state. It is once again symptomatic of state failure that the credibility and trust local bigwigs have enjoyed among the masses since the colonial era, has never been replaced with belief in formal state systems.

Therefore, in a yawning gap left by the state, the Panchayat steps in to adjudicate matters ranging from the trivial to the most serious, with some generally acceptable semblance of justice delivered. Our overburdened legal system is also better off not having to deal with every cattle-theft, elopement (kidnapping to the plaintiff), or land dispute between backwater clans.

However, much like the formal justice system when it sentences innocents to years in prison or hangs elected Prime Ministers at the behest of dictatorial usurpers, the Panchayat is also likely to fail spectacularly from time to time. And these gruesome failings will continue to manifest themselves until the underlying social structures change fundamentally.

But, the need for Alternate Dispute Resolution Mechanisms has also been recognized in the west, as evidenced in out-of-court settlements and Community Dispute Resolution Councils. The direst imperative, therefore, is to bring the Panchayat within the ambit of the law. One important step towards formalizing the Panchayat system could be to bring it under local government laws, and to hold elections for Panchayat membership.

It is yet another contradiction of Pakistan’s chequered political evolution that the most serious attempts to empower local governments have happened under military regimes, with ulterior motives, no doubt, while democratic governments have always sought to centralize executive power. That, however, is a potential topic for an entire PhD dissertation.

As a shaken 14-year-old me returned from the Panchayat experience, I asked an uncle, in all my innocence, why they had to beat the person rather than handing him over to the police. His reply: “What else do you think the police would have done? They would have beaten him black and blue all night, and extorted money from his poor father too. And from the complainants as well.” Just as true today as it was in 1997.

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