Lawyers’ Attack On PIC A Cruel Reminder That Violence Against Countrymen Is A Norm In Pakistan
Umer Farooq in this article argues that the lawyers’ attack on a hospital in Lahore was the reflection of a bigger problem i.e. considering the use of violence as a legitimate method to attain personal and political interests.
Around ten years back I had an interesting conversation with a very intelligent senior police official in Lahore about violence in Pakistani society. It was the time when the country was passing through the most turbulent and violent period of its history. There were suicide attacks every other day and the military was conducting operations in the tribal areas as well as in Swat. The officer was of the view that the Taliban and other militant groups were only part of the larger picture as far as violence in Pakistani society was concerned. “Our society could turn violent in a myriad of ways”, he said, “There is so much latent violence in our society and it could get out of hand if allowed to come to the surface”.
He believed that the way war on terror was being fought in the country – with both sides using tools of violence in the fight recklessly and both sides glorifying their side of the violent conflict, it is only a matter of time when other groups which have not yet borne the brunt of violence will learn their own lessons from the rampant use of violent means and corresponding glorification of violence.
Seeing this conversation in the hindsight, I now have no doubts about the brilliance of that police officer. He even mentioned the negative impact the visuals throughout this war against terror would have on the social psychology of the latently violent groups.
It is true that Pakistan was in a state of war and desperately needed to defeat militancy in order to survive as a functioning state. But this was a different war, a unique conflict, to win which Pakistani state had to defeat a segment of its own population. Therefore, the problems of legitimacy were bound to arise – firstly there was a large segment of the population that was ideologically opposed to the use of violence against militants. Secondly, the agency of the state, Army, which was assigned the task of defeating the militants, had their own problems with non-violent political groups and thus in the process greatly compounded the problems related to the legitimacy of violence.
This complex and messy picture of violence and its legitimacy, with the glorification of violence as its main feature, was on full display during the last 10 to 15 years on electronic news channels. And the main lesson, it seems, that filtered down to common man and latently violent groups in our society is that use of violence can be beneficial in the struggle to attain your interests. In a situation where problems related to the legitimacy of violence were being compounded by the absence of any consensus at the social and political level about the use of violence by the state machinery, the lessons general public learned from the images of violence on television screens during the war on terror are not very difficult to comprehend.
The violent protests by an ostensibly educated social group, lawyers, in Lahore has stunned the whole nation. Everybody is condemning the violence carried out by the lawyer community against the patients and doctors in the hospital. The lawyer community has particularly demonstrated a tendency to carry out violent acts and take law into their own hands in the post lawyer’s movement period, which led to the restoration of the former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
But the problem is much bigger, and it won’t go away with the bashing of one social group. It is the way we do things in our society. The use of force or violence to obtain interests, which one considers legitimate in a subjective way, has become a norm in our society. Our criminal justice system doesn’t punish the powerful and influential, leaving a lesson for everybody to learn: if you are powerful and influential enough you can get away with no matter what you have done.
Pakistani state’s relationship with violence is very problematic: it doesn’t have a monopoly on violence within its territory – though it should have – and whatever capability it has to use violence is not legitimate in the eyes of a large segment of the society. The state has been using violence against non-violent political groups and has been backing groups and individuals, who have been using violence against the general public. The case of Rao Anwar, the rogue police officer and encounter specialist in Karachi, is a case in point. He is leading a life of a prince since being accused of killing around 440 people in fake police encounters. So the lesson here for the general public is that you can get away with resorting to violence if you are influential enough.
At a deeper level, the war against terror and its attending glorification of violence only created a psychology that shows violence against countrymen as a routine affair at least, if not completely legitimate. There are societies around the world, which allow or promote violence out of their territorial jurisdictions, but strictly prohibit any kind of it within their territory.
It is unfortunate that the past few years have seen the Pakistani state using military power against its own population. But this was no aberration. Lest we forget, let me gather the courage to point that since its existence Pakistan has hardly witnessed a decade in which Pakistani state has not used its military power within its territory and against its own population. The more violent the state is, the more violent the society will be. So we can conclude that the use of violence within the society is a norm as far as Pakistani society and state machinery are concerned. We have failed to build and develop social and political norms to prevent violence from occurring within society.
Am I arguing against the use of force against militants? No, I am not. What I am saying is that what we witnessed on the streets of Lahore was the natural outcome of the absence of any norm forbidding the use of violence against your countrymen. The glorification of violence on the media during the past 10 to 15 years and cases like Rao Anwar’s have contributed a lot in dismantling any norms that were left in the wake of 1971 debacle and defeating the Baloch insurgency in the late 1970s.
Another aspect is the preaching of violence by our leading politicians. Take for example the case of Prime Minister Imran Khan. During August 2014 sit-in and later in 2017 he regularly preached violence from the container he was riding. I am sure Imran Khan is a non-violent person and his party has no stomach for carrying out violence. But the language he used during the sit-in days and the way it was broadcast live throughout that period is another factor dismantling whatever norms existed in Pakistani society preventing violence against the countrymen.
To quote from American experience will be very fruitful here. White supremacist groups in American society preaching violence against Blacks don’t actually carry out violent acts against the Black minority. But since there is freedom of expression in American society and white supremacists don’t violate any law of the land, the American law doesn’t come into action against these groups. Does it mean that speeches preaching violence can be condoned? Of course, no. White supremacists in American society are a fringe group and their leaders lead a secluded life in remote areas of the American society – although their ideology is fast spreading. But white supremacist leaders don’t get 24/7 coverage on 40 news channels. They are not made heads of the government after rigging the elections in a systematic way.
So we have two examples which send a very wrong signal as far as the norm of not using violence against fellow countrymen is concerned: one is Rao Anwar who lives with impunity after killing over 400 Pakistanis, and second is Imran Khan, who was made the prime minister after a long campaign whereby he continuously preached violence against his own countrymen. Although there is no link between the two examples, a distinction cannot be made by an ordinary Pakistani citizen who is continuously bombarded with information and news, in which the lesson is always the same: You can get away with doing or preaching violence if you are influential enough.
I think we should get ready for more violence by latently violent groups in the months and years ahead. If we want to build the norms that may prevent the use of violence against our own countrymen, this would involve first and foremost the task of reacquiring monopoly on violence and legitimizing violence at the same time. I don’t see how it could be done without civilianizing and depoliticizing the security apparatus. And unlike America, we’ll have to completely criminalize the offense of preaching violence by public figures.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.