‘Panchayat raj’ and a woman stoned (Pakistan)

Posted on July 21, 2012

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‘Panchayat raj’ in Punjab runs parallel to the weakening of state outreach in the face of growing power of the non-state actors nurtured by the state in the past. PHOTO: AFP

The Supreme Court has taken suo-motu notice of another horrendous panchayat crime in Punjab and found that the police were inclined to ignore the criminality of the local so-called council of elders, which was dictated by a local strongman. The case is related to the stoning to death of a woman at Chak 15 in Kacha Khu, Khanewal.

The report goes like this: Maryam Bibi, 25, mother of five, was cutting grass in the fields of a local landlord who forced her to submit to his sexual advances. When she refused, the landlord levelled allegations against the woman and took the matter to a local panchayat, which ordered that the woman be stoned to death. The order was carried out in her home. Her husband was abducted but later recovered.

What the Supreme Court discovered was an effort on the part of the Punjab police to let the panchayat off the hook. The Court censured the Punjab government and said that the Khadim-e-Aala (chief minister) should take immediate notice of it (which he has since done). The Court observed that “The police knew about the incident but did nothing” and rejected the police report that did not mention the role of the panchayat. The Punjab advocate general tried to lessen the shock of the incident by saying that the panchayat had been called “to resolve the matter and not to punish the woman”.

The strange fact that emerged in front of the honourable Court was that the police recovered the woman’s abducted husband the moment the Court moved in the matter, while it had previously dithered for three days without any action. What the Court has laid bare is the shrinking writ of the state even in the traditionally  ‘well-governed’ areas of the country. Local vigilante-terrorists have virtually taken over the country in vast tracts of Pakistan, while the Taliban threaten the big cities with suicide bombings and bank robberies.

The stoning to death of Maryam will shake the world just as an earlier case in Punjab did a decade ago in the case of Mukhtaran Mai whom the local panchayat had ordered to be gang-raped. In August 2002, the anti-terrorism court (ATC) found the six defendants guilty of several offences under the Hudood Ordinance and the Pakistan Penal Code. These included rape and aiding and abetting a rape. They were sentenced to life imprisonment, a fine, six months of rigorous imprisonment, the death penalty and 30 lashes — the last two were subject to confirmation by the high court. (There were eight other defendants who were part of the panchayat that ordered the rape of Mukhtaran Mai and were charged with unlawful assembly. All eight were acquitted by the ATC.)

The Mukhtaran Mai case was mishandled by the Pervez Musharraf government, above all by General (retd) Musharraf himself who said that women bring such matters to the court in order to vie for visas to foreign countries. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of the satanic panchayat in 2005. However, this time the Court is determined to get to the root of the matter and go into the phenomenon of the dwindling writ of the executive in Punjab, which is considered better governed than Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where some MNAs brazenly defend panchayat transgressions against the law.

Panchayat raj’ in Punjab runs parallel to the weakening of state outreach in the face of growing power of the non-state actors nurtured by the state in the past. Made to look like an ascendancy of Islamic sharia, the vigilantism of the clergy linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda has subordinated the local executive, which stays away from the scene of the crime till it has made sure that it will not offend the local religious leadership. Seeing this dereliction, the local feudal strongman has increased his tyranny by strengthening the old panchayat system as an abetting institution. Lahore has to reassert its authority in the outlying mufassil areas while it copes with the rising number of bank robberies in the big cities that are reportedly funding the terrorist groups that Pakistan is avoiding to confront.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2012.

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