May 272008

Dr Muhammad Naim Siddiqi & Dr Abdul Wahab Yusafzai

ON May 14, three dacoits who were trying to escape after committing a robbery in an apartment in Karachi were held, beaten and then burnt to death by the people of the locality. The same scene was repeated a few days later in another area of the city when two dacoits robbed bus passengers at gun point.

They were captured by the public and one was burnt to death and the other suffered grave burn injuries. People tried to burn two more robbers who had snatched mobile phones in Lahore the same week.Human rights activists, religious scholars, legal experts, intellectuals and mental health professionals expressed shock, disapproval and alarm at these incidents. They argued that this behaviour was unjust, against religion, unlawful and violated the principles of humanity. A few legislators and politicians also condemned the act. The observations of state functionaries were significant.

‘People should give us time rather than taking the law into their hands’; ‘People do not trust the institutions anymore’; ‘People are fed up with the previous government’s policies and have huge expectations from the present government’; ‘It is plausible that some outside elements, terrorists or elements wanting to destabilise the system capitalised on the situation taking advantage of the charged emotions of the crowd. They must be stopped’, were some of the sentiments expressed.

What is more alarming is the fact that a significant section of the general public which gave its comments on TV channels or newspapers supported this ‘mob justice’. Their argument ran: ‘If dacoits kill people while snatching their mobiles, why should we be concerned about their lives?’ ‘What is the point of handing them over to the police who will soon free them to repeat their crimes and threaten us with revenge’? This opinion is based on the perception that the police are corrupt and accept bribes to release dacoits. It also takes a share in the loot or is helpless because the dacoits are well connected.The big question is what has driven people to such extremes? Just three years ago, we witnessed the biggest tragedy our nation had seen in recent years: earthquake 2005. The response it evoked was unprecedented. The helping hand extended by Karachi was striking. We got thinking. Why did Karachiites respond so overwhelmingly when they had no geographical proximity, linguistic affinity and cultural commonality with Kashmir? In fact, Karachiites are perceived to have become so accustomed to daily tragedies and violence that their response was unexpected. We conducted a study. Among many other factors, one worth mentioning here is: ‘We (Karachiites) felt that we could make a difference’.

It is this sentiment, ‘we can make a difference’, that has empowered the people of Karachi. What relevance does this analysis have for the above horrific course of action taken by some people against the dacoits? A lot. The fact is that we live perpetually in the hope that the state will provide us with security of life, assets and honour. We believe that if anyone tries to snatch away our basic rights, some higher authority will provide us justice. This is the basic principle underlying the rule of law. But is this principle applied to everyone? The media has done a commendable job by highlighting the injustices people face in society. But by the same token it has made people aware of who is responsible for the failure of justice to reach those who need it.

This has given rise to a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and anger. Small wonder we are not alarmed by the rising incidence of suicide. One just has to observe the helplessness and desperation of a mother of four children or a brother of three sisters to understand why people are taking their own lives.

Can’t we see the connection between the mental states of extreme desperation of that mother and brother and those who killed and burnt these dacoits? Perhaps hopelessness, helplessness and anger drove them to this extreme. We can argue about the justification of this action on the basis of religion, morality, legality or culture. I don’t have any argument to defend either of them.

We are very clear that if a widow cannot pay her debts of Rs95000, her house should be confiscated. If the banks do not get their loans back, how will they run? The system will collapse. But, would the system collapse if a sum of Rs95000 is not repaid or when Rs54bn is waived? Take the example of the sugar, rice and flour shortage or even the collapse of the Sher Shah bridge. People know who the culprits are and who protects them.

What message are we giving to the people of Pakistan? A painful but simple one. Might is right. If you have the power of the gun, money and connections, you get away with virtually anything and also get justice of your choice.

There is plenty of evidence that violence on the media affects children. It should not be incomprehensible that what is happening in real life will affect people’s minds. Sadly, it is not just observational learning; it is day to day learning as well. Believing that this experiential learning won’t have any effects would be like hiding our heads in the sand.

We are robbing people of the hope that their lives, possessions and honour will be protected and justice will be provided to them. For them the only option left is to take the law into their own hands and catch the criminal red-handed and dispense summary justice then and there. They are learning new but horrific ways of creating an impact.

Will the people of Pakistan be willing to wait when we keep on taking away their hopes that things can be different? This writing is not in justification of the actions of the public. It is only to explain why this is happening.

The writers are practicing consultant psychiatrists.

Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 27/5/2008

 Posted by at 8:56 pm

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