the strong arm of the law

Jumping off Hamzah’s post about Pakistan’s diverse cultural identities and linguistic communities (as one particular example, which of course spill into multiple other communities), I’m interested in venturing into a deeper (and long-term) study of the heterogeneous nature of the political landscape. One that, as Hamzah rightly pointed out, cannot be divided into simple boxes such as “moderate” or “extremist” without denying the multiplicities (national imaginations as you put it) that form the various identities that Pakistanis represent.

A nation’s ability to approach its internal factions affects its ability to navigate the international playing field. Just look at the situation in Baluchistan, where a simmering civil war, long dismissed as a domestic issue that can be contained within the province, has only in recent years begun to make headlines in the global media (see Carlotta Gall’s “Another Insurgency Gains in Pakistan” and then go through the NYT’s previous sporadic coverage of Baluchistan, which dates back a handful of years whereas army intervention in the province and the Baluchi separatist movement goes back decades).

Anyway, I am drawn to the impact of law and governance— particularly access to justice and the development of legal infrastructure—on integrating diverse sociopolitical communities into a shared national identity. The rule of law (different from the tyrannical version that this phrase tends to invoke in Pakistan) can serve as a means for the social participation and empowerment of citizens. For post-colonial societies such as Pakistan, where the hegemonic Western liberal-democratic tradition has failed to take hold, we need to “look local”. By this, I mean that, as significant social and economic disequilibria persist within such societies, we must approach legal reform and institutional arrangements by taking into account local cultures and past constraints that have shaped the system. We cannot imagine a social intercourse that reflects the aspirations and identities of the millions of Pakistanis that have consistently been misrepresented or written out of the singular Pakistani identity promoted by the few and mighty, without taking a critical look at the barriers that persist on a social/political/legal level that inhibit fair participation.

For example, the Washington Post recently wrote about “collective punishment”being foisted upon the Mehsuds (a tribe of a few hundred thousand people) because of the sole misfortune of kinship with one Baitullah Mehsud. Now one can hardly trace back the origin of “collective punishment” in the region to the Pakistan Army (does the indiscriminate massacre of Muslims and Hindus by the British in the aftermath of the sepoy uprising in 1857 ring a bell?) The idea of “collective punishment” was a legal framework implemented by the British Army in the tribal areas (by the way, considered a war crime under international law) … this remnant of colonial rule persists in Pakistan and has been often used to quell rebellions and insurgencies. The imposition of an “outsider” or “traitor” status to the entire Mehsud tribe doesn’t exactly deter them from militancy or integrate them into the nation-state, in fact its easy to assume that it could serve the exact opposite purpose.

This then, is an example of how unjustifiable and retributive laws and security frameworks can serve as barriers to participation and inclusion in the polity. This is a throwback to colonial rule and the way out of such a system must acknowledge how it came about to be and what the underlying motives for such a concept of “justice” were. Only then can we begin to conceptualize alternatives that serve the diverse communities co-existing in Pakistan as opposed to “regulate” them.