Perspective Editorial

One land, two countries

Updated 11 May, 2016 12:12pm

He lives in a country of his own that no one can enter without his permission. There may be cases registered against him outside the boundary of his country but he cannot care less about them. He will not surrender to the police and the courts whose jurisdiction stops where his own jurisdiction starts. He can challenge the government, he can defy the state by issuing statements supporting those who are bent upon destroying it, and he – along with his family – can lead pitched battles against the law enforcement agencies causing a civil war within the heart of the federal capital. Anyone trying to arrest or try him better be warned. The whole country burnt the last time someone attempted to do that. His supporters blew themselves up as human bombs, taking hundreds of lives with them; his students launched numerous deadly attacks on security forces wherever they could.

He goes by his own set of laws and under those laws there is nothing wrong with spreading sectarian hatred, with accusing parts of the state of conspiring against him, even subjecting the writ of the courts to his own whimsical choices disguised as wait for a divine signal. It does not matter that there is a law against hurting other people’s religious sentiments; against questioning the integrity of the state institutions; against willfully indulging in contempt of the courts. What could have Abdul Aziz done to possess such superhuman powers? His Lal Masjid is a fort – made impenetrable by his acolytes willing to serve as human shields – where messengers from the police and the courts can only enter to confer not confront.

Contrast this with the hapless parents of a boy who topped all the exams he took. Coming from a poor family living in a crumbling single room house in a nondescript village, he moved to a big city for studies owing to the scholarships he had won on the basis of his stellar academic record. And then he went missing within months after his name had appeared on a merit list of students chosen for receiving laptops under a government scheme.

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Initially, the police said he was killed in a shootout with the law enforcement agencies in July 2014. His house was searched and his parents were taken into custody. Then they retracted and said he was alive and in the custody of the military intelligence.

Nobody ever disclosed where he was arrested from and what for. Yet somehow, slightly less than 18 months later, an army spokesman released his name to the media. He was among nine people whose death warrants the army chief had signed at the turn of the year. A brief description under his name said he “was an active member of Al Qaeda” and “was involved in attacks on law-enforcement personnel which claimed casualties”. There was no other detail — who he had attacked and killed, or where and when he had committed these acts. He had pleaded guilty of committing those offences “before the Magistrate and the trial court” which had tried him on four charges and “awarded death sentence”. There was no mention of where and when he was produced before a magistrate (even though we can assume that the court that had tried and punished him was a special military tribunal). What could have Aksan Mehboob done to avoid that fate? His story has fascinated no prying journalists. His case has attracted no attention from human rights activists and lawyers.

The difference between Aziz’s might and Mehboob’s plight is not merely the difference between the situations of two individuals. It is the difference that defines how the state acts – or does not act – selectively. It is the difference that determines why the state can – or cannot – enforce its writ in a uniform and equitable manner in all parts of its jurisdiction, on all sections of its citizens.

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Both Aziz and Mehboob enjoy – at least in theory – the same constitutional protections against the arbitrary use of power by the state. Both Aziz and Mehboob deserve – at least ideally – the same legal treatment considering that they have been facing the same kind of allegations: of being in cahoots with militant organisations, of attacking members of the security forces. How come, then, Aziz can walk around a sizeable patch of the capital as if he owns it and Mehboob cannot even have a public trial where he can defend himself?

The reason: they live in two different countries. One, where a powerful mullah can hold the entire state apparatus hostage to his ability to shed blood. The other, where laws such as the Protection of Pakistan Act and forums such as the military courts are increasingly smothering the unheard voices of the already voiceless. Unless that difference ends, no amount of security operations, quick convictions and hurried hangings can bring peace. A first step to end that difference could be to deny Aziz the protection of a country within a country that he now so publicly enjoys.

This was originally published in the Herald's February 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.