An enraged crowd sets two vehicles on fire and beats the drivers black and blue after a road accident; when the police try to intervene, the mob assails them with bricks, stones, steel rods and clubs. They want instant justice: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The drivers must be killed on the spot because they have hit and killed two local boys riding a motorcycle. Their lives are saved only after the elders of that area intervene and pacify the crowd.
This is what happened last month at Kamahan, a small village on the outskirts of Lahore. But this could have been a scene from anywhere in Punjab. The phenomenon of mob violence has repeated itself with frightening ferocity and frequency across the province in previous months and years. Whether it is about long hours of electricity load-shedding, a criminal caught in the midst of an act, a traffic accident or someone accused of having committed blasphemy, angry crowds are increasingly taking the law into their own hands, acting as accusers, prosecutors, judges and executioners, all rolled into one.
To many, mob violence may appear to be a ‘rural’ phenomenon, mostly involving ‘illiterate rustics’. But that cannot be farther from the truth. The supposedly more literate and ‘civilised’ sections of society, too, have frequently been resorting to such violence. Lawyers, for example, have often been in the news for mobbing judges, investigators and witnesses to influence court decisions in their favour. Last year, a group of lawyers supporting Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer’s assassin, harassed any lawyer who appeared as prosecutor in the case, thus delaying the hearing. More recently, lawyers beat a policeman on May 22 on the premises of the Lahore High Court.
The most affected victims of recent mob violence in Punjab, however, have been religious minorities such as Christians and Ahmedis. “It is always easy to whip up public emotions on religious issues,” a minority-rights activist tells the Herald. Christians have suffered a great deal at the hands of mobs inspired and led by religious groups, starting with large-scale arson and looting at the community’s houses in Shanti Nagar (near Khanewal) in February 1997 by an extremist jihadi organisation to deadly attacks on a Christian neighbourhood in Gojra in August 2009, he says. “Similarly, members of the Ahmedi community have faced mob attacks targeting places of worship in Lahore, Sialkot, Faisalabad and many other areas as part of this ongoing persecution. In most cases, the police have traced the involvement of different Punjab-based sectarian and jihadi groups in such mob attacks but no action has ever been taken to protect minorities from future attacks,” he adds.
Even outside the traditional majority-minority equation, society can be held hostage by mobs — due to the madness of a few. The most ominous part is that the audience also joins in to throw a few punches at the unfortunate target. “The passionate street theatre travels from town to town drawing an emotional response everywhere it goes. The audience becomes part of the play. It becomes a mob,” is how a newspaper editor comments on the phenomenon.
Saad Bashir, professor of psychiatry at Jinnah Hospital in Lahore, feels that mob violence is spawned by intolerance and aggression that have become part of our culture. “Rising mob rule signifies growing intolerance at a dangerous pace,” says Bashir. He adds that the failure of a society to fulfill the basic needs of people creates aggression in them. “Internalisation of aggression results in suicides and its externalisation [results] in violence.”
There is also no mystery behind the fact that rising mob rule is a product of the coming together of various crises – judicial, social, cultural and economic – which are faced by the state and society. “Growing economic pressures in recent years as well as the state’s failure to provide security and a functioning justice system to the people have aggravated these crises, spawned vigilante justice and entrenched mob rule in our daily life,” argues a political scientist wanting to remain anonymous, who works at a public sector university in Lahore.
He notes that the public’s waning trust in the increasingly dysfunctional police and judiciary, as well as in corrupt government departments and inefficient state institutions manifests itself in different forms, and this is not only in Punjab. “At one level we see frustrated people increasingly taking the law into their hands to punish real or imagined criminals because they do not trust the police and the judicial process. At another level, enraged crowds are damaging public property and attacking government functionaries because the state has failed to provide jobs, health care, education, electricity, and so on,” he contends (see The Protester Meets the Politician).
On a third level, “we find groups of disgruntled youth – such as the ones in Balochistan – taking up arms against the state to protest excesses and injustices,” against their community, adds the political scientist. “Then there are militant groups such as the Taliban who are at war with the state as well as the rest of their country because they think they have a solution to what plagues our society and country and want to impose it on everyone at gunpoint.” He points out that examples of mob justice can even be found in developed countries but “our unwillingness and inability to check [mobs] and punish those involved sets us apart from the rest of the world.”
Some explain the phenomenon of mob justice as a product of increasing distance between the common man and state institutions because of the public losing faith in the legitimacy and credibility of the state. Dr Mohammad Waseem, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, believes that people are increasingly taking the law into their hands because legitimate political forums for protest have been decimated into virtual irrelevance. “The absence or weakening of organised forums, such as Parliament and political parties, has complicated the situation. As a result of this, people are now venting by resorting to violence in the form of mobs,” he says.
Pakistan has had a long history of mob rule but the situation has become worse since the 1980s due to General Ziaul Haq’s policy of creating an ideology based on religious and tribal/clan values as well as vigilantism to subdue his opposition by promoting religious parties and groups supporting his rule. Political economist Ali Cheema points to the breakdown of secular community institutions such as panchayats due to changing social and economic conditions, and the collapse of state institutions such as the police and the judiciary have made the situation even more complex. “We have no institutional framework to control mob rule. Our political parties are in a vacuum; questions are being raised about the effectiveness and legitimacy of state institutions,” he says. “The government’s ability to mediate has eroded over time, civic space of congregation and dialogue has vanished and the parallel ideology [of vigilantism] is getting stronger. When minorities are attacked and women are killed by mobs in the name of Islam, it is considered legitimate,” he argues adding that violence has become a means of negotiations between the people and the state in the absence of civic, political and constitutional forums.
While all these factors can be applied across Pakistan, the case in Punjab has become more peculiar over the last few years because Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his provincial government have contributed to the spread of vigilantism and mob justice through their policies, analysts conclude. In its eagerness to appear tough about crime, the Punjab government has at times endorsed the policy of killing alleged criminals in staged police encounters. As a consequence of this policy, many police officers often try to appear more ‘tough’ on crime by not only killing the criminals but also parading their bodies openly on the streets to ‘deter’ crime.
On April 13, 2010, for instance, the Gujranwala police killed two alleged robbers in an encounter and paraded their bodies on the G T Road. The police convoy was showered with flower petals and the then Deputy Inspector General of Police in Gujranwala, Zulfiqar Cheema, publicly praised the policemen who killed the alleged criminals. Little more than a month ago, the police killed two alleged robbers in the same city and paraded their bodies in the streets, with senior police officials commending the act and rewarding the policemen involved in the incident. On July 12, in the same year, an alleged child molester was shot dead by the police in Sialkot and his body was taken around the neighbourhood in the nearby Daska town.
Many commentators have warned over the years that such police actions would “further brutalise” society and the government’s implementation of its “political agenda over crime will encourage people to take the law into their own hands”. They were soon to be proved correct. Two teenage brothers riding through the village of Buttar in Sialkot on August 15, 2010, were beaten to death by a local mob, their bodies were hung upside down after the incident (see Sialkot’s Summer of Discontent).
In a re-enactment of the Sialkot lynching, two alleged robbers fell prey to mob justice in Multan on March 26 this year. One of them reportedly shot himself to avoid a painful death at the hands of the crowd. The other was pelted with stones until he died. The unfortunate aspect of these incidents is that police officials side with the mob, turning a blind eye to the brutal, instant punishments meted out to real or imagined criminals.
“Some [officials] believe that such incidents would deter crime while others use them as a vehicle for their rise in the department,” a senior police official, posted in a district near Lahore, tells the Herald. But, in his opinion, social and political sanctions for such acts of brutality are more to blame than the career ambitions of individual officials. “Everyone – people, police and politicians – somehow realise that our criminal justice system is not working. Little wonder then that … political authority looks the other way [when mob violence occurs] in the hope of controlling crime,” says the officer.
Another official, working as a district police officer adversely hit by recent power riots, agrees that the Sialkot lynching incident was a reminder of a breakdown in the criminal justice system. “People are angry because the criminal justice system has failed to give them security and justice,” he explains, adding that vigilante justice has become a dangerous alternative. “You cannot control vigilantism and mob rule without rewriting laws and improving governance,” he contends.
In a majority of incidents of mob violence – especially those involving a religious issue – the police choose to remain on the sidelines as silent spectators. “It is always a difficult situation for a police officer because there are no clear instructions on how to handle such situations. Our response usually varies from incident to incident. Sometimes we lack the courage and at other times we do not have the logistics,” says the district police officer. “If you fire at the unruly mob to control it, in the absence of clear-cut instructions from your seniors, the consequences for you can be quite serious. You may be sacked from your job or land up in the jail. If you don’t, you can be accused of neglecting your duty,” he says but admits that sometimes policemen also become a part of the mob as was seen in the Sialkot incident. “Our force is also a product of society. They also realise the inefficiencies and shortcomings of the justice system. You cannot solely blame them for becoming part of the mobs, no matter how wrong it is.”
As idealistic as this may sound, Cheema believes that mob rule cannot be controlled without reinforcing the state’s writ, restoring the government’s credibility and rebuilding community institutions to create space for dialogue and negotiations. All political parties will have to realise the infinite risks of giving in to mob rule and they will have to come together on this issue to reduce social, political and economic polarisation, he argues.
“The government must make it clear that mob rule and vigilantism are not acceptable in any form and on any issue. At the same time, the government should improve governance, enforce the rule of law, engage disgruntled sections of society to bridge the gap between them and the state, and fulfill the basic needs of education, health care, electricity and the like, says a political scientist belonging to a government university. “If mob justice is not checked now, it will grow into something even more dangerous in the foreseeable future,” he warns.