Destroy what destroys you: While blood feuds flourish, justice takes a back seat in Pakistan
Suffering in a living hell due to the state’s failure to deliver justice, widows, orphans, bereft parents, brothers and sisters are the living victims of Pakistan’s blood feuds.
Regrettably, blood that is shed to fulfil a primeval need for justice when it is late or denied does not inspire organised outrage. It is lethal vigilantism dressed in chivalric semantics that would leave the ghost in Hamlet decrying “murder most foul”.
The unending bloodshed is perceived as murder rather than a murder condoning cultural practice worth challenging. Tragedies languish in solitude in the absence of a dedicated social movement.
Prisons are filled with self-righteous murderers upholding their ghairat (honour) management. Within the hierarchy of prisoners, those under trial, or convicted of reactive or revenge killings, are known as dukhies (grievers). Somebody grieved them and to ease the hurt, they killed him. They are the aristocrats of the circular chakkar (rounds) prison exercise yard, their swagger given respectful space by the other convicts.
On occasions, the cultural pressure to exact vengeance can prove even stronger than the sanctity of a consecrated place of worship.
Fifteen-year-old Masood Janjua was a dukhie. In Jhelum jail’s death row, he complacently awaited adulthood and the hangman’s noose for avenging his father’s murder. Thirteen years earlier, Mushtaq Janjua, Masood’s father, had gone to the mosque to offer his Eidul Fitr prayers. With a single point blank revolver shot from the row behind, Iftikhar Kayani blew out Mushtaq’s brains, nimbly leaped over the mosque wall, jumped on his black stallion and fled the crime scene at the gallop.
Two years before his murder, while disputing the rights to irrigation water, Mushtaq had killed Sarwar, Iftikhar’s father, in response to being insulted as an incestophile.
With his mother’s blessings, Iftikhar avenged his father’s death by erasing his killer, Mushtaq, during Eid prayers.
Mushtaq’s son, Masood, was only a year-and-a-half-old when his father was killed. From that tender age, his mother instilled in him the obligation requiring blood for blood. By the time Masood was 15, his uncles had ensured his ability to do so with a gun and blade.
So Masood, with the blessings of his mother, also violated the sanctity of a sacred space. He shot Iftikhar, his father’s killer, during Eidul Fitr prayers in the same mosque. Witnesses agreed to identify him and he was finally sentenced to death. Masood stood tall and faced his sentence. His mother and the rest of the family were fiercely proud.
Such feuds are a common practice throughout rural and sometimes even urban Pakistan. Property inheritance, irrigation water rights, land grabbing, trespassing, negotiations gone sour, incestophile insults and disrespecting close female relatives can lead to generations of serial tit for tat killings until a settlement is reached.
Murder, even for a verbal insult, comes from a primordial sense of perceiving vengeance as an ultimate individual act of justice. Direct action to redress grievances has been practiced since well before the emergence of nation-states and right through their maturing period. This habit recedes when state institutions come into play, reducing blood vengeance to spontaneous crimes of passion. Vigilantism cannot fill the void of transparency in Pakistan’s developing justice system. It can only challenge the state’s legitimacy and push the goal of impartiality even further away.
A state has every reason to be singular about and jealous of its prerogative to administer justice. It is also honour-bound to inspire confidence in its citizens. As Lord Chief Justice Hewart in the 1924 appeal of Sussex Judges versus McCarthy stated,
“Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”
That, as we know, is a tough nut to crack. Although where there’s a will, there should be a nutcracker handy.
Until that happens, blood feuds will flourish while the likes of dacoit Mohammed Khan Dhurnalia continue to hold court under shady banyan trees, sipping lassi, puffing on a hookah and administering summary ‘justice’ while the police and the judiciary battle lice in their oiled hair.
For millennia, vengeance has been occupying an honoured seat in South Asian culture, in utter disregard of the moral injunctions of its diverse faith communities. Reinterpreting and redefining it sufficiently to change attitudes means realigning tribal moral postures. Once again, easier said than done.
Influencing and changing a moral order requires an overwhelming moral authority. Being a matter of hearts and minds, it cannot be brought about by legislation. Winning hearts and minds starts at school, but Pakistan’s curricula have become an ideological battleground and that cup is overflowing with bitterness. Getting the pulpits on board can unravel centuries old knots and twists, but not without further empowering them.
That, then, challenges the state to put its act into top gear and start delivering credible justice while activist groups add the issue of blood feuds to their agenda. If successful, it would eventually relegate vendettas to the status of a pimple on the rear end of history.
By whatever name the perpetrators might prefer to mitigate the taking of a human life, it remains murder, in contravention of the timeless laws of all nations. Regardless of any interaction between them, societies far apart in time and space independently concluded that murder was the most heinous of crimes that called for a befitting and exemplary punishment. Whether this is best achieved by capital punishment, perpetual imprisonment or a 14-year life sentence, is a subject of debate in which capital punishment has been steadily losing ground.
What remains invariable is that murder cannot go unpunished and that the punishment needs to be dissuasive. The inability of the state to deliver justice does not mean it has to lower its eyes and condone murder. The justice system of a developing state should make it clear to all would-be murderers that they will be treated as such and not as romantic figures fighting injustice. That can only be achieved by making sure that no murder goes unpunished.
Note: All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals mentioned. The aforementioned story and incident is based on true events, as narrated by the prisoner himself while being interviewed by the writer.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.