The dangers of jirgas

Published: May 7, 2011

The jirga and panchayat systems continue to wield power only because too many Pakistanis seek quick justice from them.

As if the acquittal of those accused of gang-raping Mukhtaran Mai under the orders of a panchayat wasn’t distressing enough, yet another outrageous ‘verdict’, this time in interior Sindh, is sure to shock the conscience. A jirga in Ibrahim village near Sukkur, relying on the archaic concept of collective punishment, settled a murder case by decreeing that 12 girls from the accused family be handed over to the aggrieved party. The girls are all minors aged between five and 15 years, which should only add to the outrage. Even though the practice of vani has been technically banned in the country, a law that is routinely flouted and rarely prosecuted provides scant protection to the vulnerable.

Tempting though it may be to blame the jirga, the local and federal government and the courts — and all of them certainly deserve varying degrees of blame — it is also incumbent on us as a society to accept responsibility. The jirga and panchayat systems, despite operating outside the law, continue to wield power only because too many Pakistanis seek quick justice from them. The standard defence of those who rely on jirgas is that the courts are too sluggish in providing justice. Certainly, the courts could do a better job of clearing their backlog. At the same time, the way courts work is that multiple avenues for appealing verdicts exist to minimise the chances of erroneous verdicts and protect the rights of the accused. This system isn’t perfect but it is vastly preferable to the speedy, but usually faulty, verdicts handed down by jirgas.

The chief problem is one of enforcement. The district police officer of Sukkur has ordered that FIRs be filed against the jirga members and they be arrested. This encouraging first step invariably leads to disappointment. Jirga members are among the most influential in their areas and tend to escape the clutches of the law. Anyone who dares challenge them in their villages is dealt with mercilessly. And yet the only way out of this morass is a collective refusal to accept the jirga system, backed by the full force of the law. Anything short of that, and barbaric verdicts will continue rolling in.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2011.

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