The Gojra case: Between sanity and madness
How is justice to be dispensed if the court itself is weak, ineffective and realistically, redundant?
Toba Tek Singh, a city in Punjab was immortalised by Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story of the same name. The story, based a few years after Partition, chronicles the lives of a bunch of lunatics living in an asylum, unable to fathom whether they are in Pakistan or India. The story itself is a gripping indictment of the senseless events that occurred during Partition as the characters remain deluded somewhere between sanity and madness. In many ways, this enduring legacy of Partition still remains as a black spot on Pakistan’s identity.
In 2009, riots broke out in the outlying districts of Toba Tek Singh in a town called Gojra. Reports of desecration of the Holy Quran during a wedding ceremony sparked riots which resulted in over 40 houses and a church being set on fire. The total dead included eight Christians who were burnt alive while 18 sustained injuries. In the aftermath of the attack, over 200 suspects were initially identified of which 17 were nominated to face charges.
Almost two years later, and just like the aftermath of any tragedy in Pakistan, there is no follow up. There are no answers, no explanations; like goldfish in a bowl, our short attention spans release us from the misery around us. A travesty of Justice has taken place where all the 70 accused have been released on bail due to a no-show of witnesses. According to sources, many witnesses have left the country compelling the Anti-Terrorism Court in Faisalabad to defer criminal proceedings for a year until there are sufficient eyewitnesses with substantial evidence as well as the presence of the actual suspects themselves. It seems that the most necessary legal institution in the country can’t even guarantee protection of its witnesses.
Somewhere between sanity and madness
The attack on Christians represents a growing and troubling trend within Pakistan where those speaking for the rights of the disenfranchised are silenced. After the Gojra riots, President Asif Ali Zardari expressed grave concern and directed his federal minister for Minority Affairs, the late Shahbaz Bhatti to remain in Gojra and oversee the normalisation of relations. Bhatti identified the Sipah-e-Sahaba as the group responsible for carrying out the attacks against the Christian community. As we now know, Bhatti is dead for speaking out against the country’s controversial blasphemy law which frequently cites religious rectitude as a justification to settle old scores between rivals.
Attacks against minorities in Pakistan are now becoming more and more commonplace as communities that have long lived in harmony for centuries in this land are becoming xenophobic, paranoid and extreme, endangering numerous minority groups that now live in fear, daily.
The most shocking aspect about this incident is not the fact that it occurred, but the fact that the Anti-Terrorism Court failed to make headway. Deferring a case for an entire year is no small matter. It is one thing where a commission is created to probe an event after it occurs, which by the way is becoming more and more common now; it’s another, more insidious matter altogether if a court defers a case for an entire year.
How much longer will the people of Pakistan be made subservient slaves to their own institutions?
The government’s responsibility to protect minorities has been exposed as ineffective. The court’s responsibility to protect witnesses to ensure the smooth progression of legal justice now totters precariously. The 18th Amendment bars the president of Pakistan of strengthening the court through ordinances.
So the question remains:
How is legal justice to be dispensed if the court itself is weak, ineffective and realistically, redundant?
Manto’s story echoes the paradigm of today. Like the characters in the story, we hang lurched in a balance somewhere between madness and sanity - the forces of justice, good will, cooperation and harmony stand in confronted by the specter of hatred, intolerance, extremism fuelled by apathy, a lack of political will and ineffective institutions. And we, like the lunatics in Manto’s asylum, know not where we stand.