The sight of a man who immolated himself outside the Punjab Chief Minister’s Complaint Cell in Lahore on May 14 brings back memories of an act of equal desperation carried out many years ago at an open court held regularly in Lahore by Nawaz Sharif. Both brothers then have resorted to similar means to dispense justice. But are these ‘courts’ just cosmetic? The desperate victim of the latest act of suicide was apparently motivated by his failure to obtain a house under a government scheme. For months, he had been shoved from one official to the next. This time too, his pleas to meet the chief minister went unheard. His life ended before he could obtain the house he had hoped would shelter him and his family.
The reports surfacing in the wake of the tragedy say only those with recommendations from persons with influence ever succeed in getting grievances heard at the CM’s court. Other attempts at self-immolation have been reported. Death was prevented only because other complainants came to the rescue. This did not happen this time round due to growing despondency that the forum could truly result in solving problems and consequently, falling attendance at it. The real question is what purpose such open courts serve. There is indeed something rather medieval about the practice. Modern rulers should not need to use them. Their focus must, instead, be on improving the system as a whole so people everywhere have better access to justice. They should not need to line up outside the homes of rulers and beg for audience in order to obtain it. We must hope the tragic death of a father can drive this message home to rulers and persuade them of the need to serve people in a manner that can truly result in solving their problems rather than inflicting more misery on the already miserable.