I have spent much of the last two years in the backwaters of southern Punjab. The objective has been to understand how politics works there. And, specifically, how it is that the same people — mainly waderas — come to be elected time and again. The reasons are many and complicated. But a single factor stands clearly above all others. This has to do with the control that waderas exercise over the local thanas. Two aspects of this control need to be understood. First, how is it used? And, second, how is it maintained and perpetuated?
But before addressing these two issues, it is important to understand the role of the thana in these impoverished rural communities. It is no exaggeration to state that rural life revolves around the thana. It is the only forum where local people can seek relief from oppression and tyranny. The thana is the ultimate arbiter, not only of crimes ranging from petty theft, to murder to land grabbing, but also of disputes between individuals or groups. The situation is exacerbated because all parties involved — the victims, the criminals, and the disputants — are poor and illiterate and have no recourse to legal help. Hence, decisions can be arbitrary, subject to external influence and difficult to challenge.
And since it is the wadera who controls the thana, he becomes the de facto ‘ruler’ of the community. How does he use his power? In many ways. If a cow is stolen from a poor farmer he will not be able to register an FIR (which is called a ‘parcha’ in the local language) until the local wadera instructs the thana to do so. If the wadera is unhappy with someone, he instructs the thana to issue a concocted FIR (or a ‘jally parcha’), which promptly leads to the arrest and possible torture of the hapless victim. I know of waderas who provide refuge and succour to wanted criminals (or ishtiharis). These criminals steal from the community — animals, money and jewellery — for the purpose of providing income to the wadera. They are also used as private goons to beat and threaten peasants who are otherwise not intimidated. The thana is fully aware of these activities and the identities of the criminals. However, they cannot be touched because they are under the protection of the wadera.
Put all this together and a sordid picture of terror and oppression emerges. I travel in these areas and the fear of the wadera is almost palpable. Which peasant, in his right mind, would want to annoy a wadera who can make his life hell on a whim?
And what is it that gives the wadera his power over the thana? The answer to this reveals the shocking complicity of provincial chief ministers in promoting this abomination. Legally, all authority is vested with the SHO of the thana. He does not need to take instructions or even give the time of day to any wadera. But any SHO who does not accept the complete authority of the wadera is promptly transferred out of the area or penalised in other ways. And since the authority to do this vests with the provincial chief minister, such instructions can only be issued from his office. I know of cases where local waderas, who were unhappy with their SHO, travelled to Lahore and waited hours outside the chief minister’s office to have the transfer instructions processed.
So, the root of this evil rests squarely on the shoulders of the provincial chief ministers. These are the same people who, without even a tinge of shame, talk publicly of justice, equity and decency in government.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2012.