A state and its death sentences
By Zia Mian
1 July 1996
Killer words have a place in the lexicon of states. Their use can devastate societies.
Nations and states are talked into existence, and kept alive by words. Listening to such words suggests that while states and nations can speak different languages, the structure of the languages they speak is basically the same. And, as Noam Chomsky has suggested for the more mundane, day-to-day languages of people, state languages may also have a grammar that is pre-wired.
The basic “deep structures” of state languages include national identity, the interests of the state, development and security. From the United States of America to Niger (ranked last in the UNDP Human Development Index), these categories are part of every state’s language. But unlike human language, every state’s grammar has a space for killer-words. These are words that allow murder to be thought and committed.
There are state killer-words that are backed by the power of the state: a declaration of war which leads to the deaths of thousands, if not millions, or a judge passing a verdict of guilty and condemning a person to death. What marks such words is that only particular people can speak them, and that, too, only after a process of judgement. These state killer-words are part of the vocabulary of a system of official power. Without the legitimacy that the system offers, they are just words.
There are also ideological killer-words, which form part of a state’s political process, but are not legal. For instance, for a person to be called a communist was a certain way of getting killed in Chile, Guatemala, Iran or Indonesia.
Then there are words that can kill by unleashing the mob. Almost anyone can use these words and produce a result. The legitimacy, and thus effectiveness, of these words lies not in law but in history and culture. But make no mistake, the state is here too, as the carrier and arbiter, of collective history and culture. Where the state picks up these words and transforms them into ideology, or into law, there is genocide. Where it is silent, it allows other voices to speak these words.
In Pakistan, these killer-words are being used with ever greater abandon. They started as a whisper and have become a chorus. In the process, other voices are being drowned out.
The Pakistani state has long been speaking murderous words, turning again and again to violence to solve political problems. East Pakistan was just the first speech. One description of what the Pakistani armed forces did will suffice: “The Bengali working class and intelligentsia were the first major target. The army shelled Dhaka University and wiped out all the students and lecturers it could find; soldiers invaded the women’s hostel, raping and killing the inmates. Artillery units flattened working-class areas, and trade-union and newspaper offices were burnt to the ground. Tens of thousands were killed in the first few days.”
As it is with such things, as time passes the speaker remembers little of the details of what was actually said, and constructs memories of what they think should have been said. The massacres in East Pakistan have become “Indian dismemberment of Pakistan”. Similar processes are at work in the wake of the state’s recourse to violence in Baluchistan in the mid 1970s, Sindh in the early 1980s, and then Karachi.
These passionate orations have been accompanied by the more restrained, some would say civilised, conversations that take place in the courts. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), from 1993 to 1995,361 people were sentenced to death. There are now 2416 people awaiting execution in Pakistani jails.
The rate at which people will be tried and condemned to death by the courts is certain to increase, as the death penalty has been extended to more and more crimes. There are already 2432 Ahmadis who have been charged with “religious offences” and of these, more than 500 are blasphemy cases. The punishment for blasphemy is death. With the death penalty now imposed for possessing illegal weapons and a confession made to a senior police officer being admitted as evidence in a trial, the basis is being laid for a glut of convictions and executions
These, however, are the official functions where death is discussed. War and the dispensing of justice are both instances where the state has special power because it has special responsibilities. But those who have heard, and spoken, killer words cannot forget the sounds easily. They begin to rehearse the words to themselves, quietly enjoying the way they roll off the tongue.
One such murderous phrase is “police encounter”. It has become commonplace and describes that remarkable situation where people are arrested-by the police and despite eyewitness evidence that they were unarmed and did not resist, they turn up dead. HRCP recorded 180 such extra-judicial killings in Punjab last year and said there were “several hundred” such killings in Karachi.
Another is “death in custody”. In Karachi, there were 200 deaths in custody, attributed by HRCP to torture. This should come as no surprise. There is no investigation to speak of, no policeman is arrested, none tried, none convicted
While war and the application of justice are ‘lawful’ speech situations sanctioned by the constitution and the law, there are other situations in which lawfulness does not enter, but killer words can be spoken nonetheless. These are situations that concern the state and especially its security. These situations arise when someone disagrees with the state.
Earlier this year, there was a seminar organised by the Islamabad branch of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy on what Pakistan’s response should be to India’s Prithvi missile. It had prominent speakers: there was Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr A.H. Nayyar (both physicists at Islamabad’s prestigious Quaid-i-Azam University) and Dr Inayatullah (a political scientist), and the Chief Guest was Air Marshal (retired) Asghar Khan (the former head of a “liberal” political party).
The speakers outlined the implications of Prithvi, and the dangerous consequences of Pakistan getting into a missile race with India. The stress was on the simple fact that arms racing of any kind, in nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles or conventional weapons, would exact a much higher price from Pakistan than India. This was because India has both a much larger economy which allows it to easily afford higher spending on weapons than Pakistan, and a far more developed scientific and technological base from which it starts in any such race. Like the Soviet Union, Pakistan would end up destroying itself from the consequences of diverting ever-more of its precious resources (economic, scientific and human) to the desperate search for military security.
The speakers called for a radical rethink of what kind of secunty Pakistan actually needed and how to try to create the conditions which would allow such security to be attained. These conditions had to start with a realisation that peace with India was not only beneficial but necessary for Pakistan, and that the military burden was fast becoming unbearable and had to be reduced before the country was crippled for an entire generation.
The headlines the next day told a different story: “People’s Forum Meeting: Ridiculous Speeches Poking Fun at Islam, Abusing Armed Forces” Another claimed: “No Difference Between Islam and Hinduism; Armed Forces are Eating Away the Country Like Moths”. From the scandal sheets like Al-Akbar, Markaz, Khabrain, Pakistan, and Asas, to the large circulation, supposedly quality, Urdu language papers like Jang (which covered the story under the headline “Objectionable Speeches at the Pakistan People’s Forum” there was unanimity that something awful had happened at the seminar.
But it was in the follow-up to these reports that this act of mischief created space for the rats to come out of the gutter. On 12 February Jang carried a news story with the headline: “Prime Minister has ordered an enquiry into speeches against Pakistan and Islam. Organisers of non-governmental dialogues between India and Pakistan are not patriots. Cases should be instituted against them.”
The story was a series of comments by politicians baying for the blood of the participants. The same story was carried by Asas. The headline was ‘”Prime Minister has ordered an enquiry into the slander against armed forces. This is treason against the country.” There were some of the same rent-a-quote politicians who had had their say in Jang, and a few more.
Newspapers seemed to compete for outrageous comments from politicians. Nawai-Waqt was not one to be left out. It carried a press release from Hafiz Idrees, a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, in which he talked of “traitors and irreligious Indian agents” and demanded that “Those who made fun of the ideology of Pakistan and the sacred duty of jihad should be tried for treason.”
There were those who were not content with reporting the preparations for the kill. They wanted a piece of the meat. On the same day as it carried the news quoting the politicians, Jang carried an editorial repeating the story from the day before, and this time the tone was even more sinister: “…speakers engaged in the worst slander against Islam, Pakistan and the armed forces and mocked jihad, faith and piety.” The comment followed: “We don’t say that a case of treason be instituted and they be immediately arrested, but our standpoint is that the government is bound by law to take action against those who spread these kinds of views.”
There were others, but there is little to be gained by labouring the point. What was happening was an act of controlling free speech. What states choose to call “consensus” on national security, was being challenged by a discordant note and state-speak requires silence on everyone else’s part.
Another situation in which murderous words are spoken is when the “;common-sense” of a nation is challenged. This sense, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out, is not eternal. It is affected in large measure (if not totally determined) by the “senses” of the ruling class at any given time. There is no law, not even ideology, at stake. Traditions and customs are brought into play. It becomes a question of values.
A little over two months ago, the news first broke that the government had decided to sell several hundred acres of land in Quaid-i-Azam University campus to its staff to allow them to build houses. The matter became highly charged as two faculty members, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr A.H. Nayyar, objected to the sale of public property for private gain and went public.
There were both supporters and opponents of the proposed housing scheme, and it became a public issue attracting interventions from well-known people and institutions in the leading newspapers and journals in the country.
Confronted by an eloquent, determined and clearly moral position, perhaps sensing that public opinion was starting to turn against them, the supporters of the QAU Housing Scheme, as it came to be called, began to attack the integrity of those who stood in their way. It was the way in which this was done that exposes the connection between state and custom.
On the walls of the University, posters claiming to be from the “members of the QAU Staff Housing Scheme” started to demonise the two faculty members who dissented. It was no longer a disagreement about a bit of land, and the balance that needs to be maintained between public property and private profit, or the needs of future generations as compared to satisfying the desires of the present. Amid the most amazing accusations—of 25-year-old conspiracies hatched in the United States, secret meetings in far-off places with Indians and Israelis, and dubious bank accounts—the dissenters were labelled “anti-patriotic” “Ahmadis” and “anti-Islamic”.
Among all these words there is one that is lethal beyond a doubt. To call someone an Ahmadi in Pakistan is no simple act of religious identification, as everyone knows. The violence that is done to the Ahmadi community, legitimised by the profoundly unjust law that marks them out from other citizens, is common knowledge. ‘Ahmadi’ is a killer word.
What is particularly significant is that everyone at QAU knows that in October 1994, Dr. Nasim Babar, a faculty member of QAU who lived on campus, was killed in his own home by a masked intruder. Dr. Babar was an Ahmadi and, not surprisingly, no one was arrested for his killing. By connecting dissent with the QAU Housing Scheme to the Ahmadi issue, it is clear what signals are being sent. There is no ambiguity. One poster ends, ominously: “Has our university become a refuge for evil-doers? All of us have to answer”
While the ‘Ahmadi’ word stirs the professional zealots, it is not guaranteed to bring out the mob. That now requires an accusation of blasphemy. Just how frightful this can be was witnessed last year with the case of Salamat, Rehmat and Mansoor Masih, three Christian citizens who were accused of blasphemy. One was killed and another wounded outside the court while under trial.
The survivors, after being found innocent, still had to flee the country. Even more horrific was the case of Hafiz Farouq in Gujranwala, dragged around the streets and then set on fire after someone alleged he had committed an act of desecration of the Koran. The allegation was sufficient and no one even remembers who first made it.
As the French writer Albert Camus once observed, bloodshed is like alcohol, it eventually intoxicates like the headiest of wines. Pakistan has been drinking deep of this deadly vintage for years and now seems to have reached that state of drunkenness where judgement is lost, speech becomes passionate and then starts to become blurred. Things are said, and forgotten by the next morning. There is only a hangover, and some embarrassment, as reminder.
At risk from this are that handful of people who are trying to do what sincere intellectuals are supposed to do. They are raising their voice, the voice of intellectual conscience. They are unwilling to accept simplistic formulas masquerading as truth, and reject the comforts of agreeing with whatever the government of the day, or social convention, may want to be true. They refuse to speak the language of the state.
~Zia Mian is a physicist at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.
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