No end to wadera justice?

Source: Published in Justice on Thursday, March 27, 2014

SEVERAL new incidents of horrible atrocities against women have again highlighted the urgency of a properly planned drive to halt wadera/tribal interference in the system of justice.

About a week ago, the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the murder of two women of the Mahar tribe in Shikarpur district. They were reported to have been killed for having secret relations with men of the Jagirani tribe. A jirga presided over by a powerful Mahar chief (also an MNA) fined the Jagiranis but condoned the killing of the women involved.

Around the same time, a jirga in Naushahro Feroze ordered that a 17-year-old girl be given in marriage to a man whose sister had chosen to marry her brother. The police intervened and arrested the nikah registrar and three jirga participants, and a magistrate sent the two girls to a Darul Aman.

The madness is not confined to Sindh; quite a few cases have been reported from Punjab. From a Rajanpur village came reports of a jirga decision that a woman declared ‘kali’ (the Punjab version of ‘kari’) was to be killed on March 20. The Lahore High Court (Multan Bench) had her recovered and sent to a Darul Aman. Her crime: she had filed a suit for dissolution of her marriage to which she had not consented.

The same week the media reported the horrendous ordeal of a woman from a Chiniot village, Faisalabad district. Her brother had married a woman without her family’s permission. As revenge this woman was declared to be vani and forced into marriage with the brother of her brother’s wife. When she resisted, she was declared to have been divorced and handed over to a group to be gang-raped. Finally, she was tied to a tree till the villagers won her respite.

A few weeks earlier the Supreme Court had taken notice of a case in a Muzaffargarh village in which a 40-year-old widow had been gang-raped on a panchayat’s orders to avenge something her brother-in-law had done.

The judiciary’s interventions have not been without effect. The police and prosecution authorities have in many cases been forced to do their duty. But the judiciary does not have the answers to all the social, cultural and psychological factors that create the environment in which practices like vani, jirga edicts and rape under panchayat orders can continue to occur.

Crimes against women are infinitely more serious than what is indicated by the cases cited in this article but the sample is adequate for arriving at two conclusions. First, sex-related violence against women remains as widespread as ever, and is more common in wadera/landlord-ruled territories than elsewhere. Secondly, the jirga/panchayat system has survived all judicial strictures and calls for its abolition. It is clearly the government’s responsibility to find ways to meet the challenge it has been avoiding for a long time.

As regards the causes of violence against women, especially rape/gang rape, much has been written — without effect — on the evils of the feudal culture and the tendency to justify the feudal oppression of women by claiming religious sanction for it.

Perhaps it is necessary to consider three relatively new factors: first, reliance on force, instead of reason, law and morality to justify the actions of the state and individuals; second, the brutalising effect of the war imposed on the people by the extremists; and third, ceaseless use of the pulpit to denounce women who move around, do jobs, and even dare to make laws for men. Research by qualified experts is needed to establish the precise contribution of these factors to the increase in attacks on women’s person and dignity.

The issue of wadera/tribal justice is quite complicated as the institution of jirga/panchayat is sustained by a pre-democracy socio-economic order. The wadera/tribal chief wants the world to believe that he resolves disputes in order to ensure peace but in effect he uses the club of elders to protect his political power base, quite often to make money from his followers’ misery.

The jirga/panchayat mystique suggests that people turn to this institution because they have lost faith in the state’s judicial system, because it guarantees quick settlement of matters and because an accused is tried by his own people. All three arguments have been rebutted time and again.

The first argument, loss of faith in the formal justice system, is born of despair. Reason cannot support adoption of a weaker model of justice in place of a sound but malfunctioning system.

The second argument is only partially valid. A jirga may be quick in deciding matters but speed is achieved at the cost of due process, and justice must inevitably be impaired.

Finally, a person appearing before a jirga is not judged by his peers; he is much farther removed from the wadera/chieftain than he can ever be from a magistrate even if he does not know him. The only difference can be the level of corruption but distinctions on that basis between a court and a jirga are fast disappearing.

The government has to realise that the strength of wadera justice lies in the social order that has been in place since the colonial era and progressively, further corrupted. No law alone can remove or reform this order. It will survive until the feudal culture is erased through a social process. Finally, there must be some sign of the government’s will to see the question of wadera justice in its correct perspective.

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Written by I.A. Rehman

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