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Where the state vanishes

Sitting on the fence no longer an option

Where the state vanishes
Activists of HRCP hold candles and placards in Islamabad. — Photo by Aamir Qureshi / AFP

When history is written, hopefully the blood stains of the late Rashid Rehman will matter. Hopefully, his bullet riddled body will move a society and not just a few. And hopefully, it will all matter enough that the state will take a stand that enough is enough.

But who am I kidding?

Rashid Rehman is the latest name in the line of fallen heroes who believed in the presumption of innocence of every accused. A lawyer who was actively involved in the advocacy of human rights, he was gunned down in his office in Multan. It is no secret that he was representing a university lecturer accused of committing blasphemy and had constantly received threats — something that had been raised multiple times before the relevant administrative and law enforcement authorities.

Those words, ‘the presumption of innocence’, are easy to use but these cannot be absorbed unless you have a constant battle with yourself — and many forget this. Each one of us will be outraged more by some offences compared to others. But the outrage should be limited to the proof of the offence — not its accusation. And one may find staggering even the number of lawyers who condemn the accused and believe that those representing them are in the wrong.

Of course there is no denying the fundamentally emotional nature of human beings but a system that lays down certain presumptions must enforce them — and protect those who aid the system. Rashid Rehman was aiding the system and aiding the cause of every single accused in this country by believing in innocence till guilt is established.

But let us pause for a second. Can a system protect those who aid it when the system itself is bent, manipulated and abused because enough people get angry? The mullahs who condemn those accused of blasphemy and incite violence against those defending them know fully well that they are up against a state and a system that is too weak.

My piece last week in this space talked about the late Shahid Azmi — a lawyer in India who paid for his convictions with his life. But his death was not allowed to evaporate from India’s imagination and that is the crucial difference here. A sizeable number of people in India made sure that the discourse was not hijacked by the right-wing. His life was celebrated and eventually made into an award-winning film.

If you read the history of the civil-rights movement in the United States, you will realise that there was no shortage of physical attacks against those who were accused of committing certain offences as well as those representing the accused in court. But the state did not step back. It did not throw up its hands and adopt a ‘hush hush’ policy. It kept pushing back and actively shaped the discourse. It used force at times to send out the message that vigilantism will not be tolerated. Did it make America a perfect society? No, far from it. But it at least made sure that America celebrated those who took a stand for unpopular causes. It allowed future generations in America to look up to brave souls and celebrate their sacrifices.

It is no coincidence that America’s harshest and most reasoned criticism comes from within its borders. It is because whether it is rights of detainees, religious liberty or free speech, an American will find a celebrated hero in her history. Will all of America or any society agree on its heroes? Of course not. But as long as a critical mass stands up, is assured of protection and enforcement of rights (no matter how unpopular), there will always be hope.

Compare this to Pakistan of today where someone accused of blasphemy is as good as dead. The same goes for anyone representing them. The greatest danger comes not from the chances of conviction but non-state actors taking the law into their own hands. As soon as an accusation of blasphemy is made, the system begins to fall to pieces — one by one the wheels come off. The accused starts fearing for his life.

On top of that, lawyers often refuse to represent the accused out of fear for their own safety. The state vanishes from the picture. Presumption of innocence ceases to exist. In such an environment, a hero like Rashid Rehman stepped in — knowing that each second of an accused or his lawyer could be their last. The clock started ticking. And eventually they got him.

One more news item. One more photograph showing splashes of blood on walls where portraits of loved one should be hanging. One more statement promising investigation.

Ironically enough, after the killing of Rashid Rehman, the state steps in and asks us not to jump to conclusions! But the whole time while the mobs jumped to conclusions about the accused and his lawyer, the state watched silently. The state chose not to act while the religious zealots, if not bigots, did everything within their power to incite violence through speeches.

The sacrifice of Rashid Rehman will be in vain if we condemn those accused of his murder without a trial — he would be the first to reiterate the presumption of innocence. The heart-breaking fact is that he and his client have been condemned and deprived of rights they fought to uphold.

Will there be any heroes left for our future generations to look up to? Will the state at least celebrate the fallen and put its foot down? Or will free speech in this country continue to remain available only to those who advocate violence in the name of religion?

Rashid Rehman lived a brave life — a life in which he was never afraid to stand up for unpopular causes. Look around you and you will realise that the number of people who can stand up for unpopular beliefs and the rights of the accused is fast shrinking. The number of people who can be vile with language and violence is rising.

Which side are you on? Sitting on the fence is no longer an option. Without realising it, you are taking sides — as you have been all along.

Waqqas Mir

The writer is a practicing lawyer. He can be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • These kind of articles should be written in Urdu press as well.

    Most of our middle class is sitting on the fence until religion is brought into question.

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