The state and justice
EVENTS over the past week have laid bare the predicament of a divided nation. While the execution of Mumtaz Qadri signifies the assertion of state authority, the glorification of a convicted murderer exposes the ugly face of religious extremism that is so deeply rooted in our society. The turnout of tens of thousands of mourners at Qadri's funeral may be a testimony to the growing fanaticism here, but it does not fully define the country's other realities.
Notwithstanding the liberal argument against capital punishment, the execution symbolises a unity of the state institutions in the face of an existentialist challenge. First, it was the landmark Supreme Court ruling that broke the state of fear and gave courage to the executive to implement the verdict. The apex court not only upheld the death sentence of a self-professed murderer, it also rejected the notion that demanding a change in the blasphemy law was itself an act of blasphemy.
Surely that would have been a routine verdict, but not in the prevailing environment where the judge of an antiterrorism court had to flee the country after awarding the death sentence to Qadri. Such was the fear that only a handful of people dared to attend the funeral of the slain governor of the country's most powerful province. The state seemed to have virtually vanished, as a murderer was turned into a cult figure encouraging others of his ilk to kill in the name of faith. The apex court verdict was an attempt to restore the supremacy of the law.
More surprising, however, was the swift execution of the convict by a government with a strong conservative ethos. Even some senior members of the ruling party, including the prime minister's own son-in-law, had reportedly condoned Qadri's action as a religious duty. Some of them later joined the funeral. Few had expected the president to sign the death warrant so quickly in this situation. But it did happen.
It may not just have been the Supreme Court ruling that gave the Sharif government the spine to take action; perhaps it was also to do with the military's backing for the National Action Plan to counter terrorism and violent religious extremism. This highprofile execution could not have been possible without all the three institutions being on board.
Also significant is the tacit approval of the execution by all mainstream political parties barring the Islamic groups. Pro-Qadri leaders must have been aware of that consensus that perhaps restricted them from not taking on the state as a whole; instead, they confined their attack to the Sharif government. It was, indeed, a show of strength by some Barelvi groups, and one that has been marked by a significant rise in recent years. Elements within civil society and the security establishment tried to project them as the 'soft face of Islam' in an attempt to counter Taliban militancy. The West too conveniently bought this discourse and reportedly provided financial support to some groups that have been at the forefront of the proQadri campaign.
Interestingly, the same outfits have supported the military operation against the Taliban and other militant groups. Not surprisingly, many leaders would make it a point to pledge their support for the military leadership perhaps to cover their flanks.
While it had essentially become a Barelvi cause, the Qadri issue rallied other sects too. Some Deobandi clerics also backed the protests against the hanging though not so actively. The position of the Jamaat-i-Islami on the issue has been quite intriguing. The party that had so far kept itself out of the sectarian divide joined the JUI and other Islamic parties in openly defending Qadri's action. A plausible explanation is that these parties wanted to use the issue to regain their shrinking political space.
The Qadri protests coincided with these parties' campaign against the women's protection bill passed by the Punjab Assembly. It is not surprising that the Islamic parties want to revive the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal in the aftermath of Qadri's hanging.
It is quite evident that the state can take difficult actions if it shows some resolve. It is surely capable of dealing with the consequences of its actions as was seen in its handling of the situation after Qadri's execution. It may have been among the largest gatherings in the nation's history, but there was no incident of violence.
It was essentially the weakness of the state that allowed zealots to turn a murderer into a saint. No action was taken against the lawyers who garlanded Qadri when he was produced before court after the incident. No effort was made to stop the glorification of a criminal. It may not have been easy, but there was no will to confront the challenge largely because of political expediency. Now finally the state has acted.
Many among the liberals opposed Qadri's execution on the principle that the state has no right to take away the life of anyone no matter how heinous the crime. One may agree with the basic argument, but since the law regarding capital punishment exists there is no justification of it being set aside in a particular case. Any dithering would have had far more serious consequences. It would have reinforced the belief of Qadri followers that the government would not dare execute him.
It may be true that the demon of extremism is so deeply rooted in our society that it cannot be exorcised by hanging one person. But the inaction of the state would have provided greater impunity to those who justify violence in the name of faith. It was indeed state patronage that allowed religious extremism to flourish in this country and produce a culture where murder in the name of faith was glorified. Now it is the responsibility of the state to cleanse the country of the evil that threatens its own survival. It is certainly going to be a long haul.