How does one process death, especially violent, gratuitous death? What do people think in their last moments? Some say that one’s life flashes in front of one’s eyes. I am not sure. Is there a sense of resignation, regret, a desire to get another term and to do things differently? In some cases, it would seem the brain won’t even have the time to process what’s happened, like when someone is shot in the head. The bullet, given its muzzle velocity, does its job much faster than the brain has time to look back or desire another term.
Perhaps, the best way to go is to drop dead.
I often think about my last moment, now more frequently than I used to. My father died in my arms. Just hours before we were discussing the logistics of attending my younger brother’s graduation from Pakistan Military Academy. And then he was no more, having crossed the line. He died a day before my birthday, a metaphor of sorts. It has since reminded me every year of how the death of the man who begot me embraces the life of his child, a life that must also end one day.
The future lies in the unknown, our planning for things to come and our to-do lists, notwithstanding. But it also has a known: no one can outlive their physiological term here. Everything that is born must die. What lies beyond is a matter of belief because none has returned after crossing that line and reported back on whether it is about decomposition or a different form of life, what belief calls afterlife or the hereafter. And belief is self-referential.
To me, the certainty that my term here will terminate has helped foster a sense of humility and boundaries of action. I can still get angry at people; I still retain to some degree an occasional sense of self-importance, which is unfortunate. But I have steadily developed a sense of life’s ephemeralness and decay, what Shelley described in Ozymandias as “Nothing beside remains.”
These thoughts invaded me again as I heard the news of the violent death at the hands of a mob of Priyantha Kumara Diyawadanage, a guest in this country. I could not bring myself to watch the clips of that gory and bestial incident, but I did see a short clip of some boys describing how they had murdered him. They raised slogans of labbaik, seemed to take pride in what they had done and were, for that reason, utterly remorseless.
It shouldn’t have surprised me. Mob lynchings on the pretext of blasphemy are nothing new in this country. We have seen this sense of putrid, stinking self-righteousness and remorselessness before. I still recall doing a programme after a mob burnt a Christian couple alive in a brick kiln in Kasur. The accusation of blasphemy, as in most such cases, was a fabrication.
But I do get surprised still, and dismayed. From where I stand and how I think about death and my own last moment, taking a human life is an act that must change one forever. It seems to me that one must in that moment not only forget about one’s own death but presume oneself immortal, unanswerable and unaccountable. Sure, there are situations in which such abhorrence of killing notwithstanding one might, sometimes must, kill. But to do so without any remorse, without cherishing any doubt, with great certainty would be beyond any thinking, reflecting self.
Every time such atrocity takes place, the clerics tell us that Islam is the religion of peace. This is sheer and unforgivable whataboutery. The history of Islam, even of its early days, is replete with violence and bloodshed. Ditto for other religions, whether presumably divine or grounded in mythology. The political struggle for power has given Muslims the Karbala incident and a bloody sectarian divide that informs increased and senseless violence to this day.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan has issued statements condemning the Sialkot atrocity. The anger that followed the revolting, gruesome murder of Diyawadanage forced the TLP to dissociate itself from the incident. But make no mistake about what TLP stands for. If anyone wants to see their true spots, ask them to go to the heart of the problem, the blasphemy laws.
There’s further deception with reference to blasphemy. The clerics argue that the laws actually protect people accused of blasphemy (incidentally, the mobs have broadened the definition of blasphemy a mile wide for their vigilantism). This is patent poppycock. Once someone is accused of blasphemy, (s)he has a target on their backs. The person can be killed while in police custody, during the trial or after it. Those lucky enough to get out after serving on average seven years in jail during the trial cannot go back to their lives here. They must flee this country. Justice in some such cases have seen judges and lawyers killed.
There’s another problem with the clerics’ argument: before General Ziaul Haq decided to provide teeth to the law, there were six cases of blasphemy brought to the courts. The courts threw them out. Since Zia’s time, there have been thousands of cases. It would seem that the certainty and severity of punishment have only increased the number of people ready to commit blasphemy, which is obviously nonsensical. It’s not that people have decided in large numbers to blaspheme but that clerics and their followers, as also unscrupulous people, have weaponised these laws. You want to get someone’s land, accuse him/her of blasphemy. And no, this is not an abstract example. This is a real example from real cases.
But back to death. Shouldn’t the religious, believing in afterlife and Day of Judgement, be more humane in treating human life because their belief must make them think about their own deaths? Shouldn’t the idea of the temporariness of this life instil in the believer kindness and generosity? Isn’t the very idea of judgement related to how God will judge and must, therefore, stay the human hand from delivering judgement?
There are of course a number of other issues: the diplomatic and image debacle, the damage this has done to Pakistan, the damage it can do to industry in Sialkot (which is the mainstay of the very swines who murdered Diyawadanage), the list is long. This is a blow from which the country will take a long time to recover.
But the challenge for this or any government (and criminal justice system) is to realise, clearly and demonstrably, that this trend cannot be allowed to persist. We either have to take some clear decisions about whether we want this state and society to be free of such extreme elements or remain hostage to them. If the first, we need will and enforcement; if the second, we should forget about socioeconomic growth, image and diplomacy.