A photo of Hafiz Hunain Bilal 20190906
A photo of Hafiz Hunain Bilal shared on twitter by his cousin Rimsha Naeem Twitter/Rimsha Naeem Image Credit: Twitter/Rimsha Naeem

The world is a very dark place. In 2019, it is no different.

In the last week of January, the photos of the dead body of the 16-year-old Uzma thrown in a sewer in Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore, found their way to people all across Pakistan. Beaten and tortured by the ‘lady’ of the house, the teenager from an underprivileged family working as a maid, became another statistic in a long list of those whose death evoke a huge backlash that has the longevity of fresh picked fruit. It lasts until the next big news of another shocking murder.

In the middle of August, the photos and videos of 16-year-old Rehan, beaten, tortured and lynched, grieved and angered a largely apathetic Pakistan. Tied to a rusty cage, the skinny teenager, dressed in a black t-shirt that had Apna Time Aayega written in bold white letters, was beaten to death by a bunch of self-appointed guardians of morality who were enraged at Rehan’s alleged misdemeanour. A confession had to be extracted. A lesson had to be taught. Innocence be damned. Humanity be damned.

In the first week of September, the photo of a bearded Salahuddin, sticking his tongue out to a CCTV camera of an ATM in Rahimyar Khan, would have been just another image circulating in social media on a slow-news Sunday if only it was just that: a photo of a man making faces to a camera. It wasn’t. Salahuddin was dead when the photo became national news. More photos and videos appeared. The photos and videos of a man in custody asking the policemen how they had learned to torture the way they tortured, of a body covered in bruises, and a motionless body lying on a stretcher in a government hospital created a huge sentiment of anger towards the Punjab police. It won’t last long.

On September 5, a Twitter thread appeared on my timeline. It was the pain-filled plea of a young woman about her 17-year-old first cousin, Hafiz Hunain Bilal, student of class 10 at American Lycetuff School in Lahore. Beaten by a teacher for not memorising a lesson, Hunain was slapped, punched, thrown against a wall, hit on the head, kicked in the stomach, and dragged across the floor. Repeatedly. He pleaded with his teacher to stop as he had difficulty breathing after being beaten mercilessly. The teacher didn’t stop, calling it all a ‘drama’. Hunain was killed in his classroom in front of his friends and class fellows. No one tried to help him. They had seen it happen to other children. Corporal punishment was an unlisted activity in their daily school timetables. They were scared. And when they tried to help it was a life too late.

The stories of violence are many. Appearing like words that are skimmed over without leaving a lasting trace, stories of violence dot the everyday existence of human beings who live without learning. There is so much outrage, such a tremendous expression of grief and anger after every news of an act of violence in which there is a dead body, such an outpouring of delineation of the wrongs of society, absence of justice for the weak and the remedial steps essential to change the system that it seems that Pakistan would change after every new act of violence. Nothing does. Only the names, faces, ages and backgrounds of the dead change. The act remains the same: violence that is fatal.

Reading about the murder of the 17-year-old Hunain, as the mother of a 19-year-old son, I was filled with that deep feeling of pain and helplessness that I’ve felt many times in my life. It is beyond the expected feelings of anger and pain for the parents and siblings of a dead child, a dead teenager, a dead woman, a dead man. All my life I’ve read and heard stories of human beings inflicting pain on one another. Most of those stories unfolded in darkness, in self-created isolation in which there were no witnesses, in rooms that were locked, their windows covered in heavy drapes, their walls thick. No one was meant to hear the screams. No one was expected to intervene. What happened in the cases of Uzma, killed, Rehan, killed, Hunain, killed, and Salahuddin, allegedly killed, is that the first three were beaten and tortured in front of people, and Salahuddin, first beaten by a mob, and then allegedly faced so much mental torture in police captivity that traumatised and terrified, he went into a cardiac arrest. Police is categorically adamant there was no physical torture. Mental torture is torture too. Photos were taken, and videos were made. No one tried to stop the violence. No one helped.

Seeds of violence

In a society conditioned and convinced on the utility of the idea of physical punishment as a lesson, as a deterrent and as a tool of subjugation of the weaker–in terms of relationship status, financial standing and societal classification–it all starts at home. Strength of law is paramount to keep a society functional, the fundamental values are taught at home. Hitting your child to teach may be tied to the idea of the necessity of enforcing a point to not be forgotten in a hurry, it is still a no to me. The intention of a parent’s beating is not meant to inflict pain but to inculcate some form of discipline, but to me it is still a no.

A beating is painful even if it is from a devoted mother, a loving father. What beating is, beyond an expression of controlling a younger, a smaller, a weaker family member, to ostensibly learn the good things, is an excruciatingly lazy way of teaching. Non-physical punishment is not just more effective and longer-lasting, it is also time-consuming: talking, listening, understanding, explaining and repeating the whole thing more than once requires empathy, patience and understanding. Most people are incapable of one or all.

It all starts at home: resorting to physical punishment to scare, to teach, to deter, to subdue, to extract a ‘confession’, to weaken, to control for guaranteed silence. Noisily, it spreads to well-furnished living rooms, rooftops of houses with rusty cages, police stations, and crowded classrooms.

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What is also learnt at a very young age is turning away from an injustice done to others. If it is not you who is being harmed, why get involved in someone’s ‘drama’, beating, lynching, killing. It is one thing to be in a situation and feel terrible about not being able to do anything. Even when you wish to, and you try to. It is a completely different thing to be a mute, detached viewer of violence, to be an indifferent photographer and videographer of a terrified person’s torture, to be a silent bystander of a teenager’s lynching, or to be an immobile spectator while your class mate, your friend is being beaten to death by his teacher.

That fear of not stepping up during an act of violence, that reluctance to not physically make an effort to stop a perpetrator of violence, that moral ambivalence of should I-shouldn’t I is years of conditioning. It is conditioning of fear, of mind-your-own-business, of what-is-it-to-us, of deep-seated apathy that debilitates. That very apathy, once individual, slowly and steadily increases, divides, fractures and enlarges into collective cruelty that leaves indelible marks everywhere. It is seen in the darkness of battered and tortured and very dead bodies of children, teenagers, women and men.

I would stop a person from hurting another human being, an animal. I would do it even if the perpetrator was much stronger than me, was armed, was more than one person. I’ve taught my son, Musa, to do the same. I’ve taught my niece, Areeba, and my nephew, Zain–my sister’s children whom I love like my own–to do the same. That is all I can do: be, do, and teach by example.

I wish that people stopped being spectators of violence. There would be one less dead body today.

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