And the matter of the government’s will
Under the system prevalent in rural areas, there are local institutions of conflict resolution headed by tribal leaders that incorporate the prevalent local traditions and customs
Pakistan’s National Assembly recently passed a bill giving legal cover to the centuries-old jirga and panchayat system prevalent in some areas of the country. Law Minister Zahid Hamid presented the bill in the assembly and said that either the federal government will request the provinces or the provinces will request the federal government to implement the new legislation.
Under the system prevalent in rural areas, there are local institutions of conflict resolution headed by tribal leaders that incorporate the prevalent local traditions and customs.
The jirgas and panchayats issue immediate orders but they are also termed as one of the major causes of human rights violations and anti-women violence in rural areas, as their decrees reflect the patrarchial mindset that exists in the conservative areas of the country.
Should the panchayat system stay?
The government’s attempt to legitimise the jirgas has generated a debate on whether this system should be allowed to stay. The argument against the jirgas and panchayats is pretty simple – these bodies have time and again issued decrees persecuting women and the financially weaker members of the society. Zero representation of women in the whole process is another factor that raises concerns. The presence of such institutions also undermines the authority of judicial system of the country and puts a question mark on the writ of the government.
But some argue that these jirgas work at a fast pace compared to the country’s judicial system and therefore they should not be banned and reforms should be introduced through involvement of neutral parties appointed by the government.
Considering how weak the judicial system of Pakistan is, it isn’t surprising that even educated people are calling for the validation of the jirgas because they are fast when it comes to issuing orders and the complainants don’t have to wait for years to get their cases heard. Pakistan’s justice system has unfortunately not been able to side with the victim. It instead gives relief to the perpetrator and those having a financially stronger background.
Therefore, a common man calling for these jirgas to be given legal authority after losing faith in the formal judicial system is understandable, but the government doing the same is worrying, to say the least. It’s a sad state of affairs when government instead of reforming these existing judicial system, takes a short cut and grants authority to the local dispute resolution entities.
“If local village councils are to be legalised, the process should be followed by reforms including women representation and involvement of parties appointed by the government. In the present circumstances, this is not possible”, said IA Rehman , chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
If jirgas in their present form are given a legal cover and all their decisions are implemented, it would hinder progress. Women, tenants, labourers and minorities can never expect thesepanchayats to do justice to them, Rehman said.
These local dispute resolution bodies are clearly biased against the weaker members of the society. The presence of such jirgas and panchayats suits the patriarchal elite because they are the ones who get to take all the decisions under this informal system of ‘justice’
Busting the myth about ‘speedy justice’
It is said that the jirgas working in rural areas issue orders within days after the issue comes to the fore and that they are considered cheap and affordable for a common man, but those observing the system don’t agree with this.
“It is a myth that jirgas are a cheap form of justice. There is no justice and it is not cheap, nor are the solutions sustainable. The offender cannot afford to pay the fine in most cases, and after paying a few installments, cannot continue and the conflict flares up again”, said human rights activist Amar Sindhu, who has been closely following the working of jirgas in Sindh.
She also challenged the notion of jirgas providing speedy justice and said, “In tribal cases, the sardars (tribal heads) wait for the conflict to intensify and for the body count to rise. Then more the number of killings, the higher the penalty payments and the larger their share is. It is not in their interest then for the conflict to be immediately mitigated.”
Just because these local dispute resolution institutions issue immediate orders does not mean their decisions are based on justice. There are flaws in the justice system of Pakistan, which need to be addressed on an urgent basis, but the formal system is still better than the local panchayats.
“These jirgas oppress women, minorities and the weaker class through their one-sided verdicts. Is issuing orders on immediate basis the only determinant of justice?” asked legal analyst and lawyer Asad Jamal, while questioning those who have lent support to the newly-passed bill.
“The presence of such bodies is a mockery of justice. Legalising them is counter-productive and will only add to the miseries of the common man”, he told DNA.
Jamal rejected the impression that panchayats provide relief to underprivileged people.
“If a woman is raped and she takes her case to one of thesepanchayats, they ask her why she came to them as their ‘honour’ is threatened by a woman standing up against oppression and for her rights”, he said.
These local dispute resolution bodies are clearly biased against the weaker members of the society. The presence of such jirgasand panchayats suits the patriarchal elite because they are the ones who get to take all the decisions under this informal system of ‘justice’. Women and minorities are oppressed under this system”, Jamal added.
The solution to the problem lies in fixing the existing judicial system, but sadly the government doesn’t seem to have the will to initiate the reform process.