Ashraf Banga spent nearly eleven years in prison – six of those on death row, because of a false accusation of murder. A dispute over the ownership of land led to a man being killed and charges being bought against Ashraf Banga, though no evidence was ever presented to support the claim. The entire case rested on the testimony of one person – a member of the accusing party’s family, who said that he had seen Ashraf Banga pull the trigger. Ashraf does not own a gun and has never owned one.
When I first meet Ashraf Banga he is sitting on a low wooden chair on the stoop of a small general supply store in his village having his hair colored by the local barber. Leaning backwards, his eyes closed, his legs crossed, he is in deep conversation with the man carefully applying the hair color. A towel is draped across his neck to protect the shirt, an open newspaper sits in his lap, and a bottle of 7-Up sits on a low table next to him. As we approach him and our shadow falls across his face, he slowly opens his eyes and for a moment looks confused and surprised. His eyes look at us searchingly, trying to recognize the two strange men standing in front of him. Did he forget that we were coming to visit him? We had called ahead to let him know that we would be coming. Was he expecting someone else?
Perwaiz, the young man who has worked with me and is helping me navigate thia part of rural Punjab, knows Ashraf from their time in prison together. Perwaiz had been in prison on murder charges, but had recently been released on probation. His help haa been critical for my finding other prisoners, and convincing them to speak to me. Ashraf had been hesitant to meet – most all ex-prisoners worry about further complications with the law if they speak out, but Perwaiz convinced him that it was important and that I could be trusted. But the last time he had seen Perwaiz was over two years ago, and then too in prison garb. Perwaiz looks a lot different now, standing there is a smartly pressed cotton shirt and jeans.
I stand quietly as Ashraf struggles to reconcile the sight of this young man, with the memory of the one he had met as a prisoner. It is the sound of Perwaiz’s voice when he finally greets him in a familiar manner, that breaks through his doubts and confusion. In an instant he leaps out of the chair, his arms spread wide, and rushes to hug Perwaiz. They stand there holding each other, patting each other’s backs, laughing, and asking after each other’s families. There are bonds between men, particularly those created in experiences of duress, that time cannot break. I see two old friends catching up.
With the greetings done, we are invited to head to Ashraf’s house for some tea. It is a short walk from the store and he asks us to follow. By now a small group of children, and a few elderly men have gathered on the street outside the store to stare at us. It is not every day that strangers pass through small farming villages such as this. In fact, earlier as we had entered the village of Phullarwan Wazir, I was yet again struck by the seeming timelessness of layout, and life here. Of course, here the thought of timelessness is a measure of backwardness: dirt roads, open sewage, mud homes, burlap-sack covered doorways, bare-footed children covered in dust, tired looking, bent old men sitting at shop corners, cattle dung on the walls, cows cooling themselves in swamps or tied to trees, carts and wagon parked outside homes, the occasional tractor standing in an open lot, the layer of dirt and dust that acts like a permanent canopy over the entire place, the slow, near death like pace of life that seems to not move forward nor back. The stillness of the streets. The poverty is reflected in the goods available in Ashraf’s general store which sells only a few basic essentials: soaps, matches, sugar, salt, pepper, a few bottles of cooking oil, some basic spices, children’s sweets, soft drinks, and petrol – sold in used soft drink bottles to the few men in the village who use motor-cycles. There are no schools, nor any hospitals near here.
Ashraf’s home turns out to be a large, open compound with a low mud wall on three sides, and a three rooms built along the fourth. As we enter I see his wife crouching in front of an open wood fire, cooking a meal. There are two charpoys laid out in the sun, and Ashraf invites us to sit and make ourselves comfortable and asks his wife to prepare tea. As we walk towards the sitting area I notice that the floor of the home is uneven, and that at certain spots I stand taller than the walls of the house and can clearly see the fields that surround it – it is beautiful here. And shortly there after the thought occurs to me that these very lands – stretching out into the distance, bathed in the late afternoon sun, are also a source of tremendous violence and suffering.
My mind drifts to the work of Alain Lefebvre, who, while researching labor migration in the Punjab region of Sialkot, made the startling (or perhaps not quite so) discovery that international remittances are used not to improve labor productivity, but to enhance family ‘status’ and ‘honor’ through acquiring land, and purchasing ostentatious consumer goods – all in the support of an idea of having ‘power’ and prestige in the community. (see Lefebvre, Alain Kinship, Honor, and Money In Rural Pakistan: Subsistence Economy and the Effects of International Migration Curzon, 1999). And that many would go to great length to get this ‘status’ that came from possessing vast tracts of land – even kill for it.
Ashraf spent nearly eleven years in prison, six of those on death row. I learn that it was a dispute over land that the opponents chose to resolve it by having Ashraf tried for murder and sent to prison. I want to hear the story from Ashraf, but Perwaiz and he are still catching up and telling each other about their lives since they left prison. Soon the tea arrives and we settle back with cups in hand, and Ashraf begins to speak:
Ashraf speaks in a very clear and precise Punjabi, but intersperses it with Urdu to help me understand his answers better. His answers to my inquiries are precise and to the point, and he does not seem to want to indulge in flourishes, even though Perwaiz keeps prodding him to go into deeper details.
I am confused by the story, and by the nature of the dispute. Who owned the land? Who had a claim to it? Why were these men able to harass you and stake a claim on it? Why did you not go to the authorities? I am trying to understand the specifics of how the conflict arose and I keep pushing Ashraf to tell me more. He is hesitant at first to go into these details but eventually relents and says:
Ashraf’s wife has taken a seat along the wall behind me. She is not invited to speak to us, and I resist the temptation to ask her about what happened to her, her home and her children while her husband was in prison. In the hope of roping her into the conversation I ask Ashraf to tell me what his prison sentence had meant for his family. As I do this I see his eyes look at her, but they quickly shift back to me.
I can see the burden of these memories on his face – his brow is furrowed, and his eyes are turned to the floor. I realize that I am sitting in the presence of a man cowed in embarrassment.
So how did you begin to put it all back together? Did the fact that you were innocent, that your indictment was made on questionable evidence and testimonies result in any offers of help from the State? He laughs and looks at Perwaiz who is laughing at the question as well.
Perwaiz, who has sat quietly on the same charpoy as I, quietly adds – The family that charged Ashraf for murder has since won their case and taken ownership of the piece of land that he used to till. To add insult to injury, they had also taken the crop that Ashraf had planted there. When he had arrived back in the village, he had only this small, simple home to return to and no clear means of caring for his family. Men coming out of prison have nowhere to turn, and no one to turn to.
The sun is setting and a late evening cold is coming in. But there is something comfortable about this home and the sounds of the life here – the crackling of wood on the fire, the rhythm of a threshing machine in the distance, and the songs of crows and birds in the trees, that makes me feel at ease. We sit with our tea and listen to the village around us. I can hear the sound of Ashraf’s wife’s footsteps as she moves between the cooking and the interior of the house. Everything feels in place, and we, sitting there together, as a part of it.
It feels like a home.