Project Introduction

If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most — and listens to their testimony.

James Baldwin from “No Name In The Street”

This is a project about ideas of justice, and how, in nations as socially and culturally diverse as Pakistan, these ideas are necessarily plural. It is an individual’s exploration of the state of the law, its disconnect from the people of the country, the factors that alienate the legal system from the citizenry, the battles being waged by communities to extract their rights, the experiments in alternative justice being tried, and the many ways that the citizens understand and define justice. Covering a vast expanse of the nation’s social and economic geography, the work turns the public’s gaze to the lived realities of some of Pakistan’s most marginalised and weak communities – the very ones most in need of the protections of a just and fair state judicial and legal system. It places at its centre the voices of those who are furthest from the concerns of the formal legal system, but involved in some of the most determined struggles to gain its attentions. It asks that we begin by looking at, and acknowledging, specific injustices that the citizen’s of the country face, and make their redress the central aim of any and all judicial and legal reform efforts.

Pakistan’s legal system remains plagued by inequity, inefficiency, vulnerability to exploitation by money and power, unintelligibility for the majority of the country’s citizenry, corruption, lack of resources, and a dogged resistance to reform. It remains aloof from the concerns and struggles of the ordinary Pakistani citizen. As a result, there is great mistrust amongst Pakistani citizens of the formal judicial and legal system. (1) This lack of trust is not merely a result of the legal system’s operational inefficiencies or administrative failures, but a direct result of a disconnect between the ideas of justice that inform the formal system, and those that inform a diverse and complex Pakistani social, cultural and political reality. This disconnect and lack of trust in the institutions and its practitioners is one of the biggest factors undermining Pakistani civic society and democracy.

But perhaps the most egregious disconnect remains the absence of the voices of Pakistan’s most socially, politically and economically marginalised communities from the debates about judicial and legal reform. There exists, as the legal scholar Osama Siddique has argued, a ‘…dramatic gap between Pakistan‘s largely inherited‘ laws from its colonial legacy … and the common people of Pakistan.’ (2) And this gap is most evident when one travels into these communities – religious and ethnic minorities, the urban poor, rural women, tribal communities, landless peasants, slum dwellers, victims of state policies of war particularly the never-ending ‘war against terror’, the displaced from lands given to corporations for ‘development’ and others most in need of a just legal system, and yet most distant from its interests and aims. In particular, an acknowledgement of the specific injustices these communities face in their daily lives, and the struggles they undertake to overcome them – either through the formal legal system or alternatives legal avenues like the Sharia courts or customary courts, are not central to any judicial reform discussion. But it is here, within these communities, with their different and varied understanding of the idea of justice, that one begins to see the law in an idea that sees justice in singular, Utopian terms, and that the creation of a just society dependent on the creation of perfectly just state institutions and social arrangements.

But what are these injustices that the formal state and legal system must address? What are the social, political and economic realities that it must recognise and account for to be able to offer equity, accessibility and transparency to the nation’s weakest members? What are the ideas of injustice as seen by the citizenry, and how are they reflected, if at all, in the official legal and judicial system? My work – produced as a series of photographs, writings, audio and video testimonies addresses these questions. It argues for the necessity of a more varied, plural idea of justice, one not only more reflective of the codes and values of the society, but for addressing and erasing specific injustices. It asks us to take a step back and understand judicial and legal reform as not merely technocratic tinkering, but as a fundamental reconstitution of the laws to correct specific social, political and economic imbalances inherent in the structures of the society. It draws our attention to actual lives, and behaviours that produce injustice, on creating specific social change and not just on the creation of perfect institutions. It turns out attention to the real issues–power, influence, wealth, politics, corruption, illiteracy, and poverty that taint the formal judicial and legal system, and continue to undermine the creation of a strong civic society and broader democratic participation.

The project takes us into the heart of some of the most intractable social issues and conflicts in the country: the dispossession of landless peasants in Okara, Punjab; the impoverishment of resident of Gwadar and their battles against land speculators; families in Swat pushed of their lands by timber firms and tourism investors; Shia families combating charges of blasphemy; Baluchi fishermen fighting against industrial pollution of their lands and waters; Pushtun tribesmen demanding compensation for the deaths of family members and loss of property as a result of Pakistani military operations; women defending their right to marriage or inheritance against the interest of a powerful Sindhi clan; bonded labourers in hiding and seeking legal redress to their debts; Christians defending their right to build a Church; victims of drone attacks attempting to challenge the government’s right to wage war in their lands; men and women illegally detained suing for restitution and compensation; mothers searching for their ‘disappeared’ sons and confronting the state and its policies; slum dwellers fighting to defend their shanties against clearance and destruction to name just a few. The work is near ethnographic in nature, requiring a patient immersion into the lives and lived realities of those confronting specific injustices. Specifically, it speaks about what really happens in the lives of the weak, the poor and the marginalised, and what real world forces – social, economic and political, create their dispossession, repression and marginalization. It takes as its starting point the identification of a specific issue, or injustice, such as, victims of torture, bonded labor, displaced fishing communities, landless peasants etc. It then dwells deeper into the narratives of those suffering from the injustice, and uses these narratives to understand the broader socio-economic factors that perpetuate and sustain the situation. These issues, and the individual narratives, give a starting point for a broader discussion of the nature of the injustice, the current state of the law and legal rights that apply, the short comings of the existing system and / or the legal recourse available. It is here, standing in the shanties, slums, hovels and villages of Pakistan, where the law is less about rights and more about power, that one begins to understand how aloof from the concerns of the common citizen the official judicial and legal system really is.

My intent isn’t to merely document instances of injustice or rights violations, but to use these instances to 1) make an argument for the need to recognise a particular situation as an injustice, 2) highlight the socio-economic factors that give rise to the injustice, 3) explore the role of the formal legal system in addressing, ignoring or exacerbating it and 4) the changes we can imagine, whether in the laws and the social institutions, that can ameliorate it. That is, my work highlights the social, economic and political forces aligned against the weak and poor, the tactics and avenues being used (formal state legal system, customary law, Sharia and others) to face theses forces. And perhaps most importantly, it places at centre stage the experiences of Pakistani citizens, asking them to not only articulate their measure of injustice, but also their ideas about what is just, and what would constitute an appropriate compensation and redress.

The project is a questioning, not a polemic. It questions the status quo and the conviction that the formal state judicial and legal system is the best, that it simply needs to be made more efficient. It is informed and inspired by a wish to place at centre stage the injustices that must be addressed and the social, economic and political imbalances that must be rectified. It does not purport to offer alternative models of judicial reform – I am not a legal scholar or a practitioner, but I rely on the works of legal scholars, activists and intellectuals to explore where new possibilities may lie. Perhaps most importantly, it turns its gaze to the lived realities of Pakistani citizens, placing their struggles and the injustices inflicted on them by the existing social, economic and political order. It draws us towards the real – power, politics, poverty, illiteracy, coercion / force and institutionalised exploitation that remain the principal factors sustaining injustices in the nation. It takes as its starting point the conviction that democracy is not merely about building effective institutions, but also by the degree to which the weak, poor and marginalised can add their voices to its advancement. This project argues for precisely this addition of voices by placing the experiences of those facing injustices at its centre, and asking the state, and its legal institutions to recognise them.


1 Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country Public Affairs 2011

2 Osama Siddique The Hegemony of Heritage: The Narratives of Colonial Displacement‘ and the Absence of the Past in Pakistani Reform Narratives of the Present DPRC Working Paper #1 2011