“Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

–Martin Luther King Jr.

The popular discussion about justice in Pakistan currently centres around legal proceedings, primary concerns being lengthy process, the corruption and shortage of judges and lawyers, and the incompetency of law enforcement agencies, thus focusing on retributive justice, i.e. response to harm (e.g. stealing, killing, cheating). I hope to broaden this discourse by including distributive justice, i.e. fair distribution of rewards (e.g. jobs, wealth, property) and burdens (e.g. military service, dangerous or undesirable jobs). The two, retributive and distributive justice, are inextricably linked.

There is plenty of evidence that economic and social injustice leads to crime either as a result of resentment and antagonism or simply due to desperate measures for survival. Systematic distributive injustice disenfranchising a segment of population will lead to social unrest and even major upheavals in the society.

The concept of justice has evolved through the ages and varies from culture to culture. I will define justice as a fundamental belief in the equality and dignity of all human beings, economic egalitarianism and equality of access to opportunity, ultimately aspiring for equality of outcome.

Note that charity, though aiming to ameliorate economic injustice, is diametrically opposed to justice, as it violates the fundamental principles of equality and dignity, which demand that all should have equal access to goods necessary for human existence, i.e. food, shelter, education and health and even including freedom of speech, human rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, security, freedom of religion and many others.

Let’s consider the following scenarios, usually seen as social, economic and environmental problems, through the lens of justice:

1.   A father kills his children because he cannot provide food for them. Is he a perpetrator or a victim of injustice? Does he deserve our wrath or sympathy? Are we also accomplices in this crime?

2.   Worldwide, every fourth child is malnourished. Are they just unlucky or victims of faulty food distribution? Technology has immensely increased the food production capacity. Why is it not being used to eliminate world hunger? These children will never reach their full potential. Should we care?

3.   Poor are illegally cutting trees to cook food creating environmental disaster. Should they be punished or provided with alternative means of cooking. Who should own natural resources? The state? The local people living in that area? Or anyone with enough money to buy the land?

4.   A gang of homeless young men are terrorising the neighbourhood. Should they be put in jail or rehabilitated? Could this have been prevented? When parents fail, should society intervene?

5.   A promising poor artist is denied admission to an art school. Should he accept it as his bad luck or protest about the injustice? Is art a necessity for life? Is loss of talent a concern for the whole society?

6.   A young girl is shot dead because she wanted to marry the man of her choice. Should that action be denounced or accepted, as a cultural norm in some societies? Who sets up these norms?

7.   Religious minorities in Pakistan are excluded from holding certain public offices. Is this a just law? Should this be implemented by all countries?

These are complex questions and cannot be fully dealt with here. The first five situations are clearly linked with distributive injustice. This link for number six and seven can be explained by what Karl Marx said: “The ideas of the ruling class in every epoch are the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is ruling the material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

In ancient Greece only men were allowed to vote; in medieval Europe, the church persecuted scientists whose ideas threatened its hierarchy; laws in England and the United States of America in its early period were made to protect the individual property owners, while today they are made to protect big corporations and financial institutions. Thus, the cultural ethic, honour code, citizenship rights and laws reflect the dominant class beliefs, protecting its own interests leaving the weak and disempowered - mostly women and minorities - voiceless and vulnerable.

What about the state of justice in Pakistan? The sad fact is that the equality and dignity principle is regularly violated. According to some reports, there are cases of forced conversion of Hindus to Islam, minorities are expelled from their homes,  churches, temples and other places of worship attacked, atrocities against women committed, and ethnic killings carried out. How can there be justice when the rich treat the poor with contempt; when servants cannot sit in front of masters; when people are forced into begging, prostitution and child labour; when women are dragged naked in the streets; and when children are taught to be servile to money and power?

Economic disparity is such that some people live in multimillion dollar mansions, while the majority does not even have a hut; some fly in private jets to foreign countries for healthcare, while the rest are dying of mosquito bites; some spend hundreds of thousands of rupees for food, while others are committing suicide because of hunger; the mill owners make millions, while the workers can barely get subsistence wages; the affluent send their children to elite schools, while the poor do not even have access to basic education…....the list goes on! Is this injustice or God’s will?

There was a time when a king’s son became a king and a slave’s son became a slave. This has not changed much. Now children inherit the parent’s wealth or poverty, putting them either ahead of the curve or leave them lagging behind.

Discrimination starts when a malnourished mother gives birth to a malnourished baby, who becomes a stunted intellectually deprived child and then a disempowered, submissive adult, unable to compete with those having all the opportunities at their beck and call. Children born to violence, crime, abuse and drugs grow up with negative self-perception and hopelessness, and instead of becoming assets to society may become a threat to peace. This cycle continues extinguishing all hopes for a truly just society.

Breaking this cycle will require a paradigm shift in our thinking and courage to challenge the present economic and political systems. The current capitalist system has led to obscene disparity of wealth between rich and poor. Only drastic steps can rectify this situation; all exploitative practices to accumulate wealth have to end; natural resources are a God’s gift to humanity and cannot be left to corporate greed; monopolies and financial malpractices have to be rooted out; food should be produced for human consumption and not for profit; and an immoral gap in the income between the factory owner and worker has to be minimised.

Each generation should be given equal access to resources and opportunity, regardless of his or her parent’s credentials; those born under unfavourable conditions should not be left to their own devices and luck. Institutions must be set up to provide them with equal access to education and other opportunities. It is not a matter of charity, generosity or benevolence, but a matter of justice - the highest ideal of humanity.

There are many such measures that will move us towards a more economically egalitarian world where human talent and creativity is harnessed for the benefit of all, rather than a select few. But this will be an uphill battle. Those who want to maintain the status quo have made everyone believe that there is no alternative; that to even talk about a different way of life is blasphemy; that it is utopian to think of a just world; and most of all that those who want to change systems are troublemakers.

Thus, laws are created to maintain their monopoly and anyone who stands up to them is punished. The matter is made worse because the current legal system is heavily tilted in favour of money and power. So, focusing on retributive justice alone is unjust in itself.

How do we move forward? We are constantly reminded that all of this will be fixed if the current system of “democracy” is not derailed. Louis Brandies, the great jurist, once said: “We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of few, but we cannot have both.” So, unless the rich-poor cycle is broken, there can be neither democracy nor justice. Just going through the motions of electoral process is a cruel joke and an insult to the people.

I believe this will not change, until people believe in their own power and have faith in their ability to change the system. They have the numbers and there is strength in numbers, but there also has to be unity of purpose. Their energy is like sun rays, which when scattered can only give warmth, but when focused on a single point can start fire. For this, they will have to rise above race, colour, religion, gender and nationality and work together. It is difficult, but not impossible!

Great masses of people have changed the course of history in the past and it can be done again. In fact, that is the only thing which can. Most of the time leaders just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

 The writer has been practicing Family Medicine in Florida since 1983. She is one of the founding members of the Pakistani American Association of Tampa Bay; was on the board of PAKPAC, which is a lobbying organisation for Pakistani causes in the US; and former president of the Fatima Jinnah Medical College Alumni. Email: shahnazk@gmail.com