The colonial backdrop By Elizabeth Kolsky - Sunday, March 13, 2011

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RAYMOND Davis, an Ame-rican CIA agent, is currently being held in the Lahore Central Jail on suspicion of murdering two Pakistanis in late January. In the heated political controversy over whether or not Mr Davis is a diplomat deserving of immunity from criminal prosecution, a colonial past lingers just below the surface.
British colonial rule in South Asia lasted for almost two centuries, from 1757 to 1947. Britons saw their Empire as a force for good in the world, a bene-volent agent of progress, and a disinterested guarantor of equal justice for all,
whether Englishman or native.
In practice, however, the colonial rule of law functioned quite differently. The expansion of Britain’s Empire in India let loose forces of chaos and violence that neither its laws nor its law courts controlled. Britons accused of maiming and murdering Indians were booked on lesser if any criminal charges that resulted in little to no punishment.
From the Pakistani perspective, there is a long history of white men in South Asia literally getting away with murder. For example, in 1890, the European manager of an Indian tea plantation was tried in connection with the death of a tea worker.
The doctor who conducted the post-mortem observed that “the body of deceased was in many parts a pulp.” In spite of the gravity of the injuries, the manager was acquitted of all serious charges and convicted of simple assault, for which he was nominally fined.
Indians who murdered Britons faced totally different standards. In 1857, Indians across the subcontinent rose up in resistance against colonial rule, in some instances killing British men, women and children. The British responded with extraordinary force, summarily trying and executing rebels either by hanging them or by placing their bodies before the mouths of cannons and blowing them to bits.
A decade later, the Punjab government — whose provincial colonial capital was Lahore, where Mr Davis sits in prison — passed a law to punish the murder or attempted murder of servants of the Queen. The law permitted local colonial officials, who otherwise had no legal authority to adjudicate murder cases, to try Indian “fanatics” suspected of murdering Britons, to hang them on the spot upon conviction (with no right to appeal), and to burn their corpses so as to prevent proper burial.
Inequality in the administration of colonial justice was not lost on the many Indians who read daily newspaper reports about the “perverse verdicts” delivered by white judges and juries in cases where Europeans were accused of violence against Indians. As Indian nationalist B.G. Tilak vividly noted in 1907, “The goddess of British Justice, though blind, is able to distinguish unmistakably black from white.”
On my first trip to Pakistan as a foreign language student in 1995, the assumption made by ordinary Pakistanis was that all Americans in their country worked for the CIA. This stereotype, untrue in its generality, had some basis in Pakistan’s recent historical experience. In 1980, the US government began providing funds, weapons and training for the Mujahideen rebels in their fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. These covert operations were run by the CIA in conjunction with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
In 1985, there was an escalation of covert support, especially arms supplies, which made a difference to the outcome of the war in Afghanistan but left a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of many Pakistanis who felt used and betrayed by America when all was said and done.
As the New York Times has recently reported, privately financed American security contractors and spies continue to operate in the region. Today, my Pakistani friends tell me that the common man associates the few visible Americans left in Pakistan with Blackwater, the private security firm hired by the US government in the ‘war on terror’ to protect diplomatic envoys abroad in places like Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In 2004, Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, granted Blackwater employees full immunity from Iraqi law. Blackwater employees operated above the law to disastrous effect. In 2007, five Blackwater guards opened fire on a crowded square in Baghdad killing 17 Iraqis. Searching for some jurisdictional and legal framework in which to try the case, the US Department of Justice charged the guards with 14 counts of manslaughter.
However, in December 2009, US Federal Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the criminal charges, criticising the government’s handling of the case. The Blackwater guards got away with murder.
In the case of Raymond Davis, the Pakistani and American governments are both in a pickle. The Pakistanis don’t want their people to think that another foreigner got away with murder and the Americans have no intention of leaving one of their own to rot away in Lahore’s central jail.
While Americans and Britons have fuzzy memories about the history of foreign occupation and intervention in South Asia, Pakistanis remain haunted by the past and present legacies of empire. These varied perspectives on the past help to explain the deepening divide between Pakistan and the US in the present. No one disputes the fact that Mr Davis shot dead two Pakistani motorcyclists in broad daylight on the streets of Lahore. The question is: will he get away with it or will a compromise be found so that Mr Davis can be brought to justice?
The writer is associate professor of history at Villanova University and author of Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law.

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