Walking on fire to prove innocence continues
Scholar says practice becoming urbanised is
the biggest concern
* Balochistan minister for human rights says practice a part of local traditions,
government cannot eliminate it
By Malik Siraj Akbar
QUETTA: The gory practice of forcing alleged criminals to walk on burning coal
to prove their innocence is frivolously disowned by many in Balochistan, yet
it regularly draws hundreds of tribal spectators.
The illegal phenomenon continues unchecked with increasing likelihood of the
practice spreading to other parts of the country's least literate province.
Charbeli, as the practice of forcing alleged criminals to walk on burning coal
is locally known, appears to supersede the criminal justice system and the
A local veteran who is believed to have 'divine power to control the fire'
is entrusted with the responsibility to monitor the practice. Firstly, a 12-feet
long, two-feet wide and two-feet deep trench is dug which is filled with 480
kilogrammes of dry wood. The wood burns for around three to four hours. As
the time to take the test of innocence approaches, the veteran walks close
to the fire and chants religious prayers to bring the fire 'under control'
so that it would, supposedly, not harm the innocent and only burn the guilty.
Hundreds of people, including the friends and relatives of the accused stand
around the burning coal when the accused walks on it. He is immediately taken
by his relatives and put on a bed where his feet are put in a bucket filled
with the blood of a freshly-slaughtered goat.
"If there are burn marks on his feet, the man is considered guilty and the jirga
decides the further course of action against him. If his feet are not burnt,
he is declared innocent and is delightedly received by friends and relatives," said
Muhammad Ali, a local journalist who witnessed many such cases.
Ali says sometimes three to four cases are adjudicated on a single day. The
time to decide whether the accused is innocent or guilty is between four to
Last week, two such cases were reported from rural Balochistan. The incidents
were witnessed by hundreds of people and widely reported in the media. There
were widespread comments on the 'indigenous dispensation of speedy justice',
except by the government and human rights organisations.
In the first case, reported last week, Muhammad Bakhsh alias Afghan - suspected
of murdering a 12-year old boy Saddam Hussain Bohar - was ordered by a jirga
headed by local tribal elder Ghulam Qadir Bugti, to walk on burning coal to
prove his innocence. As Bakhsh's feet remained unhurt, he was declared 'white'
by the jirga.
In the second incident, two people, accused of murdering a boy and kidnapping
three children, were asked by a joint jirga headed by tribal elder Ghulam Mustufa
Rind and Dera Murad Jamali Tehsil Nazim Mir Zulfiqar Jamali, to walk on burning
Muhammad Darya was found 'guilty' as his feet showed burn marks afterward.
However, the other accused skipped punishment because the fire did not burn
his feet, purportedly proving his innocence.
Urbanised: "This is an inhuman practice in the name of 'tradition'. You punish
a citizen by forcing him to walk on fire and then declare him 'innocent'," said
renowned scholar and writer Professor Dr Shah Muhammad Marri.
"My biggest concern is that this practice is becoming urbanised. In the past,
it was merely a tradition started by the Bugti tribe but now it seems to be spreading
to the Rind and other Baloch tribes. If the state does not ensure the provision
of justice to its citizens, then I am afraid this practice would soon gain acceptance
in more tribes of Balochistan," he said.
Marri, also a historian, said he could not trace the practice in Baloch history.
In fact it was Akbar Bugti, the chief of Bugti tribe, who pioneered and encouraged
this tradition. "This is an alien practice to the Marri, Mengal and other Baloch
tribes. The latest incidents are shocking because they were carried out by
tribes which were never influenced by the Bugtis in the past," he said.
Government: Balochistan Minister for Human Rights Basant Lal Gulshan told
Daily Times that these practices were a part of the local tradition and no
one, including the government, could eliminate them.
He said all the government could do was condemn such incidents and 'hope'
for an improvement in the situation. "What can we do with a practice that is 'acceptable'
to the people themselves? If the government tries to interfere in their problems,
the tribes would become hostile and resist the government," he remarked.
A local tribal elder, Ghulam Nabi Umrani, said suspected criminals were forced
to walk on burning coal to prove innocence for crimes ranging from larceny,
rape, and abduction to murder.
"No one in the area objects to this practice because it provides speedy justice
and is acceptable to everyone. You know the real condition of the courts. Who
can afford to go there to waste money and time and get nothing in return?" he
Balochistan Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs Rubina Irfan said the
tradition did not have roots in Baloch or Islamic traditions. It was a man-made
practice that was 'happily joined' by members of the community.