Mar 21, 2009
I have been knocking on the inside. Jalaluddin RumiThe stirring and passionate depiction of Umeed-e-Sahar by the "Laal" band is an apt portrayal of what Rumi was probably suggesting and what our nation learnt on March 15: miracles do happen if enough ordinary people wish for them to happen and take affirmative steps top make them happen. For almost two years we have been constantly reminded that the rule of law movement and the black-coats revolution is bound to fail because it is rooted in idealism and mundane rhetoric and falls foul of our "ground realities." The legal, political, social and moral consensus around the righteousness of the principle supporting the rule of movement had been unmistakable for a while. And yet there was a widely shared sense of despondency all around that justice will not prevail and right will not triumph because the "ground reality" is that our corrupt and moth-eaten social, political and institutional structures will never allow principles to win and the fallen to rise. March 16 needs to be eulogised because the collective conscience of this nation rose up to enforce the right, carved a new "ground reality" and made the impossible possible.In tracing the history of this movement, it might be fitting to acknowledge some contributions without which March 16 might not have become such a day of redemption. At a time when the general decided to annex the judicial branch of the government, it was headed by a chief justice who refused to be intimidated and showed unrelenting courage to stand up and defend the constitutional authority and independence conferred on the judiciary and the office of the chief justice. At such critical juncture in our constitutional history the lawyers were fortunate to be lead by giants such as Aitzaz Ahsan, Munir Malik, Tariq Mehmood, Ali Ahmad Kurd, Rasheed Rizvi and Anwar Kamal, to name a few. Without their individual contribution the ethic of integrity might not have been able to trump the prevailing ethic of success symbolised to the Sharifuddin Pirzada and Malik Qayyum. Complete legal consensus around the illegitimacy of the Nov 3 acts would not have emerged had the overwhelming majority of the superior court judges not refused to swear an oath to abide by the General's diktat. The movement would not have been blessed with an extended lease of life was it not for the extremely organised and dedicated members of the civil society who continued to brave police batons, tear gas and state intimidation. The message of the rule of law movement would not have resonated with ordinary citizens had the media not (i) articulated its objects appropriately, (ii) exposed the hypocrisy of perpetrators of injustice, (iii) depicted the shocking use of state law-enforcement machinery to silence those seeking justice and (iv) remained steadfast in educating the public with regard to its rights. And yet, the lawyers, the media and the civil society might have been reduced to being a pressure group had political parties not backed the movement and rallied behind its cause. The unrelenting support of Imran Khan and Qazi Hussain Ahmed throughout (as well as that of nationalist leaders from minority provinces such as Mr Palijo and Mr Achakzai), even at the cost of sacrificing immediate political goals, deserves generous appreciation. The manner in which the diehard party workers of TI and JI engaged the trigger-happy Punjab police at GPO Chawk on March 15 was a clarion call to all concerned citizens to stand up for rule of law and against oppression. And, of course, the mass public rousing that we witnessed over the last two weeks would simply not have been possible had it not been for the unequivocal and principled stance of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif on the issue of restoration. The gallantry Mr Sharif exhibited in leading from the front on March 15, despite a genuine threat to his personal security, was a manifestation of our changing political culture and that PML-N leadership has a finger on the public pulse.The resignations tendered by Sherry Rehman and Raza Rabbani are further proof of our changing political ethos. In an unfortunate land where the "system" takes all blame for human failure, malice and dishonesty, two of the most talented and respected members of the cabinet established that partisan politics does not necessarily take precedence over personal integrity. And then some of us have also been signing praises of the army chief as a "defender of democracy." Maybe the nation does owe him gratitude for not following in the footsteps of his predecessor, continuing to abide by the law and not using political discord as an excuse to usurp state authority. But, then, should our army chief and other honourable generals not get offended at the praise being lavished upon them? After all, a nation grateful to its generals for not transgressing the Constitution and crowning themselves saviours at the first opportunity they can find cannot possibly be conceived as a flattering image by thoughtful soldiers.The principled restoration of the Nov 2 judiciary is the first explicit acknowledgment by our elected political government that the actions of Nov 3, 2007, were illegitimate and unconstitutional, and a prerequisite to begin to undo the damage inflicted upon our constitutional structure by the general. Restitution of independent judges will go a long way in restoring the credibility and image of the court and mark our nation's unflinching commitment to the principle of judicial independence and separation from the executive. By returning Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other deposed judges to their rightful constitutional offices, we have also upheld a cardinal principle of equity: wherever there is a wrong, there is a remedy. But far more important than these identifiable achievements of the long-march is its intangible reward: the sense of empowerment garnered by citizens of Pakistan due to the realisation of the paramount objective of their indigenous movement.The resolution of the judicial crisis through a popular mass movement is no mean collective achievement and we have every right to take pride in. However, it has repeatedly been argued in this space that restoration of individual judges must not be conceived as the be-all and end-all of judicial independence. This was meant to be the crucial first step that would mark the initiation of a long, through and arduous journey to strengthen and reform our institutional structures with a focus on providing ordinary citizens affordable, speedy and easy access to justice. And to that end, we have merely removed the roadblocks and the pursuit of our reformist agenda has not even begun. Let us remind ourselves that while the principled restoration of the judges has provided a much-required impetus to the spirit of our nation, we had experienced similar buoyancy back on Feb 18, 2008, with the revival of democracy in Pakistan. The gloom that has ensued since then is partly due the high hopes vested by the nation in the ability of a representative government to deliver. The expectations from an independent judiciary led by Chief Justice Chaudhry are now sky-high. While we have a right to demand that the judiciary that we all struggled for must measure up to the needs of a fair and functional justice system, we must also understand that the mandate of the judiciary is limited to interpreting the law and dispensing justice, and not running the system of governance, which falls within the scope of the executive, subject to parliamentary oversight. Thus, while the court can entertain the writ of habeas corpus and demand that missing citizens be recovered and produced before the court, it cannot take upon itself to fix the cost of utilities. Further, the judicature will need to indulge in some overdue self-cleansing and then initiate reconciliation amongst its members to enable the institution to speak with one voice. But the guiding principle for such internal housekeeping must not be to settle scores, but to ensure that the vanguards of the Constitution come to be perceived as neutral arbiters of justice. Now that the lawyers have succeeded it's time to go back to work and focus on what lawyers traditionally do: use their intellectual ability to fight for people's rights in court. One ancillary effect of their two-year movement has been that a tremendous amount of caseload has piled up. It is now time to shun agitation and focus on pending caseload and producing ideas for institutional reform of the justice system. This nation has been extremely gracious to the Zardari-led PPP and has made a conscious effort not to rub the party's face in dirt. The ruling regime must also not begrudge the implementation of a consensual public demand, even if the final impetus came from PML-N. The restoration of constitutional judges need not be a divisive event for our nation. It has provided a whole new opportunity and environment for the PPP and PML-N to work together in addressing the multifarious problems afflicting us. Let us not fritter it away.