Oct 31, 2010

A woman of substance

Ghazi Salahuddin
When advocates of the Supreme Court cast their votes on Wednesday to elect the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and other office-bearers, almost all the concerned citizens of this country held their breath – and waited in suspense for the final count. There was this frenzied, live coverage by the news channels and as initial results started to trickle out, 'breaking news' flashes popped up like fireworks on the screen.
But this excitement in the mass media, for once, was fairly justified, considering the issues and the personalities that were involved. It had a bearing on the juridical as well as political evolution of our polity in the wake of the lawyers' and the civil society's long and bitter struggle for an independent judiciary and justice.
Now, it is crucial, though not easy, to understand why Asma Jahangir's victory is a vindication of that long campaign. Irrespective of how lines were drawn in this keenly contested election and who was supporting which candidate, the most important point is that the winner, as president of the SCBA, is a person of proven integrity and a distinguished campaigner for human rights and democratic values in the country.
Another important factor here is that Asma's triumph certifies the emergence of an emphatically liberal voice in our national affairs at a time when so many of us feel dispirited by the apparently dominant forces of orthodoxy and bigotry. This should in itself be cause for some celebration. Let this message go forth from Pakistan to the world at large that in its existential struggle for survival, this country is not bereft of a firm potential for enlightenment and forward-thinking.
Now, before I proceed any further, I should clearly state that I have had a long association with Asma, with reference to the activities of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Hence, I am writing this piece about a close and valued friend. It would be correct to say that I am partial to her. My journalistic ethics demand this admission. At the same time, I can say that I have had the benefit of knowing her well and of bearing witness to the positions she had taken during so many critical moments that we have lived through in our recent past.
What impresses me most is that she has the courage of her convictions and adheres steadfastly to certain principles and values. Incidentally, this should also be a valid reason for some people to stand in her way and contest her views, though the smear campaign against her was a mark of utter disgrace on the part of her detractors.
Having said this, let me revert to the theme that I wish to underline in this column. Surrounded by all shades of chicanery and expediency in our public life, we seem to be in desperate need for individuals in leadership positions who have personal integrity, moral courage and intellectual vigour. If such individuals are unable to come to the fore, our strivings as a nation may not come to fruition.
Consider, for instance, the focus this week on the Corruption Perceptions Index, released by Transparency International. On that index, Pakistan figures as the 34th most corrupt country out of 178 countries that were evaluated. The news, actually, is that we have slipped eight places from last year's rank. While it is largely a matter of perception and we can quarrel about the measures adopted by Transparency International, the conclusion that our government, in its financial dealings, is becoming more corrupt is widely accepted. It has at least not devoted any concerted attention to checking corrupt and unlawful practices at different levels of governance.
Without mentioning the many stories of corruption in Pakistan's state machinery, as evidenced by a number of investigative reports in the media, we can say that our present rulers are not anxious to improve their performance in accordance with accepted institutional and moral precepts. Just imagine the difference it would make if these leaders were more sincere and morally upright in their official conduct. Even the size of the federal cabinet has not been touched by the devastating floods that struck us three long months ago.
In passing, just look at Bangladesh. It was perceived as the most corrupt country by Transparency International in 2001 and 2002 and, also, in 2003. This year, it is ranked at 43, nine places above Pakistan. India? If our rank is 34 from the bottom, India is placed at 91, though it was four places above last year.
In addition to some other attributes, leadership certainly plays a central role in all strategies for social change. We must recognise the importance of leadership and a distinct sense of direction to keep pace with the rest of the world in an age that primarily stands for democratic and liberal values, emancipation of women and social justice. Can Pakistan move in that direction, with the baggage that it carries? Asma's success gives us hope that it might.
As for the issues that were invested in the SCBA election campaign, the general mood was remarkably at variance with the tempo and tenor of the historic lawyers' movement for the restoration of the Supreme Court judges. But the overall situation has changed. This is not the time when a line can be drawn to neatly separate rival factions. The politics of the lawyers as well as the perception of the role that an independent judiciary and judicial activism can play has changed.
Perhaps there is some misconception about what the lawyers or their elected office-bearers can or should do in the context of the tensions that have arisen or are perceived between national institutions. However, the bottom line is the dispensation of justice for the common citizens of this country and an improvement in the working of the justice system itself.
To that extent, Asma and other leaders of lawyers will have to be judged on how they discharge their responsibilities. She has vowed to "serve the cause of justice with integrity and to the best of my ability". Still, the judges and the lawyers and their leaders must function within their prescribed domains and not remain in the headlines all the time. The media will also have to be more careful in picking its themes and adopting a rational approach in their discussion.
Come to think of it, we are all on trial and the chief prosecutor is always our conscience. As Tom Paine said, "these are times that try men's souls". And he had added: "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman".

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