VIEW:Law unto themselves —Yasser Latif Hamdani - Monday, July 19, 2010

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Ahmad Shah Abdali, the hero of our Pakistani textbooks and a first-class marauder, would have wondered what all the fuss was about when his contemporaries Edmund Burke and Fox took Robert Clive to task in the English parliament for his corruption

All England Law Reports — the most reliable record of English case law — date back to 1558. Recorded case law dates back another 400 years prior to that. In 1558, the English began to see the benefit of compiling and publishing case law for easy reference.

Institutions like Lincoln’s Inn had already been serving the legal community since the 13th century when a papal decree forbade clergy from teaching common law, thereby separating temporal law from the church. Thus, by the time All England Law Reports were being organised, the modern English legal system was already into its third or fourth century. Consider, then, that in 1558, Mughal emperor Akbar the Great ruled as a despot with a remarkable concentration of power and Suleiman the Magnificent ruled the Ottoman Empire as God’s shadow on earth. These two great monarchs were literally the law, while in England, the greatest queen to rule the western world, ruled limited by the Magna Carta — arguably the world’s first modern constitution.

Civilisations are not built overnight. The British Empire was the greatest empire in human history precisely because the English had disciplined themselves into a realm of laws long before others. While the extravagant absolutists who ruled from Constantinople to Delhi, acting on their whims, even the best of them, the queens and kings of England ruled responsibly, allowing fullest expression to ideas of liberty, citizenship and the social contract. Thus, while Aurangzeb Alamgir was getting his brother trampled under an elephant and having his elderly father’s eyes gouged out, John Locke was writing his treatise on the true end of government and when Aurangzeb Alamgir was executing the Sikh Gurus, the English parliament was passing the bill of rights.

Feeling against ancient tyrannies was palpable and while, purely for economic reasons, 13 North American colonies rose up against the British Empire, it was the culmination of a process grounded in the age-old ancient English idea of justice and fair play. The colonies cried out: “No taxation without representation”. This was around the same time the saying in the plains of Punjab was, “Whatever we eat and drink is ours, the rest belongs to Ahmad Shah Abdali.” Ahmad Shah Abdali, the hero of our Pakistani textbooks and a first-class marauder, would have wondered what all the fuss was about when his contemporaries Edmund Burke and Fox took Robert Clive to task in the English parliament for his corruption. Many of our modern day Ahmad Shah Abdalis still would not understand. Even the much touted lawyers’ movement has failed to instil the sense of justice and fair play that fired up Burke and Fox in the closing decades of the 18th century.

There are some who are driven by a vague sense of anti-imperialism and an unfortunate romantic idea of the independence movement. Under Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s guidance, the Muslims of the subcontinent prospered. Even in his day the great Sir Syed was abused by the likes of Jamaluddin Afghani — the Pan-Islamist revolutionary. Today, the Aga Khan is similarly abused because he stands as a voice of reason and solitary light in a sea of darkness. He is denounced as a lackey of foreign powers by the likes of Jamaat-e-Islami.

It is forgotten, of course, that even today many of our people are forced to live in conditions far worse than feudal England. This is particularly true of places where the British influence during the Raj was limited. The people there are bound by horrendous customs and are left to subsist below a reasonable human level. The excuse given to them is a religious one and the way out is also religious. Mullahs and pirs, our witchdoctors and shysters, mislead the people into accepting their lot. The reaction is even worse — Taliban recruitment. The Taliban give the dirt poor an opportunity to stand up on the authority of religion. In its callousness, the rich Anglophone Pakistani elite has shot itself in the foot.

The solution is for us to take stock of our situation honestly and without any illusions. First and foremost, we must realise that civilisation is one and indivisible and our attempts to stall progress by hiding behind non-existent ‘Eastern values’ and religious excuses is simply indicative of our inability to accept change. Secondly, we must understand that borrowing is an essential part of the human experience and that we ought not to reinvent the wheel. Third, as Pakistanis, we must embrace again, wholeheartedly, the finer elements of our magnificent British heritage: modern institutions and a first rate legal system. Finally, we must realise that, as citizens of the world in the 21st century, we have certain obligations to our people as well as to the world. We cannot live in isolation and in an integrated world, we cannot forever keep our people mired in ignorance and as second and third class citizens in their own country.

Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer. He also blogs at and can be reached at

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