ANALYSIS: Protest and responsibility —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi - Sunday, October 10, 2010

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The recent protest by lawyers in Lahore degenerated into disorderly and unruly behaviour, disappointing those who admired this community for the peaceful and orderly resistance to General Pervez Musharraf’s unconstitutional effort to remove the chief justice and other judges of the superior judiciary

The difference between protest and rowdyism is a sense of social responsibility. Protest is a measured way of registering resentment or putting forward demands. The objective is to add the weight of numbers by mobilising others in a peaceful manner without disrupting society or causing unnecessary inconvenience to others.

Rowdyism and disorderly behaviour recognises no constraints of social responsibility. It is a self-centred approach, adopted by some people or organisations to pursue their agendas by all possible means. Intimidation and violence, or the threat thereof, are important instruments without giving any consideration to its negative impact on other members of society and how their behaviour threatens social order and stability. In fact, defiance of authority and established norms, and causing disturbance in the life and work of others are viewed as effective instruments to achieve individual or group agendas. The underlying assumption is that the more you defy and disturb, the greater are the chances of drawing attention and achieving one’s goals. For example, it has become fashionable in Pakistan to disrupt traffic on a busy highway or road junction in order to register protest even for something as little as some students having problems with their college administration.

The recent protest by lawyers in Lahore degenerated into disorderly and unruly behaviour, disappointing those who admired this community for the peaceful and orderly resistance to General Pervez Musharraf’s unconstitutional effort to remove the chief justice and other judges of the superior judiciary.

It is true that the police used excessive force against the lawyers on the second day, something that cannot be condoned. However, the lawyers have to share the blame for what they did in the premises of the Lahore High Court, especially when they approached the court of the chief justice. On the second day, the lawyers also engaged in violence against the police and the media.

In the aftermath of the police-lawyers clash, the top leaders of the lawyers’ community and various bar councils engaged in what can be described as ‘trade unionism’ by focusing only on police violence. Some lawyers argued that violence was carried out by outsiders wearing black coats and that no lawyer could engage in such irresponsible behaviour. This is a typical argument for refusing to accept the reality.

The original lawyers’ movement (2007-2008) was the most notable example of organised and sustained protest that enjoyed the support of the political parties and societal groups. This movement was bound to dissipate after the achievement of its goal because a single-issue movement cannot become a permanent feature unless it is reinvented for some other goals. Further, the original lawyers’ movement brought together lawyers, political parties and societal groups of different political orientations. Once the shared goal was achieved, most lawyers and other political activists returned to their original political identities and alignments.

The lawyers’ community acquired a sense of confidence after the original movement. If they had used their political and societal clout for the consensus-based goals of their community, the majesty of their role would have been sustained. However, different groups and individual lawyers began to assert themselves to pursue their petty individual and group objectives with reference to the district and lower level judicial system, the police, the media and others. There were complaints of some lawyers using intimidating language or collective pressure to influence individual judges or staff at the district level and below. There were incidents of physical clashes between some lawyers and the police, the media people and others. The lawyers also engaged in violence against each other. The press reported at least 18 such incidents between June 2009 and October 2010; most of these incidents took place in Lahore.

These tendencies should have been discouraged by professional organisations of the lawyers, the well-known leaders of the lawyers’ movement and the high courts. Some top personalities from the legal profession expressed concern but there was no systematic attempt to check the above-mentioned trends.

Instead, there were efforts to cultivate the lawyers, which may have unintentionally encouraged them to be assertive and defiant. The federal law minister went around the country addressing various bar councils and announcing donations. The Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court also visited various bar councils during the last one year. He also donated funds to some bar councils and made interesting statements in the course of his addresses to the bar councils. In some of his addresses he talked of the possible ‘conspiracy’ against the freedom of the judiciary and asked the lawyers to stay vigilant and extend support to the cause of independence of the judiciary. Speaking in district Attock in May 2010, the chief justice said that if there was a ‘night raid’ on the judiciary, the lawyers and the judges were ready for it. Some effort was made by the Punjab government, especially the provincial law minister, to win over the lawyers or, at least, neutralise the visits of the federal law minister to various bar councils in the Punjab.

All this attention made them overestimate their capacity to dominate the political and judicial environment around them. When they did not succeed in getting the district judge transferred, they decided to invoke coercive methods to get their way.

Two questions need to be addressed: should judges be transferred under pressure from lawyers? Should the lawyers use violence, or the threat thereof, in and around district level courts? Responsibility falls on the lawyers to ensure the quality of professional conduct of lawyers. They need to invoke their self-regulatory system to discipline the small number of lawyers that attempt to hijack the overall professional profile of the community.

These incidents are symptomatic of the overall degeneration and fracturing of Pakistani society. The notion of societal good and public responsibility is being replaced by personal or group considerations that are often partisan and narrow-based.

Such negative trends should be discouraged when they first appear. One can forecast how certain social trends are bound to damage society in the long run. The general pattern in Pakistan is denial of the problem in the first instance. When the problem hits society hard, many people take cover behind the so-called conspiracy of the ‘hidden hand’ or ‘foreign adversaries’. There is a need to recognise that Pakistan faces the most serious challenge of social fragmentation and collapse. What the lawyers did is another sign of the deepening crisis in Pakistan society.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

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