A dangerous slide - Taj M Khattak - Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Although tensions between government and the judiciary have a long history in Pakistan, the recent slide in this relationship in its varying manifestations is a serious cause for concern. Back on Nov 28, 1997, during Nawaz Sharif’s second term as prime minister, charged political workers of his PML-N stormed the Supreme Court on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad. The judges inside had to scramble for safety to their chambers.

The PPP continues this undesirable practice of intimidation of the higher judiciary. It began with the appearance of Law Minister Babar Awan in the Supreme Court in July 2010, accompanied by a large posse of cabinet ministers and party politicians. One of the judges on the occasion remarked that the law minister had not been summoned but invited.

The worrisome difference between the ugly incident of 1997 and the show of force in 2011 is that the mob which attacked the Supreme Court consisted of supporters hailing from Punjab, determined to cause physical harm to then-chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah, who is from Sindh; and now it was politicians and workers of a party with a Sindhi leader trying to impress a judge who has Chaudhry as his last name. Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry is an ethnic Punjabi. It is Sindh and Punjab which have ruled or misruled Pakistan whenever the military establishment hasn’t been visibly at the forefront, with politicians from the smaller provinces readily available as permanent coalition members for petty gains.

Musharraf, who had taken an oath to protect the Constitution and on numerous commissioning parades administered the same oath to a generation of officers, surpassed them all by sacking the entire higher judiciary with total disregard of the Constitution. In retrospect, Nawaz Sharif’s long march for restoration of the judiciary was more a political ploy than an expression of support for an independent judiciary. He did so to enable his party to take a backseat in parliament, leaving the Supreme Court to turn on the heat on the ruling party every now and then.

World over, it is an effective opposition, and not the country’s courts, which checks unbridled corruption and keeps the government of the day on the straight and narrow. There is little doubt now that the opposition’s conduct in the last three years has been far from assertive and fallen well short of public expectations. History is unlikely to be kind to the PML-N, even if the electorate favours him in the next elections because of the unpopularity of the incumbent rulers.

The government’s latest spat with the judiciary, like some others in the past, has stemmed from the president’s support for his cronies rather than regard for merit and justice, qualities which are a requirement of his constitutional office. The strike in Sindh against the Supreme Court’s decision on the appointment of the NAB chairman was unique as it was probably for the first time that a province-wide shutter-down call was given by a party in power. It is open defiance of the Supreme Court and a Machiavellian political move, not just a simple matter of contempt.

The two officials who were issued notices of contempt of court were accompanied to the Supreme Court by nearly one hundred second-tier politicians and workers from Sindh, who were prominently displaying their ethnic symbols. In a style usually associated with trade unions, Sindh home minister Zulfiqar Mirza warned that the entire the Sindh Assembly would voluntarily court arrests if any harm came to the two whose conduct was taken a note of by the court.

There was an interesting incident of a famous Agosta scam prisoner in Karachi jail who was suspected of having the intention of singing in the accountability court on his next appearance. Then, in the middle of the night, an intruder paid a brief visit to him and politely conveyed the compliments of, you know who, causing the prisoner to forget the song altogether. It could not be for nothing that the French court is investigating a possible linkage of the 2002 attack on French technicians in Karachi to the inner sanctums of our prisons.

These intimidating tactics in our legal regime are uncalled-for, because they could only set dangerous precedents. Already a Karachi-based political party has marginalised the Sindh High Court’s efforts to proceed in the case of the carnage of May 12, 2007, in the city. Would the government be able to stop a village feudal from trucking a couple of thousand people outside a district and session court in a small town where a murder case is being heard against him? Or, worse yet, what if this becomes the norm across the length and breadth of the country?

The Sindh home minister’s frequent outbursts are utterly misplaced. They are a distraction from the fact that, while the PPP won majority vote in the February 2008 general elections on a sympathy wave, it has failed to rise to public expectations and has therefore lost the moral right to rule. It has an amazingly weak team as ministers, whom a wit referred to as “old bottles with no wine.” Consider Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s recent statement heaping praise on Abdul Qadir Gilani, the son of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, for his appearance before an ordinary FIA inspector. He didn’t get the basics right: the inspector is the face of the state and the prime minister’s son is an ordinary citizen. The PPP’s struggle to remain in power by using this or that party as a political crutch is neither in the interest of neither democracy nor the country.

It is the politicians’ right to rule the country, but with that comes an obligation to shoulder greater responsibility and have a vision for the future. The Sindh home minister would do well to put his weight behind targeted killings in Karachi whose numbers are now fast catching up with the number of causalities caused by US drone in our north-west. Corruption has spread like cancer in the body structure of the state. The reconciliation strategy has been overstretched to the point where it has become a means for the extension of the PPP’s rule.

The downside of idolising an independent judiciary is the ease with which people seek a judicial review when they see that something is not right. Islamabad these days has become the most litigious city in Pakistan mainly because government actions and decisions invariably fail to measure up to constitutional propriety. If the opposition or any individual exercises his or her right to go to the court, why should the ruling party feel upset or call for strikes which turn violent and cause loss of life?

Some political parties in the coalition are leaving the treasury benches with an eye to the next election. Likewise, the PPP would not be too unhappy if its remaining term is interrupted and the party can present the interruption as “martyrdom,” which would gain it sufficient political mileage before the elections. Dirty politics will continue to be played in this country, but let it not be said that the judiciary failed to rise to the occasion. And, yes, there is a lot of substance to the argument that the individual reasoning and autonomy of each judge is central to a truly independent judiciary.

Tail Piece: Justice Muhammad Rustam Kiyani, or “MRK,” as he was fondly known, was chief justice of West Pakistan from 1958 to 1962 and was allotted some agricultural land in Sindh on retirement. He soon ran into serious trouble with the patwari for possession. MRK wouldn’t entertain the slightest thought of impropriety and the patwari had never done a day’s honest work.

There was no love lost between MRK and President Ayub, but Ayub’s gentlemanliness was to last to the end. Ayub decided to intervene in favour of the good judge by summoning the entire hierarchy of the department concerned to circuit house in Sukkur on his next hunting trip. Last to be ushered in was the patwari who came in with his basta (bag). As Ayub pored over his drawings, lo and behold, the khasra numbers of the chief justice’s land had simply vanished, not a trace of it to be found anywhere.

MRK won on his principles but lost out on matters of land to a patwari. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry is dealing with a hugely difficult situation. Let us wish him luck.

The writer is a retired vice admiral. Email: tajkhattak@ymail.com

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=40091&Cat=9

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