By Muhammad Hanif
Pakistan’s judiciary is starting to care less for the rule of law than the sound of its own sermonising voice. Which suits the military
In the past, Pakistan’s supreme court has hanged an elected prime minister on trumped-up charges, sentenced another to life imprisonment and forced several career politicians into exile. So the disqualification of the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, on contempt-of-court charges should be seen as a step forward. Nobody died, right? The Pakistan Peoples’ party and its coalition partners now have another prime minister in the shape of Raja Pervez Ashraf. Pakistan’s supreme court will thump its chest and say we have proved that the law is the same for a commoner and a king. Pakistan’s all-powerful army will say: look, no hands. So why are Pakistan’s human rights activists calling it a judicial coup and warning us that the whole democratic facade is about to be pulled down?
Political decisions used to be made in the Pakistani army’s HQ. But the action has shifted to court one of the supreme court, in full view of the public, with judgments framed and delivered like soundbites for the primetime news.
Since being restored to his job after being sacked by President Musharraf in 2009, the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, has been betraying an evangelical streak in his pronouncements. Maybe he feels that, with a country full of self-righteous zealots, he needs to adapt their tone. Or perhaps he is one. He doesn’t wait for the petitioners to come to the court, he watches TV and acts on his own cognizance. Even the half of Pakistan that can’t read or write will tell you what a suo motu is. We have already been quoted Khalil Jibran and the Persian poet Hafiz, and, it seems, a verse from the Qur’an or a hadith is only ever a suo motu notice away. When the chief justice took suo motu notice of allegations of his own son’s corruption he turned up in court waving a copy of the Qur’an and insinuating comparisons with himself and the second caliph, Umar.
Last year the chief justice took suo motu notice against the country’s most famous television actress for possessing a bottle of wine. Elsewhere, one of his sidekicks wondered aloud that if one day Pakistan’s parliament were to legalise gay marriages, would the supreme court sit quietly and watch?
This court is not as much in love with the rule of law as with the sound of its own sermonising voice. It has also mastered the art of selective justice. The same supreme court that has been sitting on an ISI corruption case for 15 years, the same judiciary that can’t look a retired general in the eye or force a serving colonel to appear in court, feels it perfectly constitutional to send a unanimously elected prime minister home.
There are not many tears being shed over Gilani. Looking at his record, many would say that he should have stayed home in the first place. But what is the point of clamouring for democracy if we can’t elect imperfect people – slightly less competent and way more corrupt than our average traffic cop – to lead us?
There are many ways of getting rid of a prime minister (though the old-fashioned way of voting them out has never been tried in Pakistan) but no simple way of telling the country’s highest judge, restored to his job as a result of a popular movement, that he has begun to sound like that dictator who sent him home.
In Pakistan, generals often confuse access to private golf courses with the country’s security. Senior bureaucrats consider it their right to name roads and villages after their grandfathers. Mullahs always fall back on God to justify their greed. Political leaders believe that democracy makes it mandatory to groom sons and daughters to take over their political parties. It’s not surprising that senior judges have started to believe that respect for them is the same thing as respect for the rule of law.
Pakistanis are being forced to choose between Gilani’s right to rule without doing a thing for his people, and a supreme court judge’s right to send him home. And people are refusing to choose. For a few days the country lacked a prime minister and a cabinet. And nobody really missed them.
The alarm being raised by pro-democracy people in Pakistan is that the whole system is about to be derailed. The supreme court’s reckless pursuit of government politicians could pave the way for a caretaker setup that will suit the military establishment.
The military, indeed, sulking after a series of humiliations at home and abroad, is watching from the sidelines. Some would say it’s even gloating at the prospect of civilian institutions cutting each other down to size, traditionally its job.