(Courtesy The News)
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor
The few lingering hopes that the country's political parties would stand for right, and in defence of the country's ruthlessly mutilated Constitution, have now been quashed.
Abandoning earlier promises, and refusing to look beyond the possibility of short-term gain, all the major parties have opted to participate in an electoral exercise which will act chiefly to grant legitimacy to a set-up that has consistently shown contempt for the law of the land and for all those who have attempted to uphold it. This includes particularly the deposed judges of the superior courts, who had declined to participate in the kind of contortions of law that many before them opted to undertake in order to facilitate rulers in their various unlawful acts.
The reports that, in their decision to participate, key political players including the PML-N and the PPP had come under pressure from foreign capitals, notably Riyadh and Washington, are even more disturbing. The fact that these parties believe there is more to be gained by following instructions issued from distant quarters, rather than building a stable future for their parties by putting the interests of Pakistan's people foremost on their list of priorities, explains why there is so much cynicism regarding their role in the affairs of Pakistan.
The situation that has now emerged means that the lawyers, who have spearheaded the struggle for the people's basic right to justice, now stand essentially alone. The political parties have opted to walk away from their principled stand. The proposal put forward by Aitzaz Ahsan, the detained president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and PPP leader, to find a way for the parties to take part in balloting while retaining the central demand of judicial independence, has been largely ignored. Aitzaz had suggested that each candidate take an oath swearing he or she would work to restore the pre-Nov 3 judiciary, if elected to parliament. This formula has already been rejected by harder-line lawyers, who continue to seek a boycott, while a PPP spokesperson has emphasised that the scheme is Aitzaz's personal initiative, and not one that reflects the party's own line of thinking.
The question of what kind of democracy political parties hope will emerge after polls has not been adequately answered by them. Another period of parliamentary subservience to autocratic rule, as has been seen since 2002, will after all serve little purpose -- beyond constructing the façade of a democratic set-up. This is all that Pakistan's powerful western allies are interested in seeing. The issue of administration of justice, crucial to the interests of the people of Pakistan, can after all mean little to them. It should however mean a great deal to the groups that claim to represent these people, and who speak, so often, in their name.
The question now is how the lawyers and the other civil society groups that have joined them in their struggle can most effectively continue their brave effort. It is true that, without any backing from the larger political parties, their quest becomes a harder one. But it is also true that their perseverance has created a small, but significant, movement -- which could have an important impact on future events in the country.
This may prove to be true, no matter what the immediate outcome of the struggle is. Certainly, despite the harsh measures adopted by the State and its security apparatus, the movement started off almost spontaneously by lawyers following the wave of anger that followed the "suspension" of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March has refused to die out. A recent interview with former SCBA president Muneer A Malik, given from his hospital bed, suggests that even where the body has been broken, the spirit lives on.
The increased involvement of students in the effort, and indeed of many other people across civil society, is also important. The fact that in Lahore this weekend it was thought necessary to put on a "pro-government" student rally, involving about 100 persons including drivers and other personal servants, shows how much desperation this sustained outpouring of anger is generating. Students leaders at the LUMS campus, which alongside the Lahore Press Club and the bar rooms has emerged as a focal point of protest, denied the claims of the persons staging the rally that they were a part of the student body at the university. LUMS students, and faculty members, have also so far refused to give in to the intimidation by police, including the registration of cases and threats of imminent arrests.
Regardless of what happens in the weeks and months ahead, the sequence of events seen recently has underscored certain facts. It has been proven that, as many had feared, political parties lack integrity, commitment or the good sense to see that by refusing to stand up for what is just, they are further discrediting themselves in the eyes of people. The door of opportunity flung open before them -- offering a chance to the parties to show that they are capable of rising above self-interest or letting so-called "allies" know they will not be dictated to -- have been slammed shut by leaders. And by doing so they have further convinced people that little can be expected in the way of principle from these groups.
Instead, new heroes have arisen. They include leaders of the legal community, journalists and media owners who have refused to make unethical compromises, the energetic student leaders who after years of silence on campuses have spearheaded many of the recent protests, politicians such as Imran Khan, Mahmood Khan Achakzai and others who have stuck to principle -- and, perhaps the most unlikely figures of all to play such a role, the judges who refused to take oath under the PCO. For any society, such heroes are important. They provide models to look up to -- now and in the future -- and offer a reminder that even within the increasingly immoral society in which we live, they are still people unwilling to sell their souls in the way of expediency.
Already, there are indications that the actions of these persons have at least put a view of Pakistan that differs from the "official" picture before the world. They have also shown that agitating for right can have an impact -- and, in the longer run, this movement may yet play a part in bringing to the forefront the kind of leaders Pakistan so badly needs to help its people find a way out of the crisis into which they have been plunged time and again by the acts of megalomaniac dictators and the political forces that have repeatedly struck unholy deals with them.