(Courtesy Information Press -www.informpress.wordpress.com)
By Ayesha Khan
At his book launch in New York, Pervez Musharraf mocked a definition of democracy which was fixated on elections, praising himself instead for initiating a free press and stressing the importance of institution-building. Yet, barely a year later, there has been a merciless attack on the vital organs of the Pakistani state that could nurture a sustainable democracy, as the Mush regime desperately seeks an electoral exercise to validate its illegal actions.
Few have pinned hopes on the January 2008 parliamentary elections as a means to enhance participatory governance. To the contrary, the will of the people is perhaps best represented by those who have opted for a boycott. As the two sides emerge, on the one hand, the high and mighty bullet-proof elite deciding to contest, and on the other hand, the lawyers, accessible to the masses, jailed with the masses and boycotting for the masses. It is an interesting phenomenon and one that deserves our further attention.
In 1986 - the year that a single, young Benazir had come to Pakistan to stand for change and battle the harsh General Zia-ul-Haq - I was a schoolgirl in Islamabad fascinated by the prospect of a woman becoming Prime Minister in a Pakistan where PTV newscasters were fired for a mere slip of the dupatta and the late Nazia Hassan was banned from television for swaying to a rhythmic number she sang.
In November of that year, I could not believe my luck when I reached Islamabad Airport and discovered that Benazir Bhutto was on my Lahore-bound flight. In the departure lounge, she was surrounded by a crowd of burly men, so I, desperate for her autograph, planned to dodge the PIA stewardess in-flight and trespass from economy into business so that I could obtain the much-desired inscription. But once I boarded the aircraft, I realised that Ms. Bhutto, like me, was flying economy and was seated just a few rows from me.
There was a feeling of resurgence in the economy cabin of the airplane that day, a notion of people power, of a leader travelling with the public for a common cause. A sensation that we in economy class were better off than those up front, in the wider business seat with greater leg room and better food, because Benazir Bhutto had chosen us over them.
How much has changed since then. How many hopes dashed. On short-hop trips to Dubai, Ms. Bhutto is whisked away in Bentleys from the tarmac. Luxury bullet-proof vehicles are imported or gifted into Pakistan from elitist sheikhdoms ahead of the Bhuttos and Sharifs. Not surprisingly, they are contesting elections. They have much to gain from the status quo, not to mention the alluring prospect of chartered state airplanes for Hajj and Umrah visits.
Contrast that with the lawyers’ movement. A beleaguered Aitzaz Ahsan carries the dual burden of not just lead counsel but also chauffeur to the Chief Justice of Pakistan. They travel in a 1994 Pajero with no fanfare, no motorcade, certainly no VIP movement inconveniences. Only common folks line the streets, in solidarity, for commonality of purpose, dancing to the beat of independence.
On the day that they advance to the Election Commission to file nomination papers for Justice (R) Wajihuddin Ahmed and contest those of Pervez Musharraf, the collective leadership of the lawyers’ movement marches in unison with civil rights advocates. The esteemed Muneer A. Malik, Tariq Mehmood, Ali Ahmad Kurd and others, who have protested on principle, make no attempt to distinguish themselves from the masses that follow them. They bear batons, bricks and police brutality, humbly, for the greater good of the Pakistani nation. They display to us that public service is an honour and privilege, but not a birthright.
Not far from them, are the ministers in a fleet of tinted-glass Mercedes. They travel speedily, restricting the movement of all other lesser humans in their wake. As they approach, doors to the Election Commission fling open, and hastily, they dash in, from one air-conditioner to another. Their purpose is to show solidarity with the ruling General. As they exit, a sit-in of angry media persons victimised by the police blocks their way. But how can unarmed civil society compete with the powerful Mercedes tires willing to trample over any average citizen standing in its way?
Protests continue but the bullet-proof few remain safely secluded, exclusively comfortable in their bubble. Every now and then, they fashionably offer twisted examples from American history to justify their pitiless treatment of the commoners. The contrast between the two sides is so glaring that even some of the more dubious sympathisers of the lawyers’ movement reluctantly acknowledge its popularity. After a number of undecided editorials and Wall Street Journal pieces that read as if written by a Musharraf loyalist rather than an objective analyst, Najam Sethi, in a recent piece, finally gives Aitzaz Ahsan the credit he deserves. For a change, I find myself in agreement with Mr. Sethi when he makes the point that much of the goodwill Mr. Ahsan has cultivated may be eroded if the necessary steps are not taken to channel this positive energy into an independent political movement.
Aitzaz Ahsan is uniquely placed to lead such a purist political party. That he is one of Pakistan’s best legal minds is without question. But, there is more good news. His decision to boycott is not the first time he has taken a principled stand. He refused to join government service during General Ayub Khan’s military rule, even though he stood first in the CSS exam. Later, he resigned from the PPP under protest when police opened fire on a lawyers’ rally demonstrating against the alleged rigging of elections by the PPP. As a competent and sincere man, he is not insecure, and therefore likely to encourage other great minds to work with him. More importantly, he is also a symbol of unity in a painfully divided Pakistan. With support in all provinces and bar rooms across the country, he appeals to conservative and liberal alike.
Lately, he has been recognised globally, with The Seattle Times reporting in a profile piece, for instance, that the “biggest threat to Musharraf stands 5-foot-7.” It is not just 38 American Senators who have called for Aitzaz Ahsan’s release, but also human rights activists Tighe Barry and Medea Benjamin, heartlessly deported from Pakistan without due process of law. In a recent Washington Post article, Mr. Ahsan teams up with U.S. Congressman John Tierney, asking both Musharraf and Bush critical questions. He is clearly cognisant of the fact that we face a global struggle if we try to bring about a new world order. It appears he will not shy away from that struggle or bow down to influential external actors, but is willing to join with Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike to bring about effective and meaningful change.
There is only one problem, however. Aitzaz Ahsan is still officially a member of the PPP. The PPP was once undoubtedly an “anti-status quo” party. It was also once a socialist party that attracted liberal, left-leaning Pakistanis. But failed promises and opportunism have left the people searching for suitable alternatives. The fact that Mr. Ahsan is President of the Supreme Court Bar Association and a member of the PPP did not initially present a problem. After all, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had held joint membership of the Congress and the Muslim League for six years, and between 1916 and 1919, he was President of the Muslim League and still a Congress Party member. But there came a point when the conflict of interest surpassed other conditions. That’s why Mr. Jinnah had to choose and he chose the League and went on to do great things for the Muslims of the South Asian subcontinent.
A boycott call by Aitzaz Ahsan is a step in the right direction. I trust that, like M.A. Jinnah, he too will announce his choice soon and lead Pakistan to a better future.
[Ms. Ayesha Ijaz Khan - a lawyer, author and human rights activist - is a Member of the Pakistan Justice Forum (PJF) - www.JusticeForum.info - of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) based in London, UK.]