Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Engaging with Political Parties - Detailed Account of A talk organized by the CCP at LUMS

Omer. G

LUMS, JUNE 22nd: A long and engaging talk was organized at LUMS by "Concerned Citizens of Pakistan", a civil society organization, galvanized into action in the aftermath of the imposition of emergency on November 3. The arrangement was unusual in that the CCP had booked an auditorium at LUMS – only those on the SACLUMS mailing list were invited. So many outsiders came in that most students, like myself, had to keep standing. The talk will be aired by Aaj TV (we weren't told exactly when), although with some modifications because the whole thing would violate the new censorship laws. The talk went on so long that I must admit that my account cannot do justice to all its twists and turns.

The Talk was titled: "Importance of rule of Law for society" A CCP representative opened the show, after which Talat Hussain conducted its proceedings. The talk started with Dr. Pervez Hassan, a representative of the lawyers' movement(also a trustee of LUMS). He was sitting in lieu of Tariq Hassan, who couldn't come but had sent a 12-page paper to Dr.Hassan so that his position may be represented. Dr. Hassan's speech focused around the need for upholding the constitution and restoring the judiciary. He also said that the Lawyer's Movement had not ended: it will pick up strength once again, after the elections.

The second speaker was a member of Tehrike Insaf, Ahsan Rasheed. He said that when they were founding their party, many years ago, they had chosen the idea of Rule of Law as their party slogan, even though it wasn't fashionable back then. Every idea had a time and now the time for this idea had come. He felt that Musharraf was dragging Pakistan on the path to authoritarianism like Islam Karimov, Husni Mubari and Robert Mugabe have done elsewhere in the third world. He also stated that, in the coming general elections, he expected a maximum turnout of 10 to 15% ( I feel like placing a bet against him :-) His other concern besides uphold the judiciary's cause was to save the federation.

Justice(r.) Fakhrunnisa Khokhar spoke on behalf of PPP because all other senior PPP members had turned down the invitation. After paying rich tribute to the lawyers' movement (she, herself, was badly beaten up on Nov 5), she said that her party believed in contesting the elections and then championing the cause of the judiciary. She said that within the river there is a whirlpool - to bring change one had to jump into it; it couldnt be done from the outside.

Next spoke Chaudhry Ahsan Iqbal of PML-N, perhaps the most impressive speaker in the house. He told us that he had come all the way from his campaigning activities in Narowal to address this gathering because of the respect he had come to develop for the civil society of Pakistan and for LUMS. (After the event, he declined my request for an interview because he couldn't spare time from his campaigning.) He congratulated civil society for finally waking up and standing for the cause of Pakistan. He said that the best thing that had ever happened to Pakistan was this: people would not even bother so much as to go and cast their votes are now fighting the battle for Pakistan and facing jails. He said that societies have survived with poverty and ignorance but never without laws. He added that the law is the shield of the poor against oppression because the rich can protect themselves by other means like money and influence, but the poor can only seek the law's help. It is particularly impressive that today the elite is coming out to protect the shield of the poor – the law. He announced that PML-N candidates would publicly take an oath on Feb 5 to pledge support for the cause of restoring the judiciary after getting elected. He concluded by saying that he had looked at the CCP's objectives and, for a moment, he thought it was his own party's manifesto (there is much truth in this statement, by the way.)

Hamid Khan was the last speaker of the house. He bagan by prasing the lawyers' movement and, in particular, Justice Khwaja, the Head of LUMS Law School (my school!) who resigned in protest against the humilating treatment met out to the Chief Justice. Hamid Khan's key addition to the discourse was his contention that if the Parliament was to restore the judiciary, it would be an insult to the judiciary, becasue the judiciary was not just above the executive but also above the legislature. The judiciary, therefore, had to be restored before the elections.

The Q and A session was long, heated and colourful. Most of the questions attacked the politicians, alleging that the political parties were corrupt, colluding with the army and betraying the people and the cause of rule of law. At times, the booing and jeering got so loud that Talat Hussain had to intervene reminding this very educated audience that democracy entailed giving others a chance to, at least, state their argument. In general, the speakers tried to clear the parties' position on various issues. Ahsan Iqbal from PML-N managed to answer almost all questions quite gracefully because, after all, his party's current manifesto is based upon the civil society's slogans. He did face trouble when somebody mentioned the assault on the Supreme Court during Nawaz Sharif's second term in office. He replied by saying that it was party blown out of proportions by the agencies and, partly, a mistake. Talat Hussain intervened saying that he had been present at that event and was convinced that the Sharif government was involved.
Justice Fakhrunnisa from PPP, on the other hand, had a harder time and, by the end of it, she had almost reached breaking point. Her best rebuttal to all of this criticism against PPP was her continual referral to the fact that she, and countless other PPP workers, also braved atrocities to stand with the cause of rule of law. It reminded me of Nov 5: at the High Court protest , we were hiding from the charging police batallion, along with Dr. Pervez Hassan and others. Outside, Fakhrunnisa Khokhar, the old lady was, true to her word, was suffering police brutality, amidst choking levels of tear gas. The audience, however, had not seen those scenes. In the close comfort of PICIC hall, they mercilessly grilled her, making it clear that they were disgusted with the PPP's deal-making politics in the recent past, and the PML-N's similar conduct in the years before Musharraf.

Aasim Sajjad, a LUMS professor, and Athar Minallah, a lawyer and activist, reminded the audience that the future of democracy is inextricably linked to politics, politicians and political parties. In the past, the army has systematically maligned politicians, assuming for itself the role of the messiah. By its sceptical and contemptuous attitude, the civil society today is again falling into the same trap. If democracy is to survive in this country, we must all learn to respect politics and politicians and realize that political parties are, after all, comprised of politician wo are from amongst us, and, just like us, they are prone to human errors. It is by engaging empathetically with them and by trying to help them in bringing positive change that we can contribute to the country's future. By contemptuosly dismissing them, we are only easing the army's path, leading to the destruction of this country.

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