Sunday, April 20, 2008

Parliamentary sovereignty… a fine notion

Ayaz Amir
(Courtesy The News)
Friday, April 18, 2008

And so far in this blessed country, where form has always reigned over substance, parliamentary sovereignty is just that: a fine notion, to be spoken of in thundering terms. That's about it. In actual practice it is rather a threadbare notion. You would expect the members of this 'sovereign' National Assembly to be well-informed about the nation's affairs. They are certainly not better informed than newsmen.

Ask most of the members and perhaps most of them wouldn't have a clue about what's really cooking over the judges' issue. They get their information from the newspapers and newspapers too, such being the standards of reporting, can be dodgy, the headlines suggesting one thing while deep in the story would lie buried something completely different.

Take the recent meeting between Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad to discuss the restoration of the deposed judges. The headlines said unambiguously that they were in complete agreement and that they had reiterated their commitment to the Bhurban declaration or accord. But the later paragraphs of the same story suggested that no agreement had been struck on the actual mechanics of getting the legitimate Supreme Court, and high courts, back.

Every time I now hear about another reiteration of commitment to the Bhurban accord I feel like wiping my nose, or reaching for my gun. Why is the National Assembly, attired in the robes of its yet-to-be-proven sovereignty, being so foolish? Restoring the rightful Supreme Court is not a matter of partisan politics, although this is what many in the PPP seem convinced of, that the judges' issue deep down is a conspiracy between the PML-N and My Lord Chaudhry.

We are familiar with silly things but this takes the cake. No, it is not a partisan issue. It concerns all of us and, on the pragmatic plane, it concerns the National Assembly most of all because the sovereignty of the National Assembly will remain a pipedream unless buttressed by an independent and powerful judiciary.

There was a time, lasting for much of our history, when there was a compact between generals and judges and together they made a fine thing of our democracy. Today we have a chance to build something new: a compact between the judiciary and parliament.

This will not open the floodgates of prosperity. Let's not kid ourselves on that score. But it will be good for democracy and that is something worth striving for because with all its shortcomings democracy is a whole lot better than the rotten military dictatorships we have endured.

If the political leadership doesn't get this, if it doesn't grasp the importance of an independent judiciary, then God help us. The stories we are getting to read about committees to examine the judges' issue, the seniority of Justice Falak Sher over the seniority of My Lord Chaudhry, are getting a bit too much because even if most of these stories amount to kite-flying, they at least suggest that there are worthies uneasy at the prospect of seeing Justice Chaudhry back in the Supreme Court.

The word conspiracy is much in vogue these days. Anything happens and it is put down to a conspiracy. But on the judges' issue if there is any conspiracy to see the last of Justice Chaudhry and ensure that he doesn't stay long in the Supreme Court it is arising not from the walls behind which the once-powerful generalissimo, President Pervez Musharraf, lies besieged but from the redoubts of democracy. Ironic but grimly true. Justice Chaudhry and his brother judges may be popular with the masses. Alas, they are not so popular with the political class or with the political leadership.

For obvious reasons I am drawing no distinction between the PPP and the PML-N but when I say the political leadership I think my meaning is pretty clear.

In an email from distant Singapore Dr Noeen Arshad makes a rather telling point: "I have…noted that even since Feb 18 elections, there is directly or indirectly a mention of Musharraf in your articles. Agreed he was bad for the country. But do we have to keep on talking about him all the time? I am sure you will agree that even if one talks in negative of another it means that the person is on one's mind. Let's get him off our minds, let's not talk about him…I just hope that we have learnt from our mistakes and I would not like to read about the present government in future like we read about Musharraf today!!"

Touche! Musharraf did what he did and he is paying the price of his many failures. But now the reins of power are in different hands. How long do we propose living in the past? We should now be asking ourselves what Bastille walls have we pulled down, what bright morn are we ushering in?

The judges' issue may be taking forever but how quick the new interior boss, Herr Rehman Malik, has been with a measure which, had it been proposed during the Musharraf era, would have triggered a national uproar. As you must have read in the papers, anyone wanting to hold a public meeting or take out a rally would have to seek permission three days in advance. Provincial governments, we are informed, have also been asked to select a 'people's corner' in every tehsil and district headquarters where public meetings will be held on a 'first come first serve' basis.

You might have thought that such a sweeping measure, which amounts to restricting political activity, would have been debated in the sovereign National Assembly. But the sovereign National Assembly heard about it on the evening news or read about it in next morning's newspapers.

As I say, had anything like it been mooted before Feb 18 all hell would have broken loose, column writers and TV anchors going blue in the face denouncing another draconian (another word we have fallen in love with) measure. But since we have stepped into another era of democracy our reaction, I guess, will be more restrained.

Anyway, does the permission clause mean that if another Bushra with her two minor kids, driven to despair by poverty, lies down in the path of an incoming train in order to put an end to her miserable life, and if, on account of this, the people of her locality, also children of despair, are roused to fury, they would first have to put in a request to their local police station before taking out a rally? Or would they be expected to travel to their 'People's Corner' at tehsil headquarters, there to deliver angry speeches?

One Abdul Basit died the other day in Lahore because of police torture. This happened in the Baghbanpura police station. Incensed, as they had every right to be, the people of the locality came out to protest. They beat two policemen in plainclothes and burnt their motorcycle. What else could they do? On what or whom else could they have vented their anger? But under the new Herr Rehman decree people like the incensed citizens of Baghbanpura would have to give three day's prior notice before taking out a procession.

I think no provincial government, except perhaps the good government of Syed Qaim Ali Shah in Sindh, will be silly enough to go along with this exercise in creative fancy. Be that as it may, it surely deserves some kind of a prize for unintended comedy.

I think the most momentous event in the country since Feb 18 has been the suicide of Bushra and her two minor kids because it tells us of what we truly are and what we pretend or profess to be. I am sure it will shake none of us out of our complacency. But such things are taken note of in the skies above. Such are the events that drive the avenging angels to fury.

The prime minister went to Bushra's house, or the hovel that passes for her parent's house, bearing a gift of two lakh rupees. At least he went there which is more than can be said of those who occupied high office during the past eight years when suicides as a result of poverty became a pretty frequent affair.

But I liked what Bushra's father said before the television cameras: to how many people will you go giving one or two lakh rupees? The more important thing is to do something about inflation. A professor of economics could not have put it more succinctly. There was pain on his face as he said this but, surprisingly, not much bitterness in his tone.

I am reading a life of the young Stalin. Stalin too grew up in poverty. The question to ask is why the conditions of life in Tsarist Russia produced a Stalin, and so many others like him, and why with us, poverty and oppression give rise only to acceptance and resignation…and endless visits to mazars and khanqahs, of which we have more than any other country in the world.


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