Friday, 20 July 2018

Pakistan's Trials

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

Let’s face it. Whatever some may think of Nawaz Sharif’s omissions and however much others may hate him for his commissions, the fact remains that he has demonstrated the courage of his conviction that the unaccountable Miltablishment has no business interfering in the affairs of an elected government, much less in engineering its rise or fall.

Nawaz has held firm to this conviction since 1993 when he was dismissed from office, restored by the Supreme Court and then compelled to step aside. He met the same fate in 1999 and spent seven years in forced exile. Now he is behind the bars for the same “crime” (he insisted on putting General Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason and demanding an end to the politics of non-state actors in domestic and foreign policy). He could have spent another ten years in exile in the comfort of his luxury flats in London – much like Benazir Bhutto, General Musharraf or Altaf Hussain, closer to home, and Lenin, Khomeini and many others in historical time — and looked after his ailing wife. But he chose instead to return, along with his daughter, and go straight to jail “to honour the sanctity of the ballet box”.

This is an unprecedented political act with far reaching consequences. It has driven a spike in the Punjabi heartland of the Miltablishment and irrevocably degraded the ultimate source of its power and legitimacy. The provinces of Balochistan, Sindh and KP have witnessed outbursts of anti-”Punjabi Miltablishment” sub-nationalism from time to time but this is the first time in 70 years that a sizeable chunk of Punjab is simmering not against the “subversive” parties and leaders of other provinces but against its very own “patriotic” sons of the soil. This is that process whereby the social contract of overly centralized and undemocratic states is rent asunder. In that sense, it is the Miltablishment which is on trial.

Unfortunately, the judiciary, too, is on trial. In a democratic dispensation, it is expected to fulfil three core conditions of existence. First, to provide justice to lay citizens in everyday matters. Second, to uphold the supremacy of parliament. Third, to remain above the political fray as a supremely neutral arbiter between contending parties and institutions. On each count, tragically, it seems amiss. Hundreds of thousands of civil petitioners have been awaiting “insaf” for decades. The apex courts are making laws instead of simply interpreting them. And the mainstream parties and leaders are at the receiving end of the stick while “ladla” sons and militants are getting away with impunity. At some time or the other in the past or present, controversy has dogged one or more judges. But the institution of the judiciary is in the dock of the people today because it is perceived as aiding and abetting the erosion of justice, neutrality and vote-sanctity. In 2007, the “judicial movement for independence” erupted against an arbitrary act by a dictator against a judge. In that historical movement, the PMLN was fully behind the lawyers and judges. The irony in 2018, however, is that the same lawyers and judges are standing on the side of authoritarian forces against the PMLN.

The third “pillar” of the state – Media – is no less on trial. It is expected to “freely” inform the people so that they can make fair and unbiased choices. But it is doing exactly the opposite. A couple of media houses have succumbed to severe arm-twisting and opted to gag themselves; many have meekly submitted to censorship “advice”; most are silent for or blind for material gains. The proliferation of TV channels was meant to be a bulwark against authoritarian or unaccountable forces. But a failing economy and political uncertainty has pitted the channels against one other for the crumbs, which has given a leg up to those on the “right side” of the fence. At any rate, the corporatization of the media by big capitalist interests has served to protect the powerful at the expense of the weak.

Finally, the fourth pillar of the state — Parliament — is about to be stripped of its representative credentials. The castration of the two mainstream parties and their leaders is aimed at empowering one “ladla” leader and his party, a host of militant religious groups and a clutch of opportunist “independents” to storm the citadels of the legislature.

Is all hope lost? Are we collectively fated to be victims of a creeping authoritarian and unaccountable coup by the “pillars” of the state in tandem?

No. Sooner than later, the media and judiciary will begin to crack. Neither can survive by being “pro-government” for long. Every chief justice seeks to make his own mark on history as distinct from his predecessor and no judge can shrug away the weight of popular opinion for long. The electronic and print media, too, cannot allow social media to run away with independent digital news and analysis pegged to financial sources outside Pakistan.

Meanwhile, we, the people, must get ready to suffer.

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