by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 13th March 2007
Every now and then, it is useful to be brought face-to-face with something so obvious that it tends to be overlooked. Last week, General Pervez Musharraf reminded us that democracy in Pakistan remains a laughable farce with his unceremonious removal of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Chief Justice (CJ) of Pakistan’s Supreme Court on the deliciously ironic grounds of “misuse of authority”. The unlamented Justice Chaudhary sealed his own fate by combining a taste for the perks of office with a penchant for judicial activism ill-suited to Pakistan. Inspired perhaps by his counterparts in New Delhi, Pakistan’s CJ ruled against the crony privatisation of Pakistan Steel Mills, raised awkward questions about police corruption and took up cudgels on behalf of unfortunates who were “missing” in security forces operations in Baluchistan and Sindh. The regime was clear, Justice Chaudhary had to go; this sort of loose cannon could not be relied upon to adjudicate in potential cases relating to Musharraf’s re-election, his continuation as army chief, or the postponement of general elections by a year or more.
But the medieval power dynamics within Pakistan are illustrated less by the chief justice’s departure than by the way he was sacked. Mr Chaudhary’s departure-knell started tolling three weeks ago, when a well-known toady of the Pakistani establishment, Naeem Bukhari, insinuated in an “open letter” in a Pakistani daily that the CJ was guilty of corruption, nepotism, arrogance and self-aggrandizement. For the politically sophisticated citizens of Pakistan, the only question thereafter was: when will Chaudhry go? His hour came last Friday when he was summoned to President Musharraf’s “Camp Office” in the army chief’s residence in Rawalpindi. (Musharraf occupies the presidential and army chief’s residences, as well as their offices.) The Chief Justice of Pakistan was informed that he was being made “non-functional”, until he was formally dismissed through the constitutional mechanism of a Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) headed by five top judges.
For several hours, Justice Chaudhary remained confined to the “Camp Office” while Justice Javed Iqbal, the yes-man chosen to replace him, was sworn in by another friendly judge. Acting Chief Justice Iqbal superseded a senior colleague, Rana Bhagwandas, who was hit by an unfortunate triple whammy: he was a Hindu, he was outspoken too, and he was unavailable for the swearing in as he was visiting India. Soon after the oath-taking ceremony the SJC convened, chaired by a beaming Javed Iqbal. Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry could begin retired life as early as the next meeting. Until then, he remains incommunicado, effectively under house arrest.
While sacking chief justices is not quite the national sport, taming the judiciary is an established political tactic in Pakistan. In 1997, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif conspired with a cabal of judges to remove Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah from office. Shah’s offence: ruling against a constitutional amendment designed to let Nawaz corner more power. In 2000, Musharraf sacked Chief Justice Saiduzzaman Siddiqui (along with five colleagues) after they demurred from taking an oath of loyalty to the military government.
It is difficult to sympathise with a divided judiciary that has institutionally assisted in its own emasculation. And in the political food chain that is Pakistan’s polity, the judiciary assists in making other institutions, like the media, irrelevant. Even while the CJ was being dismissed in Army House, the Lahore High Court bulldozed Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest private news channel, into “sincerely regretting” a news expose in which court officials were shown accepting bribes. The court directed that Geo TV must display its “bona fides” by televising apologies at regular timings for several days continuously.
Ironically, amidst these shenanigans, General Musharraf is evaluating a Vision Document 2030 aimed at implanting in Pakistan “unfettered democracy at its natural and optimal levels… to avoid democratic disruptions as happened in the past”. But, as Vision Document 2030 points out, the country’s military is more powerful today than ever before. A divided and obsequious polity and civil society that uses the military as a political arbiter for internal disputes, ensures that the khaki clout remains intact. The military, in turn, skilfully perpetuates political, ideological and sectarian factionalism, which consolidates its control over politics.
For India, this presents a dilemma. While influential decision-makers in New Delhi believe that General Musharraf alone offers a chance for a comprehensive peace settlement, there is also recognition that long-term stability must rest on a liberal and democratic Pakistan. For the present, however, a re-ordering of Pakistan’s polity is unlikely because the military has succeeded in defining that country’s national agenda entirely around the issue of military security. As Lahore-based political scientist, Ayesha Siddiqua notes, “Since the creation of the country, it was projected as an insecure homeland state for the Muslims which could only be protected through greater military security.”
Only India can diminish the “Indian bogey” that dominates Pakistan’s national consciousness; Pakistan’s military will not reduce its own clout by assisting in this process. While the peace dialogue has set this process in motion, hard line statements from New Delhi have undermined Indian interests in building a more benign image in Pakistan; such statements continue to empower khakhi-clad demagogues over khadi-clad ones. While Pakistan’s political and civil society structures must swim for themselves, India can throw them a life jacket by a mobilising a more nuanced mix of soft and hard power.