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CONVERTING my column regarding the intended commercialisation of the open spaces of the Government College of Chakwal into a petition under Article 184 (3) of the Constitution, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudry, has caused notices to be issued to advocate-general Punjab and the administration of the college. DCO Chakwal has been asked for his comments. Hearing is set for this morning, Friday, before Bench Number One.

It is an open hearing which anyone can attend. The tattered remnants of academia in Chakwal can do with all the support they can get. The college administration, still finding it hard to believe this suo moto intervention, is coming fully prepared. The people of Chakwal are to be represented by senior counsel, Mansur Ali Shah, and up-and-coming Athar Minallah.

Since the matter is now sub-judice, that too before the highest court in the land, it is not for me to go into its merits or demerits. Let justice be done and may the truth prevail.

Some general observations, however, may be in order. Across the country illiteracy and philistinism, and greed in no small measure, are on the march while things like public decency and anything remotely connected to culture and education are in headlong retreat.

Public spaces are under attack, parks are being gobbled up and trees being cut at a pace that would frighten the gods. Yet we are taking no heed and there is nothing to stop the rampant advance of commercialism and land-grabbing except a triad thrown up by circumstances: the higher-most judiciary (euphemism for the Supreme Court), the more enlightened sections of the bar and the more literate sections of the media.

Let us, therefore, collectively count ourselves lucky for having a chief justice with a broad enough vision to make him interested in such ‘arcane’ matters as the environment and other public causes. In the Pakistani context I may be forgiven for saying this makes him something of an aberration. Interested in trees? Who the hell is interested in trees and the preserving of public spaces in Pakistan? Strangely enough, my lord the chief justice is. Wonders, I suppose, will never cease.

Who would have saved a park in F/7, Islamabad, from commercial despoliation? Which chief justice would have moved to save the trees of Jehangir Park, Karachi, from being cut? Who would have questioned the New Murree project, a pet project of the Punjab Chief Minister, Chaudhry Pervaiz Ellahi, which was set to martyr some of the finest and oldest trees in the Patriata forests?

Chief justices of Pakistan — some of them very able, some of them upright — have been famous for other things. But let us not go into this because judicial history is a tale full of uncomfortable truths. If in the ‘hamaam’ (bathhouse) of Pakistani politics everyone has been naked — generals, politicians, priests, moralists, journalists and industrialists — the sad truth is that the judiciary has been no exception.

The ‘doctrine of necessity’ is not just a millstone round the nation’s neck. It is also a spectre haunting the higher judiciary because around its unhallowed altar some truly macabre dances, rarely seen in everyday choreography, have been performed.

Pakistan’s military saviours, their list seemingly endless because when one departs (often unceremoniously) there is always another in the wings desperate to take his place, have never been content to do their soiled work by themselves. Around the scenes of their triumphs they have looked for partners and collaborators and such, alas, is the texture of our soil and composition of our air that other things may have been in short supply but never the recruiting grounds of collaboration.

Indeed, so marked is this trend that if Maharaja Ranjit Singh were to rise from the dead and recreate the kingdom of Lahore, and if for his political needs he wanted a Q-League, there would be no shortage of Punjab feudal volunteers rushing to serve under his colours. But why blame the landowning class alone? There is no shortage of smart townsmen (and ladies) in the Q-League. The title, Q-League, may be specific to our times but it represents a political tendency as old as the hills, as timeless as the Indo-Gangetic plains. It is too much to expect that the judiciary would have been left untouched by this legacy.

But it is time we left the past behind and started writing a new history, a history free forever of such aberrations as the ‘doctrine of necessity’. We may not have the steadfastness or bravery of the Nepalese people — heroic Nepal having just written a new chapter in the fight against autocracy and unrepresentative government — but we can at least arrive at one understanding: that if the forces of autocracy are not to be resisted, they shouldn’t be assisted. As my friend Mian Ata Maneka, MPA and former provincial minister, is wont to say, all of us have the option of staying at home (excellent advice which didn’t prevent him from joining the Q-League).

The end of collaboration would in itself be something great. Starting from there we can then mull over the Nepalese experience and try to understand why the people of Nepal have succeeded in forging a broad democratic front while our democratic parties are still grappling with their Ph.D thesis called the ‘charter of democracy’.

It should be a matter of shame for us that we are at the bottom of the democratic table in South Asia. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are ahead of us and, after its recent revolutionary experience, Nepal too. It is time we too stock of our failings.

There is much with which the judiciary can be charged and no one is saying it is a perfect institution. But the trend under the present chief justice to take note, often suo moto, of issues affecting the public interest, issues that seldom claimed the attention of the Supreme Court before, is setting a powerful new precedent.

It shows that provided the will is there derelict and largely moribund articles of the Constitution can be infused with new life and made relevant to the people. It also demonstrates that at its best the judiciary can indeed become a guardian of the people’s interests and, who knows, in time even of their liberties.

There is, however, a conundrum at play in this suo moto activism in that it sheds a bad light on other institutions, including the lower judiciary. If other institutions were functioning well, if the rule of law was being enforced, if public officials were doing their job, there would be no need for matters such as those relating to park spaces and the cutting of trees to come before the Supreme Court. But just because other institutions have collapsed or are in an advanced state of decay and people find it difficult if not impossible to get justice or relief from them, the trend has become noticeable of recourse being made to the Supreme Court.

This can’t be helped. Someone has to pick up the slack. It goes to the credit of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudry that he is doing exactly this and not hiding behind the excuse, that would have been readily available to anyone less energetic, that the Supreme Court was meant for ‘higher’ things (such as, I suppose, the doctrine of necessity).

Goes without saying I too will be at the Supreme Court this morning, urged on by these lines from Flecker:

We travel not for trafficking alone:

By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:

For lust of knowing what should not be known

We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

However dark the night, there is always a shining city on the hills beckoning from afar and always, however long the journey, a golden road to Samarkand.