THEY go screaming and kicking even when it is clear to all but themselves that their time is up and they have overstayed their welcome — that is, if they were ever welcomed in the first place.

Pakistan is caught in a similar situation. The era which began on Oct 12, 1999, is sputtering to its end. A new era has already begun. When the Supreme Court of Pakistan can spring captives from the custody of our intelligence agencies, hitherto answerable to no one except themselves, then it is a clear sign that times are changing.

But the trustees of the old order, those who enjoyed the fruits of power for the last eight years, are desperately holding out, clutching at straws, subjecting the Constitution to weird, self-serving interpretations, all in a wild bid to turn the clock back and give their lord protector in Army House some more time at the top.

This desperation of the Chaudhries, the Mohammad Ali Durranis, the Sher Afgans and what have you is only to be expected. When the wheel of history turns representatives of the dispensation about to be flung on the scrapheap of history always try to put up a rearguard action against the inevitable.

The republic we aspire to — the one envisioned vaguely by Iqbal and Jinnah — is still far away. Of this there should be no doubt. But its outlines we can already see and this is what is quickening the nation’s pulse. The Pakistani people had been led to believe their destiny was to suffer one tinpot fool after another. Now the canvas of their dreams and longings has become wider.

Solely because the Pakistani political scene after March 9 and events thereafter stands transformed. Military despotism has suffered reverses scarcely conceivable before while for the first time the realisation is dawning upon such self-appointed guardians of the national interest as Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI) that their holy cow status is a thing of the past and they too can be called to account.

What the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and comprising their lordships Faqir Khokhar, Javed Buttar, Nasir-ul-Mulk, and Fayyaz Ahmed has done in the ‘missing persons’ case is unprecedented in our history. ISI and MI have been compelled to disgorge people held in illegal captivity whose existence was all along denied. How the mighty are shaken.

At a public meeting in Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi, a few months back, a mother of one such ‘missing person’, somehow managed to break the thick security around the president’s person and fell on her knees before him. Holding his hand and crying out loudly she pleaded for the release of her ‘missing’ son. Raising the woman to her feet, Musharraf resumed his speech and in a voice breaking with sincerity said that persons said to be ‘missing’ had most probably gone to wage ‘jihad’ with the Taliban. None was in military custody.

Their lordships, however, have been indefatigable and have shown what the agencies have been up to. This very week just to get three persons released from MI custody, their lordships had to sit for hours and hours listening to the most outrageous lies. Their perseverance paid off and after the director-general (DG) of the Federal Investigation Agency was told that if one such person, Hafiz Abdul Basit (whose arrest was traced to the DG), was not brought before the court, he (the DG) would have to spend time in jail, Basit and two other prisoners (all detained illegally, and mercilessly tortured during their detention) were released the next day.

I must have cried (yes, cried) half a dozen times as I read about the day’s proceedings in the Supreme Court. Such things have never happened in Pakistan before. To see dictatorship on the retreat, suffering one reverse after another, and freedom (or a pale version of it) on the march is a heady feeling. And the president and his men still think they can get the president ‘elected’ for another term from the present assemblies. What world are they living in?When Basit arrived at his home in Faisalabad, the people of his locality came out to welcome him and raised slogans in support of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, “friend of the poor” as they called him.

Time was when our superior judiciary had solitary heroes, lone rangers like Chief Justice Rustum Kayani of the then West Pakistan High Court. There were other times when there were no judicial heroes at all, only bewigged time-servers, their loftiest mission the legitimisation of military rule.

Now, thanks to the lawyers’ heroic struggle and the support of the Pakistani people, all the judges of the present Supreme Court — Bhagwandas, Ramday et al but barring the two who must be ruing their behaviour on March 9 — are conducting themselves with a degree of judicial rectitude, uprightness, dignity and honour never before seen in the history of Pakistan.

The Sindh High Court, as always, is proving itself a beacon of light. The Balochistan and Peshawar High Courts are not far behind. The Lahore High Court remains in a class of its own. But when change comes it envelops everything. How long can Lahore hold out as an island of regression?

Partisans of the present regime describe the present conduct of the judiciary as ‘judicial activism’, this not without a touch of sarcasm or suppressed venom. This is no activism. It is the judiciary finally waking up to its responsibilities. The people of Pakistan expect much more from it and indeed if they could have their way would willingly see the entire edifice of the status quo demolished at the judiciary’s hands.

Far from recognising this new mood, this sense of heightened expectations, the regime’s ‘chamchas’ an endangered species if ever there was one, are trying to frighten the people of Pakistan with the prospect of martial law. If the president is not ‘re-elected’ from the present assemblies, this too in uniform, the walls will come down and Pakistan’s safety will be threatened, necessitating the imposition of martial law. This is the sinister raga they are singing.

This is blackmail pure and simple but of a pathetic kind because the time for such threats is past. Martial law had a threatening ring to it once upon a time, not any more. And it is a moot point whether the army itself is in a mood for such an adventure.What will be its purpose? Bail out someone seen increasingly as a liability? Not very likely. The army’s image has been battered enough during these last eight years. Can it afford any further damage?

Anyone with a modicum of judgment can see the writing on the wall except the knights who keep vigil at Army House. Gen Musharraf is doing himself, his senior commanders and the nation no favour by insisting on the impossible. He can’t get elected from these assemblies. The first move in that direction will be a signal for nation-wide turmoil. Why does he want to put the country through all this? He says it’s for the country’s sake. For once he should stop seeing himself as sole definer and interpreter of the national interest.

Two choices stand before him. He can resist change and in the process emulate the undignified exits of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. Or he can become the bridge from this order to the next and still write some kind of an honourable name for himself in this country’s troubled history.

Opinion

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