Politicians playing at democracy, says Asma

Updated October 21, 2017

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Asma Jahangir delivers a lecture at Wolfson College, Oxford.
Asma Jahangir delivers a lecture at Wolfson College, Oxford.

OXFORD: Supreme Court lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir has launched a strong attack on politicians, the judiciary and the military, saying all had failed to bring democracy to Pakistan.

Speaking at a prestigious lecture at Oxford University on Thursday evening, she said: “Politicians are playing at democracy while the military controls the country through the deep state and judges constantly interfere in policy.”

According to her, the military creates politicians but when those politicians question the military they go to the fort not as a king, but as a prisoner. “The politicians are playing at democracy hanging on to the cliff with their claws. And then the boot comes.”

Recalling that until the 1970s one needed a permit to set up a business in Pakistan, Ms Jahangir said there were two types of people in the country: the permit class and the non-permit class. “I am in the non-permit class,” she said.

Human rights activist also criticises military, judiciary

“That is the strength that I have acquired. I can see things from another point of view.”

Ms Jahangir traced the problems in Pakistan’s democratic development back to 1954 and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly since which time, she argued, there had been a state within the state. “From then on the deep state took hold of the upper classes and they became the permit class.”

The lecture entitled ‘Rule of Law and Democratic Development in Pakistan’ was the fourth annual Sarfraz Pakistan lecture held at Wolfson College.

Previous lecturers have included historian William Dalrymple and political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot.

This year’s event was attended by a number of Pakistani students at Oxford University, including Malala Yousafzai — the youngest Nobel Prize laureate who has just started her degree in politics, philosophy and economics.

The lecture challenged the oft-repeated phrase that the military and the civilians are on the same page. “Tweets from the military undermine the politicians and statements from the politicians undermine the military,” she said.

Complaining about the powerlessness of the politicians, Ms Jahangir said that the Pakistan parliament could not debate military budgets and the intelligence agencies operate with no legal basis. When asked to explain the legislation underpinning the work of the agencies’ officials say the relevant laws are secret.

She was especially critical of the judiciary, saying it had played a negative role by using and misusing power, especially by helping friends through public interest litigation. “Today the military of Pakistan has to decide whether they can live under the control of civilian power or whether they want to rule themselves.”

Arguing that the civilian government only had control of pockets of Punjab and Sindh, she said the military runs foreign affairs, interior matters and the affairs of Fata, Balochistan, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Speaking of Gilgit-Baltistan, she said the youth there who are demanding to become part of Pakistan are the only people on earth being punished as insurgents for trying not to split away from their country but to join it.

Asked whether democracy was of interest to most Pakistanis given that many have more pressing daily concerns, Ms Jahangir told the lecture hall that the ordinary people of Pakistan wanted democracy. When she worked with bonded labourers she understood how, even if they may not have been able to find other work, they valued freedom and human dignity. The people of Pakistan, she said, wanted the rule of law and to be able to hold accountable those who have power over them. People have stood up in the worst of times despite the risks, she said.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2017