Beyond shaming & damning

Updated December 19, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

NO words are strong enough to condemn the maniacal raid on Lahore’s Punjab Institute of Cardiology by a group of lawyers. Even if the common narrative is shorn of exaggeration and the distortion of facts, no justification whatsoever can be offered for the insane targeting of a premier medical facility, the critically sick patients there, and the doctors in attendance. The incident puts the entire Pakistan society to shame.

The bar organisations have to do some intensive soul-searching regarding their failure to check indiscipline within their ranks. For many years, especially since the conclusion of their campaign for the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry as the chief justice of Pakistan, various groups of lawyers have figured in one violent incident after another, inside courtrooms and outside, and their associations have made no serious attempt to arrest the hot-headed descent into the ugliest forms of hooliganism. There may still be time for lawyers’ organisations to regain the status of dignity they enjoyed as the last bastion of resistance to dictatorship. They are expected to compel the rulers to stay within the limits of the law and the Constitution, and not to become agents of disorder and lawlessness themselves.

A self-appraisal needs to be done by the fraternity of doctors as well, especially to determine whether their agitations in recent years have been in accord with their oath to tend to the sick under any circumstances.

What made the incident utterly unbearable is the fact that it could have been prevented, or at least the scale of madness contained. The storming of the PIC was not a sudden response to a grave provocation; all accounts of the horrible incident confirm that it was a deliberate, premeditated operation for the realisation of an objective that is shrouded in obscurity. The action was apparently discussed and planned at none too secret meetings, and if the law-enforcement agencies did not become aware of these confabulations they do not deserve their plumes.

The rehabilitation of lawyers will require considerable effort by the greyheads among them.

The mob marched several kilometres along the city’s main roads and a police contingent quietly followed them all the way. The chief minister sent a minister to intervene but no ranking member of the administration seems to have tried to control the situation. The causes of this all too evident administrative failure need to be probed.

All this has been said in various quarters, in media comments and in the statement by 56 senior lawyers. The essential question is: where do we go beyond condemning the lawyers? The doctors and lawyers both are national assets. The process of reconciliation between them has begun and it should bear fruit soon. The doctors should be able to continue their mission of mercy without any fear.

The rehabilitation of lawyers will require considerable effort by the greyheads among them, but this task is not only worth undertaking, it must also begin forthwith. It is in the fitness of things that more than 50 senior lawyers have called upon the Pakistan Bar Council to “take affirmative steps to restore the integrity, respect and sanctity” of the legal profession. One should like to hope the bar associations will not fail to join the PBC in this essential mission, nor should they be excluded from the process.

It must not be forgotten that lawyers constitute an indispensable arm of the justice system. They help the judges in the interpretation of the Cons­titution and the laws, and many outstanding judges have risen from their ranks. There have been occasions when they have steadied the judiciary against attacks from outside and against cracks within.

Institutions are not damned for the failures of some of their constituents. Government is not abolished for the sins of a ministry, it is only changed in one way or another. The intimidatory tactics, or ghundagardi, employed by a few hundred lawyers cannot be allowed to stigmatise their fraternity forever. However hard the redemption of the lawyers’ community may appear to be at the moment, the task must be taken up without any delay.

The second question is the state’s attitude towards the lawyers’ community as a whole. Some of the lawyers who wanted to condemn the raid on the PIC chose to remain silent when they saw fellow lawyers’ hooded faces on being marched towards the courts. Let the guilty be punished but the dignity of human person must not be violated. There may be something in the lawyers’ complaint that the government or some of its powerful elements might be trying to use the PIC affair to punish them for their stand on issues related to democracy and the rule of law (such as opposition to military courts and the defence of Justice Faez Isa).Be that as it may, the disproportionate persecution of lawyers will be in the interest of none of the parties involved; it will only deepen the wounds and keep the tensions alive. The times call for moving ahead.

Finally, the PIC affair must be looked at as a symptom of the malaise that has been eating into the vitals of Pakistani society for years, and for which the state cannot shrug off its part of responsibility. That the state and society both are becoming more and more violent cannot be denied. On the one hand, both of them are displaying zero tolerance for difference of opinion and are determined to crush dissent, thanks to a glut of arms on both sides, and on the other, the government has been shedding its benevolent functions and becoming more and more of a coercive juggernaut. No decent discourse between the party in power and the opposition is now possible.

The government must seriously ponder the contribution the politics of hatred, abuse, vindictiveness and hypocritical pandering to religiosity has made to the PIC affair. Unless a change of course is soon effected, the danger of such incidents recurring cannot easily be dismissed.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2019