Hunter and prey

27 Jun 2020

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SO this is how our democracy collapses: not with a bang, but a whimper.

One by one, the pillars of our constitutional framework have been yanked from their foundations by political engineers and their civilian assistants. While the façade has been left more or less intact, the reality is that we can no longer claim that Pakistan is a functioning democracy.

True, elections are held regularly, but judging from the blatant manipulation evident in 2016, these hardly reflect the popular will. Another institution that should be protecting the Constitution is the opposition. But given the pressure from the establishment they are operating under, as well as the squabbling between the PPP and the PML-N, they have failed in their primary task of holding the government to account.

The higher judiciary may have been effective in blocking the privatisation of public-sector enterprises that have lost hundreds of billions, but has been unable to act as a bulwark against Bonapartism. The recent case against Supreme Court Justice Qazi Faez Isa is a case in point.

Here we have an upright judge who is due to become chief justice in a couple of years, but is now a target for the establishment and this government for the forthright judgement he wrote about the completely illegal sit-in at Faizabad, and the appearance of military encouragement to the violent clerics who had organised it. Another sin was his tough report on the killing of scores of lawyers in bomb blasts in Quetta.

We can’t claim we are a functioning democracy.

Some asked: could the establishment afford to have such an independent chief justice?

Then, an unknown so-called journalist filed a complaint raising questions about some properties bought in London by Justice Isa’s wife, a working woman, an heiress to property, and a registered taxpayer. Never mind that her husband had nothing to do with her property purchases, and paid his taxes independently of her.

This manufactured case was sent to the president (once believed to be an admirer of Justice Isa when he was chief justice of the Balochistan High Court) who referred it to the Supreme Judicial Council. Instead of rejecting such a flimsy reference against a brother judge, the 10-member bench has delivered a judgment that has tried to distance the Supreme Court from the final outcome, and passed the buck to the tax authorities. This does not bode well for Justice Isa or for judicial independence, no matter what the judgement claims.

Another aspect of a democratic dispensation is academic freedom where teachers encourage independent thinking. But one by one, talented and highly qualified teachers have been plucked from their campuses or not seen their contracts extended. Never mind that you hold a Ph.D from a prestigious university, or are an award-winning author: if you don’t toe the line, you’re out.

The media is an effective check on executive excess, and has hounded past governments for real or made-up wrongdoing. But whatever you may think of Zardari or Nawaz Sharif, they took this criticism on the chin without trying to silence dissent.

This is not true of Imran Khan. Although he once claimed that our press is freer than the British media, the fact is that Mir Shakeel-ur-Rahman, owner of Pakistan’s largest media group, has been in jail for over three months without charges. This newspaper has also felt the lash of the establishment whip for its commitment to accurate reporting and independent comment.

Meanwhile, reporters in the country have been killed, kidnapped and tortured.

Bloggers, despite the relatively small size of their online audience, have also been targeted. Several have been picked up and subjected to horrific trea­tment. At least one has fled into exile.

Many of these pra­c­tices were common under earlier military governments. But at least we had the consolation of dreaming that once democracy was rest­o­red, we would regain our rights. This is no longer true as the current state of affairs proves. If a politician is hungry enough, he will do anything to get even a small slice of power. And Imran Khan was starving for power after two decades in the wilderness.

But he isn’t the only one to join the establishment in their apparent bid to oust a current rival and replace him or her. Our history is replete with examples of ugly unconstitutional backroom deals, all too often receiving the post facto blessings of the higher judiciary. The last three decades have witnessed many political dramas. But as day follows night, it is the establishment that calls the shots.

Now it is intruding into almost every aspect of national policy — from training academies for civil servants to the Civil Aviation Authority. Qualifications don’t matter, contacts and the number of stars on your epaulette on retirement do.

Ultimately, if you aren’t a hunter in uniform, you are the prey.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2020