Hope for rule of law

25 Oct 2020


The writer is a lawyer based in London.
The writer is a lawyer based in London.

THE difference couldn’t have been starker. In his address to the Gujranwala rally, Nawaz Sharif spent the first few minutes asking his supporters how they were doing. Did they have enough to eat? Or were the rising costs making life too hard for them? By contrast, Imran Khan spent the first part of his retaliatory address instructing his Tigers that they must be quiet and listen to him. Later, he told them that only if they are quiet and listen will they be able to enjoy his performance.

While Sharif focused on the requisites of establishing a functioning democracy, recalling past politicians from disparate backgrounds historically maligned by the state and directly naming those previously only alluded to as impediments, Khan mocked political opponents. This was in response to the PDM’s first rally. Then they had a second, in Karachi.

It was more successful than the first. A few hours later, Maryam Nawaz’s husband, retired Capt Safdar, was arrested from their hotel room in the wee hours of the morning, on the pretext of sloganeering at Fatima Jinnah’s memorial. The sloganeering by Capt Safdar was unbecoming and undignified, but the manner of the arrest was far worse. Barging into a hotel room, violating basic norms of privacy, the response by law enforcement was entirely disproportionate to the offence.

But much more troublingly, reports emerged suggesting that the Sindh IG had been compelled to order the arrest under duress, by the sector commander, comparatively ranking lower than an IG but able to push above his weight. Naturally, this raises very serious concerns about the rule of law in Pakistan. It wasn’t too long ago that we heard of journalist Matiullah Jan, an outspoken critic of the security establishment, being ‘picked up’ and then arbitrarily released after outrage on social media.

The PDM has already precipitated change.

Two years ago, an SP of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police, Tahir Dawar, whose valiant efforts against extremism had resulted in unquestionable gains, went missing from Islamabad. He was taken across the border to Afghanistan, and then murdered. His body bore torture marks. At the time, it was suggested that his support for the PTM was not viewed kindly by the state apparatus. An investigation is yet to be conducted into his brutal murder.

There is only so much that can be brushed under the carpet. At some point the people of Pakistan will demand answers, and increasingly it seems that the time has come. There was much scepticism around the formation of the PDM. How can political opponents share a stage? Any of these politicians would willingly cut a deal with the security establishment if the latter so wanted, we are told. How can liberal Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari come together with conservative Fazlur Rehman?

The point is that when the law is so callously disregarded, when the very premise on which states stand and societies function is so gravely under threat, we should be pleased that the political parties have come together and demanded that we adhere to the Constitution and that the law of the land be followed. What could be better than agreement on this fundamental principle from all federating units and political views across the liberal-conservative divide?

The PDM, in the short period of time since its inception, has already precipitated change and hope. When Maryam Nawaz speaks out for the rights of Baloch students to study in Punjab’s universities, a right granted to them under the 18th Amendment that the present government has reneged on, that is worth celebrating. When the Sindh Bar Council writes a letter in support of the Sindh Police and beseeches the judiciary to take notice of the interference by the establishment in civil and administrative functions, that too is worth lauding. When that is then echoed by the Pakistan Bar Council, there is hope that a national consciousness is emerging around the precursors to a functioning democracy. And when Mohsin Dawar talks about the need for democratic parties to rethink the relationship between the political worker and leadership, that too is inspiring.

Whether the politicians have come together for self-interest or how falsely Indian media reports on these developments should be entirely irrelevant to the legitimate struggle for democratic values and institution building in Pakistan.

Much has also been said about the role of women and minorities in a movement presided by a cleric. This is absolutely a valid concern and we must be very vigilant on this point. However, the polite manner in which Fazlur Rehman addressed Maryam Nawaz during the Karachi press conference, offering her the microphone first, was in contrast to Imran Khan, who it appeared was trying to depict Shireen Mazari, PTI’s most prominent female voice, as a weakling in his speech to the Tiger Force.

The writer is a lawyer based in London.

Twitter: @ayeshaijazkhan

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2020