I’D like to tell you a story, though forgive me, it’s one you’ve heard before. Several times in fact, and yet inexplicably, infuriatingly, its key assertion is still subject to confusion.
It begins with a man (always a man). The setting varies. Family gatherings, talk shows, drawing room conversations. A diverse range of opinions bounce around until a man decides it’s his turn to speak. First, a few words to get everyone’s attention. Eyes turn, a descent into silence, the floor is his. His mouth twists into a pained expression of contempt as he pauses, clearly struggling to carry the weight of the infinite wisdom he’s about to impart. ‘This country isn’t suited for democracy.’
What follows is a tirade about the nature of the Pakistani people. It paints them as uniquely inept, idiots for voting in the same people, desperately needing to be disciplined back to their senses. A prominent news analyst recently asserted to his audience of millions that Pakistan’s only salvation was 15 years of dictatorship, with anyone asking for democracy executed by firing squad. Then their family should pay for the bullets.
Khaled Hosseini wrote, “like a compass needle points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman”. So, as he makes one of these cynical tirades on television, the news analyst’s finger turns to the only one on the panel. She disagrees with him with firm composure, calmly dismantling his arguments.
Civilised debate takes a back seat.
And in that moment, I imagine he sees in her everything his worldview leads him to loathe. Someone young, female, educated, pro-democracy, and so far, safe from his firing squads. A split-second decision is made. Civilised debate and due process take a back seat, restraint is abandoned, and the man starts to shout at the woman.
We saw a similar abandonment of restraint last Sunday, albeit this one against the Constitution itself rather than an individual defending it. Before you see this as a partisan statement (I’m a legal analyst, not a political one), consider some simple facts.
Article 58 of the Constitution explicitly states that a prime minister facing a vote of no-confidence cannot dissolve the Assembly. The deputy speaker decided to get around this by rejecting the vote first. No constitutional provision allows such a move. So instead, a vague interpretation of Article 5 was relied upon. All this article does though, is lay out the duty to remain loyal to the state, and (wait for it) the Constitution.
Despite initial disinformation, a broad consensus among legal experts saw this act for what it was — a brazen violation. The only sparse counterarguments pointed towards Article 69, which sets out that the courts cannot inquire into parliament on the ground of irregularity of procedure. But as should be obvious, depriving elected representatives of their right to vote is more than just an irregularity. It’s an illegality.
The Supreme Court unanimously declared the deputy speaker’s action unconstitutional in an ultimate victory for the rule of law. And while there are plenty of commentators explaining the significance of the judgement, I’m equally interested in what led this saga to unfold in the first place.
See, to even fathom pulling off a constitutional violation, wrapping it up in the narrative of patriotism, and doing a victory dance for an audience of 220 million requires a unique cocktail of beliefs. A contempt for the majority, an assurance that one’s person is larger than the law, a certainty that you don’t know what’s best for you, but I do.
It’s a belief unbecoming of the ruling party of a nuclear-armed nation — the philosophy of dictators that raze through the Constitution and stifle dissent. The kind that makes you laugh at the law only to find that the law will have the last laugh. That compels you to avoid engaging with a journalist you don’t like and prefer invading his home and beating him up instead.
To adopt such a view was a critical mistake, and one can only hope those who made it will seek to rectify it. History has not been kind to those who violated the Constitution in the past, and in each such instance has been found a unique mix of narcissism and self-hatred. A contempt for one’s own people; a desire to punish them for their own good.
Daniel Wolfe wrote for the New York Times in 1989: “In Pakistan, a common dinner-party conversation finds the guests fantasising the deconstruction of the state.” Today, we fantasise about who can drop the biggest ‘surprise’, when to further bamboozle our opponents, how next to sacrifice the rule of law at the altar of our own egos.
‘Democracy is overrated’ say men at dinner tables, talk shows, chairs of the National Assembly. But in the single woman calmly dismantling their arguments, I see hope. That the Constitution may prevail, that the people of Pakistan can make decisions for themselves, and that no aspiring authoritarian can tell them otherwise.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2022