If the law is against you

Published May 25, 2022
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara. The views expressed are his own.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara. The views expressed are his own.

“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.’ — Carl Sandburg

THE latter option has been in vogue lately. In a press conference held this month, the (now former) governor of Punjab announced his intent to file a reference in the Supreme Judicial Council against the Hon’ble Justice Jawad Hassan of the Lahore High Court.

Article 209 of the Constitution sets out that a decision by this council is the only way a judge can be removed from office. It also explicitly states the circumstances in which a reference can be filed: if the judge is either “incapable of performing the duties of office” or found “guilty of misconduct”.

How gravely had the justice sinned to fall under the cross hairs of such a move, you may ask? Well, to put it simply, he wrote a judgement that the governor didn’t like. After Punjab had been without a chief minister for several weeks because of the governor’s refusal to administer the oath, Justice Jawad ordered for the National Assembly Speaker to do the deed and get things over with.

Now you might disagree with this decision, and you’re entitled to. The governor did, so before going on the offensive in his press conference, he laid out his interpretation of the Constitution: that only he could administer the oath. The next day, he proceeded to demonstrate his understanding of the said Constitution by writing a letter to the army chief expressing his ‘real anxiety’ and requesting an ‘intervention’.

The norms you create will be used against you.

This was followed by the Rambo-esque demand for just four soldiers, with whose help Mr Governor was apparently to lead a heroic commando operation to arrest the chief minister, reclaim power, and save the day.

You really can’t make this stuff up, but you’d be mistaken to think it was an isolated incident. Power intoxicates, and the slightest sip can lead many to believe that theirs is eternal. This, coupled with the seemingly sincere belief that one’s opponents are a unique evil that ought to be eradicated at all costs, leads normal people to justify flagrant illegalities — with the rationale that the ends justify the means.

This idea has recurred throughout Pakistan’s history, most notably under a label called ‘doctrine of necessity’. To put it lightly, it never ended well. What was otherwise unlawful (coups mostly) was tolerated as the last remaining option in the face of seemingly fatal alternatives. But even if your opponent is truly evil, is it worth ripping apart the law to spite them?

The 1966 film A Man for All Seasons addresses this question. William Roper exclaims: “I’d cut down every law in England to [get the devil]!” Sir Thomas More responds: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast … and if you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the devil the benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake.”

This is easier said than done, and what it entails is swallowing your pride when things don’t go your way. For example, when a high court judgement is decided against you, there are legal means to appeal it. Trying hopelessly to fire the judge is not one of them. Attempts to strong-arm the judiciary into doing one’s bidding deal a heavy blow to public trust and future precedent. After all, power is a painfully transient thing, and once it’s gone, the new norms you create will inevitably be used against you.

To accept the legitimacy of state institutions when their decisions are in your fav­our, to drag them thr­o­ugh the mud when they’re not, and to publicly imp­lore others to violate their oath and transgress their constitutional limits to save your own skin is an assault on the foundations of one’s country. It’s to state that if the system isn’t working in your favour, you’d rather burn it down and rule over ash and rubble.

And perhaps the most unsettling feature of this recent trend is how consistently it comes wrapped in the language of loyalty and courage. Those at the forefront of constitutional transgressions aren’t just content with their actions. They’re taking victory laps, painting themselves as their leader’s most sincere followers, the ones willing to sacrifice everything at the altar of their loyalty.

To their supporters, narratives like these are powerful. Who cares if you’re cutting down the law? It’s to spite the devil (ie everyone who disagrees with us), and all is fair in love and Pakistani politics, right? But this ignores a simple truth.

Fighting till the very end to defend yourself might appear bold and defiant, but it’s not admirable. Animals do that too. You know what’s really brave? Putting yourself second. And fighting for something bigger.

The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara. The views expressed are his own.

Twitter: @hkwattoo1

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2022

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