We have been systematically and successfully undermining the façade of constitutionalism and the impartiality of our judicial and military institutions for years. What we are now reaping is the harvest of an utterly foolish experiment in hybridism. Are principles made only to be discarded?

Illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque
Illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque

Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay
To mould me Man? Did I solicit thee,
From darkness to promote me?

— Paradise Lost, John Milton

In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous Gothic novel, the brilliant scientist Frankenstein creates a living being which, out of fear, he abandons to its fate.

Rejected by the world and his creator, the embittered creature remonstrates with Frankenstein — “Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.” The scientist initially relents but, when he forsakes the creature again, it warns him of revenge — “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”

To face abandonment when seeking nurture, to encounter neutrality when expecting support — the denial of entitlement inevitably evokes powerful emotions. Every parent weaning a child quickly learns how narrow the line between gratitude and rage is.

Our generals and judges are learning it too.

To be fair, Imran Khan made every attempt to let his creators know what would happen if he were abandoned to the vicissitudes of the political world. He told them what he thought of “neutrality”. He warned them, like Frankenstein’s creature, how much more dangerous he would be if returned to the streets shorn of fear and the trappings of high office. Now he is showing them. And, at least some of them, are running scared.

In the popular portrayal, Frankenstein’s creature is a monster — a fearsome being consumed with hatred for mankind and its creator. Shelley’s original novel paints a far more nuanced picture of hubris and betrayal. But since the publication of Frankenstein, the brash experimenter and the experiment gone wrong have become a recurrent theme in apocalyptic science fiction.

Polarisation has reached a level where rank and vile abuse masquerade as political critique. Protests are held, not in public squares, but outside homes of politicians (and their ex-wives), and even in the Masjid-i-Nabawi.

Many read Khan’s heralded entry and ignominious exit as further proof of Pindi’s omnipotence and ability to change civilian governments at will. But when an elaborately conceived and tortuously designed experiment spirals out of control in just three years, forcing its designers to pull the plug and beat an undignified retreat, does it really evidence omnipotence?

The experiment has devoured, and continues to devour, much time, effort and money (both rupee spent and rupee lost) in a nation unblessed with luxuries. In the private sector, it would be time to summon the bean-counters: auditors and consultants would descend to tally losses and affix blame. Heads would roll. That is far too ambitious, of course, for our public institutions. But is it too much to ask for at least some introspection and internal review of the cost and results of the experiment?

TAKING STOCK

A 2014 photo shows protesters storming the PTV headquarters | AP/File
A 2014 photo shows protesters storming the PTV headquarters | AP/File

Today, the rule of law lies in tatters. After a brief flowering in the post-Gen Musharraf era, fundamental rights and civil liberties have been in continuous retreat for many years now. Censorship of the media, the intimidation of journalists and political activists, and the filing of frivolous cases against political opponents have been commonplace for a while. But in the last two months, we have still managed to plumb new lows.

The highest constitutional functionaries sworn to preserve the Constitution brazenly defy it. The speaker of the National Assembly refuses to even count the votes of parliamentarians. The President of Pakistan refuses to follow the advice of the prime minister. Members of the Punjab Assembly thrash their speaker for daring to hold elections in compliance with court orders. The Governor of Punjab refuses to administer oaths to the chief minister-elect and his cabinet; leaving the largest province without a government.

Polarisation has reached a level where rank and vile abuse masquerade as political critique. Protests are held, not in public squares, but outside homes of politicians (and their ex-wives), and even in the Masjid-i-Nabawi. Bizarre, outlandish conspiracy theories crowd out substantive discussions about our urgent economic and social problems.

The doctrine of political neutrality is the most powerful defence available to any professional service. It allows judges, army officers and bureaucrats to escape public ire by pointing out they don’t make law or policy but only interpret or implement it.

Meanwhile, the reputation of our armed forces and judiciary is in freefall. Their highest officers are abused — not just by trolls on social media but openly by political leaders and supporters in rallies, marketplaces and airport lounges. To counter those attacks, the Director-General Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) must hold press conferences and high courts issue press releases, while the Chief Justice of Pakistan voices his bitter complaints from the bench. But except for those employed (or motivated by patent self-interest) to do so, there is barely a voice in defence.

The institutions themselves are clearly divided. Reportedly, the army chief has had to engage in multiple meetings with serving and retired officers to try and bring them round to his point of view. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, is so riven it cannot even convene a full court or larger bench without judges openly sniping at one another.

How did we ever end up here? Put simply — we are reaping the harvest of an utterly foolish experiment in hybridism. The experiment entailed the sacrifice of some principles and involved incurring costs. It is only now we are realising the price was too high.

INSTITUTIONAL ABANDONMENT OF IMPARTIALITY

A file photo shows Maj-Gen Azhar Naveed distributing cash among TLP protesters
A file photo shows Maj-Gen Azhar Naveed distributing cash among TLP protesters

The doctrine of political neutrality is the most powerful defence available to any professional service. It allows judges, army officers and bureaucrats to escape public ire by pointing out they don’t make law or policy but only interpret or implement it. For such services to abandon the safe haven of neutrality and harness their fortunes to political movements resting upon the whimsical tides of public opinion (even if they do so with the noblest intentions of furthering “the national interest”) is an act of prime folly.

Eight years ago, when Khan climbed on to a container and pleaded for the “umpire’s finger” against an elected government, he should have been sternly rebuffed. The storming of the state television headquarters — the opening gambit of every aspirant coup-maker or revolutionary — could not possibly be condoned. Instead, both the military and judicial institutions chose to mollycoddle him. They continued to do so at nearly every stage over the next eight years — making their preferences overt. Those preferences have come to haunt them.

For years, it was systematically impressed upon the public mind that both the armed forces and the judiciary were on the “same page” as the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government. We were told that this was in the supreme “national interest”. All PTI leaders would proudly and publicly flaunt this institutional support in their rallies and talk shows (and, with many more corroboratory details, in private).

They would openly cite it as a reason why the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) could never return to power. Not once were they snubbed for their presumptuousness. In fact, every statement that emerged from the ISPR or was uttered from the bench only seemed to confirm this understanding.

As a result, an entire generation has grown up with the expectation that these institutions can, and should, pick sides. It is only wrong when they pick the other side. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this generation is shocked at the reversion to ‘neutrality’. They see it as an immoral betrayal.

Khan — revelling in his new role as demagogue — deliberately feeds the fury of his supporters against the military and judiciary with his taunts about the ‘neutrality of animals’ and barely veiled references to Mir Sadiq and Mir Jafar.

Of course, political intervention is not new for our military or for our judiciary. But every overt intervention — from the days of Ayub Khan and Muhammad Munir onwards — has eventually been met with public disgrace for the prime actors, and has been followed by a period of institutional retreat. Covert interventions, by their very nature, may (temporarily) avoid such public opprobrium.

There is, however, a qualitative difference in the intervention over the past eight years. Firstly, although it was technically a covert intervention, it was conducted in a manner as overt as possible. Plausible deniability was thrown to the wind. Secondly, it was conducted in the age of Twitter trends, vlogs and WhatsApp forwards. What was previously alluded to in hushed whispers, and through cryptic signals within elite circles, is now loudly debated in your local chai shop.

An entire generation has grown up with the expectation that these institutions can, and should, pick sides. It is only wrong when they pick the other side.

For example, in a previous era, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s notification pursuant to the so-called ‘Dawn Leaks’ inquiry may have triggered a tense meeting between the military top brass and the civilian government. In 2017, the DG ISPR (a mere Major General) was able to tweet — “notification is rejected” — out to his millions of followers.

And to completely remove any doubt about where the political preferences of the armed forces lay, right after the Results Transmission System (RTS) stuttered to an inexplicable halt on election eve in 2018 and it became apparent that the PTI had defeated the PML-N, the DG ISPR sent a jubilatory tweet in Quranic verse: “Allah honours whom He pleases and dishonours whom He pleases.

Similarly, although many opposition movements and rallies in our political history are said to have enjoyed the covert support of intelligence agencies, it was utterly unprecedented for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — through then Maj Gen Faiz Hameed — to directly sign on as a “guarantor” to the Faizabad peace treaty between the Nawaz Sharif government and the deceased Khadim Rizvi of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan.

It was even more unprecedented for another ranking army officer to openly distribute money (in full uniform, no less) to the participants of that mob. Surely, such tasks could have been outsourced? But no, the very purpose was to send a clear and unmistakable message about where the military stood vis a vis the PML-N government.

Judges, above all, are trained to appreciate the importance of propriety. They understand that observance of the proper process of arriving at a result is often just as important, if not more important, than the result itself. It lies at the heart of the well-known judicial maxim — “justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.

But round about 2017, otherwise brilliant judges such as Saqib Nisar suddenly and inexplicably cast aside considerations of jurisprudential caution, due process and propriety, and plunged headlong into every political thicket they could find.

There is a memorable passage in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, between the famous jurist and philosopher Thomas More and his more impetuous son-in-law, William Roper, who indignantly asks him whether he would give the Devil the benefit of law. When More replies in the affirmative, Roper scornfully tells him he would cut down every law in England to go after the Devil.

More’s answer is the perfect riposte to the closet vigilante that lurks in the chest of so many Pakistanis who should know better. “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… And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

The period shall forever be marked for its questionable jurisprudence. At the conclusion of the hearings in Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification case, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa observed, “We will decide this case only by the law, such that people will say, 20 years down the line, that this judgement was made by the book.” Five years on, it is still hard to understand how the non-declaration of an unreceived 10,000 dirham salary can be deemed an act of dishonesty justifying the removal and disqualification of an elected prime minister.

Perhaps many in the Supreme Court find the logic in Nawaz Sharif’s case equally hard to follow — which is why half the parliament is not sitting at home disqualified for the unconscionable sin of not listing “a receivable” as an asset.

A little later, however, the Supreme Court also stripped Nawaz of his office as party head and pronounced that his disqualification from contesting electoral office was for life. In the latter case, the apex Court held that, because the Constitution is silent about how long a person who has shown himself not to be “sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and ameen” should remain disqualified, it ought to be presumed such disqualification is for life.

It is noteworthy that Article 63 (h) of our Constitution provides that even a person convicted and jailed for an offence involving moral turpitude may contest elections after five years from his release. So, as per the Supreme Court’s interpretation, the underlying spirit and intent of the legislature, while framing Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution, was that an actual murderer may become a member of parliament five years after his release, but someone who omits to declare a salary should remain disqualified for life.

However, the apex court applied a dramatically different standard in Khan’s case. Despite recognising that Khan had admittedly concealed his London flat in his Pakistani tax returns filed after 1981, thus making him “a violator in relation at least to his duty under the Wealth Tax Act, 1963”, they did not hold it to be an act of dishonesty. Instead, they held the concealment stood cured once Khan declared the flat and paid the requisite penalty under the tax amnesty scheme of 2000.

Notably, the apex court elided the question whether a tax amnesty scheme, introduced through subordinate legislation and intended to protect a person against prosecution and recovery proceedings under tax laws, could also protect him from the entirely separate consequences of dishonesty specified under Article 62 of the Constitution.

Even more crucially (and in contrast to the elaborate investigations conducted by the Supreme Court-nominated Joint Investigation Team in Nawaz Sharif’s case) the court refused to direct the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to produce Khan’s nomination form for the 1997 elections, which would have clearly established whether he had concealed the flat in that form too.

The apex court took a different view of accounting principles too. Khan bought his London flat through an offshore company in Jersey, Channel Islands. Even after declaring the flat, he did not separately declare his beneficial ownership of the offshore company in any of his election nomination forms. The court held, however, that this was of no significance because the only real asset of the company was the flat — and that had been duly declared.

Fair enough. But what the court ignored was that, even after the sale of the London flat, the offshore company had subsequently recovered 42,000 pounds in rental dues from a past tenant. How is it that an unreceived salary must be listed as an asset but rental dues actually received do not need to be?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the court had already concluded Nawaz Sharif was dishonest and should be excluded from Pakistani politics, whilst reaching the opposite conclusion about Khan, and then decided to work backwards to justify those results. Ends justifying the means cannot be the basis of any coherent judicial philosophy.

The underlying problem is that Imran Khan and his team are not content with a level playing field. They insist that they are engaged in a holy war between good and evil, and everyone must clearly pick a side.

Other disquieting occurrences strengthened the perception that sides had been chosen. For example, it is not unprecedented for the apex court to order the constitution of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) or even to directly nominate members of such a JIT. But it is certainly not ‘by the book’ for the court to initially pass a written order, leaving it to the discretion of a departmental head to nominate any appropriate officer to the JIT, and then for the registrar of the court to make secret WhatsApp calls to that departmental head, advising the nomination of a particular officer!

But the oddness of this pales against the astonishing case of Judge Arshad Malik. After convicting Nawaz Sharif on charges of corruption, he was surreptitiously recorded on video admitting he had been blackmailed and pressured into doing so by intelligence agencies and the superior judiciary. Shortly afterwards, he backtracked and swore an affidavit claiming it was actually the Sharifs who had blackmailed him into recording such a video.

Understandably, the Supreme Court considered the matter serious enough to take direct cognizance under Article 184 (3) of the Constitution. After all, no matter which version was true, it either pointed to gross subversion of the judicial process by a former prime minister or the same at the hands of intelligence officers and senior judges. It was a matter more important, surely, than even the original offence of corruption alleged against Sharif. More than sufficient, one would have thought, to justify a full-fledged judicial inquiry or even constitution of a JIT to investigate the affair.

Instead, after a brief hearing, the apex Court declined to do either. It did not take Judge Arshad Malik to task, nor did it opine on the impact his egregious misconduct would have on the validity or propriety of the Sharif trial.

Instead, after taking great pains to elaborate no less than 21 tests that Arshad Malik’s video would need to meet before the Sharifs could use it as evidence of misconduct (one of the tests being that the maker of the video must show he had made it as part of his routine duties and not for the purposes of trapping the judge!), the court held it would not be appropriate to interfere further and left everyone to their own fate.

But what, then, was even the purpose of the Article 184 (3) proceedings? Only to rule out the admissibility of the video? After all, if the other factual and legal aspects involved in the shameful episode could be left for determination by the appropriate investigative agencies, lower courts and/or disciplinary forums — so too could the admissibility of that video evidence.

The seemingly selective application of suo motu was also concerning. The PPP government in Sindh and the PML-N government in the centre and in Punjab met with a phalanx of suo motu inquiries by the apex court. On the other hand, the PTI governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the centre and Punjab (post-2018) largely escaped that level of scrutiny.

It was not that there were no scandals in the latter administrations. The widely reported illegalities and alleged corruption in the Malam Jabba chairlift project and the Peshawar Metro spring readily to mind. These cases were, perhaps, all the more worthy of judicial inquiry given that NAB decided them unworthy of further probe. It is hard to reconcile this judicial reticence with images of Saqib Nisar, then Chief Justice of Pakistan, personally leading an early-morning raid to the hospital room of PPP Minister Sharjeel Inam Memon, and triumphantly recovering two bottles of alcohol.

Newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif speaks at the National Assembly | PID
Newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif speaks at the National Assembly | PID

Saqib Nisar’s visit to Khan’s house after his ouster as prime minister and his speeches attacking the judiciary have only reinforced Khan’s perceived status as a ‘favoured child of the law.’ The visit and its timing has naturally given rise to speculation whether it was at Khan’s or the former Chief Justice’s instance, and whether it was to receive or convey a message. But it has done nothing to burnish the judiciary’s reputation for neutrality.

Barring the singular exception of the judgement in the National Assembly Vote of No Confidence case, PTI continues to enjoy good fortune in litigation before the apex court. When faced with possible adverse votes in the Senate elections, President Arif Alvi sent a reference to the Supreme Court asking for its advice whether the Senate elections needed to be by secret ballot.

One would have thought the question was quite easily answered. Article 226 of the Constitution says, “All elections under the Constitution, other than those of the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister, shall be by secret ballot.” After indulging the Attorney General for 16-days in his argument that Senate elections should not be considered to be elections under the Constitution, the court eventually concluded that, although Senate elections are held under the Constitution, nonetheless “secrecy is not absolute [and] has not to be implemented in its ideal or absolute sense”!

Similar judicial creativity is evident in the recent opinion of the Supreme Court in President Arif Alvi’s reference regarding the fate of defectors. Article 63-A clearly says that parliamentarians who disobey their party head’s instructions in a vote of no confidence shall lose their seats (if their party heads and the ECP so declare). It does not say their vote shall not be counted.

By holding so, the Supreme Court has practically deleted Article 95 of the Constitution, as no prime minister or chief minister with a simple majority can now ever be voted out. Equally, it has made Article 63-A of the Constitution effectively redundant. What fool would ever cast his vote against the directions of his party head, knowing his vote will not even be counted? As the minority opinion holds, it amounts to rewriting the Constitution.

And while this opinion (coupled with the initiation of suo motu into the wrongful transfers and postings in prosecution agencies by the Shahbaz Sharif government) appears to have mollified the PTI’s anger at the midnight opening of courts, it is only a temporary reprieve. The underlying problem is that Imran Khan and his team are not content with a level playing field. They insist that they are engaged in a holy war between good and evil, and everyone must clearly pick a side.

On the other end, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition leaders complain the apex court never bothered to initiate suo motu proceedings into the blatantly partisan attitude of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) under the PTI government (despite such partisanship being noted by some Supreme Court judges themselves), or the manner in which the PTI government successfully hamstrung the prosecution in the storming of PTV case against Khan and the senior PTI leadership.

It is hard for the powerful to resist the temptation to wield power. More so when one feels one can shift the nation’s trajectory towards a better future. But it is that discipline that maintains the long term credibility of our professional institutions. The abandonment of that discipline has had terrible consequences for the reputation of our institutions and ushered in a relatively new trend in our politics.

Since 2018, Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Fazlur Rehman have been publicly blaming the army for removing Nawaz and bringing Imran to power. Coy references to ‘the establishment’ were replaced by names of specific generals and brigadiers and judges. Once the dam of reticence broke, those names were taken everywhere. Cited not only by politicians, but even by other judges in judgments and affidavits. The PTI’s game of name and shame is only a continuation and intensification of that trend. This trend shall continue to gain strength unless and until institutions can reestablish their distance from politics.

Over the last few years, we have been systematically and successfully undermining the façade of constitutionalism and the impartiality of our judicial and military institutions. Is it any surprise, therefore, that both institutions are viewed as overtly political actors and subjected to the vitriol previously reserved for politicians?

By 2018, half the electorate was convinced the military and judicial establishments were conspiring against their choice of leader. In 2022, the other half is equally convinced. The two sides disagree on everything except the shared conviction that our judges and generals play politics. It does not bode well for the future.

DISCORD AND DISSENSIONS WITHIN INSTITUTIONS

The other fallout of this experiment in hybridism has been the rise of unprecedented dissensions and discord within the military and judicial institutions.

The unity of command doctrine within the military means it has done a better job at papering over those divisions. But close observers have pointed out the existence of pro-Imran and anti-Imran factions even at the three-star level. This is the inevitable consequence of swinging strongly in one direction and then abruptly reversing course. Our army does not want for significant military challenges in the region. It cannot possibly afford to devote so much time to divisive politics.

But the judiciary is clearly the worst sufferer of the experiment. As noted above, the TLP dharna in Faizabad badly exposed the partiality of the military institution. Simultaneously, it also laid the seeds of division within the judicial institution.

Both the Islamabad High Court and the Supreme Court initiated proceedings in relation to the dharna, which laid the seeds for the present divisions within the judiciary. Not coincidentally, both judges who passed strictures against the involvement of intelligence agencies in the dharna were visited with references. One was against Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court. Not one to take anything lying down, Shaukat Siddiqui responded by publicly accusing the ISI and Gen Faiz Hameed of manipulating judicial proceedings and trying to secure verdicts against Nawaz Sharif with the connivance of then Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court, Anwar Kasi.

Over the past eight years, we have become habituated to the encroachments upon our freedom of speech and our civil liberties. We have come to accept channels and anchorpersons being unconstrained by any reference to objective truths or even the norms of common decency.

The other reference, against Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court, is now disowned by ex-PM Imran Khan and his former cabinet members, who claim to have been misled by the former law minister, Farogh Naseem. The latter, in turn, has placed the blame squarely back on the ex-PM.

But by the time the reference was politically orphaned, it had already torn the Supreme Court in two. Judges who considered the reference against Isa to be motivated by malice and liable to be quashed forthwith, clearly clashed with those who wished to take the matter further. The former sent letters to the chief justice alleging they were being deliberately excluded from the bench hearing the case. The latter accused the former, in open court, of trying to drown their voice and eventually penned an unusually bitter dissent against the judgment allowing Isa’s review. The wounds have yet to heal.

In his farewell speech, senior judge Maqbool Baqar felt it necessary to remind his brethren, “[w]e must remain conscious of the mandate of the Constitution and not substitute our moral and political beliefs for the express command of the Constitution. Unbridled judicial activism spells the death of the rule of law.

He complained that the “[e]xclusion of certain judges from the hearing of sensitive cases on account of their independent and impartial views has an adverse effect on the impartiality of judges while also tarnishing the public’s perception about the independence and integrity of the judiciary.

He also lamented — “[c]an this country expect us to be temperate, balanced, and respectful when we are incapable of displaying the most common of civility and courtesy to our own colleagues?

It has been far too high a cost to pay.

PERVERSIONS IN THE MEDIA AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE

Beyond the internal workings of institutions, the experiment also extracted its toll on public discourse and the exercise of civil liberties generally. Some time during Nawaz Sharif’s government (some date it to Hamid Mir’s attempted assassination), the military establishment and intelligence agencies decided to take a far more robust approach to controlling media narratives.

The successful shutdown of Geo, arguably the most popular news channel in Pakistan — albeit in response to an act of extraordinary irresponsibility — was a lesson to all other news channels and media personnel. At the same time, their ability to do so, without any effective judicial interference or unsustainable public outcry, convinced our intelligence agencies that there was practically no limit to the extent of their power.

It became a precursor to the most draconian restrictions on the freedom of speech ever witnessed during civilian government. Television channels carrying the wrong news or hosting the wrong guests would suddenly be taken off air by cable operators. And no one, not the judiciary and certainly not Pemra, could do anything about it. Needless to say, channels that don’t get aired don’t get advertisements either. So the owners of the channels became much more receptive to advice from appropriate quarters about the right narrative to present.

Journalists unable or unwilling to understand the new rules were eventually asked by the owners of their channels to move on. At various periods, prominent and popular journalists including Talat Hussain, Nusrat Javed, Najam Sethi, Hamid Mir, Amber Shamsi and various others became persona non grata at all media outlets. More stubborn ones, such as Matiullah Jan, Absar Alam or Asad Ali Toor were abducted, shot or thrashed.

Social media did not escape attention either. New draconian provisions were inserted in laws like the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) to allow dissident voices to be more effectively silenced through midnight raids by investigation agencies. But it was not only about shutting down opposing voices. A new breed of media personnel and social media trolls were simultaneously cultivated to loudly and aggressively propagate one point of view with scant regard for truth or more traditional journalistic values. They were then used to facilitate and build a national narrative in favour of the 2018 regime change and to sustain the PTI government.

It is said that a frog thrown in boiling water will immediately jump out. But a frog placed in water that is gently and gradually heated will eventually boil alive before he realises he needs to jump. Over the past eight years, we have become habituated to the encroachments upon our freedom of speech and our civil liberties. We have come to accept channels and anchorpersons being unconstrained by any reference to objective truths or even the norms of common decency. Our courts, tasked with protection of our fundamental rights, remained mostly silent.

But the basic miscalculation those pulling the strings from behind made (and one they’ve made with others earlier) was in not realising one’s narratives and creatures can spin out of control. When they enjoy uncontested space for years, they take a life of their own. It is no longer possible to switch them off whenever they become inconvenient.

So once again, it is back to the drawing board. Today, Shehbaz Sharif smugly occupies, by fervid invitation, a seat snatched from his brother only five-years back. His moustachioed Minister of Interior demands he be extended the same cooperation from our military and judiciary in crushing the right of speech and protest of his opponents that he claims was extended to the PTI during their government.

By any metric — social, political, economic and legal — Pakistan has regressed. And all that the masters of our destiny have earned from their failed experiment is public disrepute and discord within their own ranks.

Perhaps Mary Shelley put it best: 

“Man,” I cried, “how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”


The writer is a lawyer and a former president of the Sindh High Court Bar Association. He tweets @SalAhmedPK

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 29th, 2022

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