Will of the people

Published February 6, 2024
The writer is a barrister
The writer is a barrister

IN his autobiography Friends Not Masters, Ayub Khan wrote “our people are mostly uneducated and our politicians not so scrupulous. The people are capable of doing great things, but they can also be easily misled. Unfettered democracy can, therefore, prove dangerous”. As is the case with most dictators, the field marshal held deep disdain for politicians, as well as the judgement of the masses.

This utterly misguided narrative carries on, the essence of which is that the people simply do not know what is good for them.

Historically, those interfering in the democratic process always find a justification, ie, political and economic stability, good governance, peace and order, or the ‘genius’ of the people. Every supposed ‘reason’ is a cover for undemocratic interventions, whether overt or covert.

There is no past wrong which justifies the dismantling going on today. The Constitution guarantees that every citizen shall have the right to form or be a member of a political party. The courts have held that the right to form a political party includes the right to function as a political party. In violation of these rights, across provinces, there has been a crackdown on PTI workers. Attempts have been made to disrupt the election campaign of PTI candidates. Even virtual events have been met with internet disruption.

There is no past wrong which justifies the present dismantling.

The maintenance of public order laws have been used to keep politicians in custody. In the detailed judgement setting aside various detention orders, Justice Babar Sattar observed that between May and September 2023, the “overwhelming majority” of detainees were either leaders or members of the PTI. “Of the detention orders that were challenged before Islamabad High Court, not one order has been upheld as having been passed in accordance with law,” per Justice Sattar. Not one detention order. Either the deputy commissioner would withdraw the detention order, or the court would set it aside, or the detention period would lapse.

For anyone living in Pakistan this past year, it would be no surprise that the ECP took particular interest in the PTI’s intra-party elections. The Peshawar High Court rightly restored PTI’s election symbol, and held that the ECP could not question the intra-party election process. Instead of accepting the decision of the Peshawar High Court, the ECP was so determined that it took the matter right up to the Supreme Court.

Then, in a quest to supposedly uphold democracy within political parties, the Supreme Court was seen to undermine the electoral process in the country. It found that PTI failed to hold intra-party elections, and would, therefore, lose its election symbol. The most inexplicable part of this decision was that the law does not expressly contemplate depriving a political party of its election symbol on account of intra-party elections. This decision has done nothing except hurt the ordinary voter. This was not a case about an individual or a political party, it was about the disenfranchisement of millions of voters. Weeks after this regrettable decision, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah was entirely correct in holding, “electoral laws must be interpreted in favour of enfranchisement rather than disenfranchisement”.

Mere days before the elections, convictions in one case after another are being announced. In the cipher case, Imran Khan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi were denied the right to be represented by the counsel of their choice, and, instead, represented by state counsel. In the Toshakhana reference, the judge closed the right to cross-examine witnesses. At the heart of a fair trial is the right to be represented by the counsel of one’s choice, and to properly defend oneself. Hearings have been conducted well past court hours, and the great urgency with which these convictions are being announced is beyond any reasonable justification. It is clear that there has been no fair, impartial process in these cases.

The conviction in the ‘unlawful marriage’ case manifests the tragic extent of the weaponisation of justice. Unjustifiable aspersions have been cast on a woman’s character, and individuals have been forced into a courtroom to defend private decisions they made. The decision attacks the right to dignity, which the Constitution and the Supreme Court distinctly provide is an absolute right. There can be no restrictions on the right to dignity.

Those adamant on overriding the will of the people continue with their dismantling, instil fear, mock the voter, and make it seem that it is not worth one’s while to exercise their right to vote. But everyone must cast their vote on Feb 8. It is the day the people have a chance to make their voice heard, and for the future of our country, it is something we must all do.

The writer is a barrister.

X: @RidaHosain

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2024

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