The IHC six

Published April 2, 2024
The writer is a journalist
The writer is a journalist

LETTERS are the new black in Pakistani politics. If the week before it was about the letters related to Aitchison College, more recently, pen was put to paper in the Islamabad High Court. Off went the letter from the black-robed men to other black-robed men but on the way, it also appeared in many a social media inbox. It’s hard to keep secrets, especially the written kind, in Pakistan. And especially not when it concerns judges. Who would know this better than the Supreme Court residents?

The letter was a charge-sheet, no doubt, with its detailed account of intimidatory tactics, from kidnapping and violence to secret recordings. The shadowy figures who carry out such acts were evident to all who read the letter.

Since the letter, the IHC six as they have come to be known (a number here or there and Enid Blyton fans could have called them the Famous Five or Secret Seven) have been silent. It is as if they are all listening to the old song, ‘Mera prem patar parh kar, keh tum naraaz na hona …’ and rightly so because those they wrote to are abuzz. The big white building has been witness to visits and meetings in a bid to resolve the matter but the discomfort there is obvious from the fact that the news is leaking.

So far, the actions have been swift but perhaps not uncontroversial. Somehow a full court meeting led to the judiciary handing over the inquiry to the government, a part of the branch which has been put in the dock by the letter in a manner of speaking. And so, the ‘leaks’ tell us, few other than the government are happy. The judges are not and neither are the lawyers and the big man at the centre of it surely can’t be happy with the criticism — if one wants a boring word to describe all the chatter.

It is hard to tell whether this storm will pass quickly. But a storm it is.

Islamabad is swirling with reports, information and talk about how the full court meeting did not endorse with consensus the decision to let the other inhabitants of Constitution Avenue handle the matter, by forming a one-person commission. Most can guess the name of the dissenters who may have led this uncomfortable discussion. And now that they have been ignored, do we expect them to keep quiet and forever hold their silence? And even if they do, the IHC six would not have taken the plunge without giving a thought to what they would do in case their seniors and the government didn’t throw them a parachute.

So far there is no consensus on whether or not a helping hand has been offered; in other words, the commission seems to be in trouble already. The discussions in the tame mainstream media plus the unruly social media should have been enough to set ears on fire; then came the news that the son of the commission’s head had also signed a petition critical of the decision. This was not a good start for the retired chief justice if the family itself disapproved. He has since refused the position.

The unruly social media was reporting the possibility of a boycott of the commission or a new petition to the Supreme Court. The twists and turns are far from over. On Monday afternoon came the news that the chief justice had taken suo motu notice of the letter and that the issue will be heard by a seven-member bench.

It is hard to tell whether or not this storm will pass quickly. But a storm it is and for the moment it is here.

The point perhaps is not if this will or will not change the balance of power immediately. Perhaps the pressure will ease on some in the judiciary for a bit, while for others little will change. With time, the pressure may build up again. But undeniably, it also creates some pressure for the ‘other’ side.

This pressure builds up each time there is such a letter, or a judge refuses to do the ‘needful’, or there is fiery vlog or an outcry over an arrested journalist. Or when the international press highlights the flawed election process. Or when PTI holds a protest or Mohsin Dawar pens an article about how his election was stolen. Or even when a famous couple’s shifty efforts to get their kids’ school fee waived turns into a national headline.

Each one of these incidents, whether it lasts two days or six months or longer, puts a little more pressure on an already unstable situation.

This is how perhaps 2024 differs from 2007. This is not a moment where all the civilian forces are arrayed against a dictator and a dramatic culmination lulls us into thinking that we are at the cusp of a big change. This time around, it is a war of attrition, led by small groups and individual actions with no quick end in sight.

But perhaps, more than a decade after Musharraf’s departure, we have understood that it is not easy to bring down the edifice of a structure put into place over decades, through a year or two of agitation and street protests. Such victories, in hindsight, appear to be a mirage.

What if, instead, this is a war of attrition where with each such battle, the cost of maintaining the status quo goes up? With each such crisis, the centre of power is forced to realise that its capacity and capability are constantly being challenged? This forces a rethink within also, to cede space and to reach accommodation. And even if the decision is not taken immediately, it can spark a debate about the possible options available, rather than continuous expansion.

Perhaps it is for this reason that the events around us these days remind me of lectures on decolonisation during undergrad studies, where I learnt the British didn’t leave India because they had been defeated but because they felt the cost of maintaining the subcontinent was now beyond a power which had won a world war.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2024

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