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Opportunism in retrospect

Updated May 12, 2011

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Aitzaz Ahsan (2nd L), president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and lawyers and political workers gather to sit-in during a protest for the restoration of deposed judges in Lahore August 28, 2008. Thousands of lawyers blocked roads across Pakistan on Thursday to press the government to reinstate judges purged by former president Pervez Musharraf, as militants attacked police in the northwest, killing 11 people.   REUTERS/Mohsin Raza   (PAKISTAN)
Aitzaz Ahsan (2nd L), president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and lawyers and political workers gather to sit-in during a protest for the restoration of deposed judges in Lahore August 28, 2008. Thousands of lawyers blocked roads across Pakistan on Thursday to press the government to reinstate judges purged by former president Pervez Musharraf, as militants attacked police in the northwest, killing 11 people. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza (PAKISTAN)
File: Karachi was under siege as violence reigned supreme on May 12, 2007. At the end of the day, 34 people were dead and hundreds injured.— AP Photo
File: Karachi was under siege as violence reigned supreme on May 12, 2007. At the end of the day, 34 people were dead and hundreds injured.— AP Photo

File: Karachi was under siege as violence reigned supreme on May 12, 2007. At the end of the day, 34 people were dead and hundreds injured.— AP Photo

Four long years have passed by since May 12 and things that had seemingly gone awry for a day have become permanently worse for some in many parts of the city.

The one-day blood and gore fest now punctuates the lives of ordinary citizens most days of the weeks. Today would be the fourth anniversary, commemoration or condemnation – whichever one fits the bill for what was intended or unintended that day by whoever concerned – of the unarguably brutally-executed judicial-political face-off.

They say history gives perspective and in retrospect it seems even May 12 does too: one that reinforces the streak of opportunism in politicians and the judiciary alike. Just going over the newspapers pre- and post-May 12, 2007 would be enough to re-enforce the shaky foundations on which the pillars – the executive, the bureaucracy and the judiciary – of this country work. Then the executive was under a military dictator whose pet phrase was that he believes in democracy, the judiciary was and still is under a man who had new-found respect for principles (notwithstanding his own oath-taking under an illegally promulgated ordinance) and the bureaucracy was as it is as now, a silent spectator.

I still remember on the eve of May 12, I had attended a rather risqué outing at a local hotel. It was titled the Lebanese Nights, belly-dancing show cum buffet Lebanese dinner, and no one in the room had been affected by the build-up of the tension in the city or could have even expected the way the city was paralysed – the women were too busy eating, the men too busy ogling. By the time we had gotten home, it was past mid-night and the Sindh government had declared Saturday a public holiday. It was such a late and silent announcement, that one newspaper reported the next day: “Many people did not know about it and were stranded at bus stops.” Many of them would face the wrath that was unleashed in this strange stand-off between the MQM and ANP, the MQM and religious parties, the chief justice and the MQM.

Statements from all parties and players had come out with regularity and no one wanted to back down let alone bend backwards to facilitate the other. On May 10, MQM insisted that it would not change the route of its rallies. It wanted to show who was the boss and got its way. "We have no objection to the CJP’s visit and his address at the bar. We respect the office of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, but we are against the political jugglery in the name of independence of judiciary," Dr Farooq Sattar had said. Their rally was against the "religious and political parties" wanting to destabilise the military government.

The same day in Islamabad, Tariq Mehmood, the CJ’s counsel, maintained that "Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry will leave for Karachi by a Saturday morning flight to address the Sindh High Court Bar (SHCB) and there had been no change in the itinerary of the chief justice."

While this war of words went on, Pir Pagara, chief of PML (Functional) – rather non-functional – came out with his signature cryptic messages. "Why are you talking about elections? You should talk about martial law. To my mind, its promulgation is round the corner." Pagara was wrong there but he was right on one count for a change: "Pakistan’s momentous decisions were taken in drawing rooms and not in rallies."

And then on the fateful day itself, 34 people lost their lives and 140 others were injured. Many others succumbed to their injuries. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was perched at the lounge of the Karachi airport and after a 12 hour non-productive day, as he wasn’t allowed to leave the premises, and he flew back to Islamabad without addressing a lawyers' convention on the premises of the Sindh High Court.

Now little talked about, but then fraying nerves left right and centre, President Gen Pervez Musharraf was not to be left behind and had chimed at his own rally in Rawalpindi: "The people of Pakistan are with me, therefore, I do not see any justification whatsoever to impose emergency. But what has happened today in Karachi is because of the chief justice who went there ignoring the advice of the government over the issue… Now that the full court will be deciding the issue, the lawyers’ fraternity should stop protesting and stop playing in hands of some disgruntled and unwise people," he said.

So that was that. I have highlighted the above quotes not because it’s simply May 12 but also because sometimes it’s nice to know who stood where and where in past the present ties with. The judiciary is no longer part of the Karachi fiasco, no one even talks about it. May 12 as a day provided an opportunity for words such as democracy to be thrown around by the most unlikeliest of parties on whose whims Karachi depends; it was a day when a justice tried to show his power and went back to the capital after a day of not working; it pushed the less-quoted old kid on the block, ANP, as the champion of Pakhtun rights; and it gave the fading general a chance to whine and whimper.

Four years on it shows that outsiders can come and go, but once the fire has been lit it is hard to water down. The justice and the general are no longer part of the quagmire, but the violence has lingered on. May 12 showed is that whoever has the power and pelf, in whatever form, is in-charge.

Sumaira Jajja is the Features Editor at Dawn.com