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Pakistan on trial

January 11, 2012

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CONTRARY to the general impression about the memo affair, the government alone is not on trial, and many other parties share its predicament. Indeed, it might not be wrong to say that Pakistan as a whole is on trial.

To begin with, the democratic system is gasping for breath. The extraordinarily intense demonisation of politicians, especially those supposed to be in power, has severely undermined citizens' faith in the scheme of representative governance. They have been told over and over again that the present rulers are beyond reclamation, the legislatures are full of swindlers, and the 2008 election was decided by bogus voters. The situation is so bad that TV reporters can ask people in the street loaded questions and conclude that they are praying forMusharrat's return! The result is the people's growing alienation from the democratic system itself.

This is not happening for the first time. The Iskander Mirza-Ayub Khan clique was able to persuade the people to accept, even hail, dictator-ship under the cover of a vicious campaign to malign the politicians. The same trick was used by Ziaul Haq. He and his cohorts demonised the politicians to such an extent that he was able to make a mess of the constitution and downgrade parliament and the judiciary both.

The situation at present is that neither the government nor democracy can get a fair hearing at the bar of public opinion.

It is difficult to see how the parliamentary democratic order will come out of the trial unscathed. Chances are that Pakistan will have another taste of the establishment's favourite brew called controlled democracy.

The political parties, an essential pillar of a democratic edifice, are also on trial.

And all of them. Those in government or aligned with them have been found wanting in the skill of crisis management.

They seem to lack the ability to identify their real adversaries or the main cause of their ostracisation. On top of that, they have neglected their electors so long that they are not in a position to mobilise them against their tormentors.

The parties gunning for the government or for Mr X or Mr Y are being test-ed for their claim to be democratic minded. They seem to have forgotten their own slogans of only a few years ago that the worst democracy was better than the most attractive dictatorship. The moment these parties turn their back on parliament, the only forum for a legitimate challenge to the government, and solicit third-party intervention, they renege on their pledge to uphold democracy.

The people are familiar with the strong case against the military's encroachment in the political domain; no less strong is the argument against the judiciary's intervention in politics. What may be legally permissible is often politically wrong and laws are at best silent on the kind of give and take without which governance by consensus is not possible.

Besides, those who seek extra-parliamentary means to down their rivalsbetray their lack of confidence in the electorate's ability to choose their rulers.

Such parties should also not forget that they too might fall into the trap they prepare for others, something ancient sages learnt centuries ago before coining the adage -'chah kun ra chah darpesh' Nobody should be surprised at the statement that the judiciary too is on trial, for every judiciary is all the time tested for its capacity to dispense justice even-handedly. Circumstances have made the present situation especially testing for the judiciary. The people have been led to believe that the present judiciary is radically different from the one we had earlier; for instance in 1978, which looked up to the praetorian guards for instructions, which pleaded lack of jurisdiction and gave findings on merits, which rejected the petitioner's prayer and gave the respondent relief he had not prayed for and which he certainly did not deserve (e.g. Nusrat Bhutto case).

The judiciary has to guard its image.

Another problem is that the memo case has been taken up in a situation when the designated targets have been condemned many times over in themedia-dominated public discourse. The judiciary will be tested for its ability to avoid being influenced by the public clamour, to resist the temptation to opt for populism. Fortunately, the judiciary seems to be aware of this risk. In such situations the need to respect the basic human rights of the respondent/defendant, especially the right to equality before law and to equal protection of law and the right to presumption of innocence, becomes doubly important.

At the same time, the judiciary everywhere has to be on its guard against elements that pose to be its friends or start paying it homage for their own gain, and who try to burden it with responsibilities that may lie outside its domain. Matters get worse when a judicial authority is not content with speaking through their judgment only. The whole nation gets excited when it is told that the judiciary has made the state permanently secureagainst the restoration of dictatorial rule, while all that can fairly be asserted is the judiciary's resolve (already announced in 2009) that it will never countenance a coup. The rest is in the realm of speculation.

Nobody can deny thatsoldiers of fortune have little respect for laws made by others. Such statements imply denial of the people's capacity, perhaps even duty, to foil coup-makers' designs and this could be dubbed as an exercise in de-politicisation of the people.

Finally, the whole society, its conscious section in particular, is being challenged to display its will and courage to protect its sovereign rights. It seems to have forgotten that many crucial decisions cast long shadows, that a wrong turn at some moments can condemn generation after generation to the loss of rights without which existence is meaningless. It is time to ponder what history will say about a people who could be swept off their course by a bad piece of prose created by an actor of dubious credentials.

One will certainly be asked if there is any way out of the malaise. The situation may be bad but it is not hopeless. The whole trouble has arisen as a result of the wrong assumption that democracy's ills can be cured by extra-democratic surgery. Once this premise is abandoned the path to salvation will be clear.