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Sanctimonious slide into chaos?

January 27, 2012

IN the days following Gen Pervez Musharraf's Nov 3, 2007 proclamation of emergency there were many significant moments but one I'll remember for long.

The excitement of those days was such that it is difficult to recall exactly who called but late one evening someone passed on a message that Muneer Malik was in critical condition in Attock prison, that some of his vital organs were failing and that he'd fallen unconscious.

Muneer A. Malik, along with Aitzaz Ahsan, Ali Ahmad Kurd and scores of other lawyers had been arrested and imprisoned in the swoop after Gen Musharraf launched, according to a telling banner headline in this paper, his 'second coup' and sacked the judiciary.

Alarmed at his failing health, like hundreds of his colleagues, friends and acquaintances, one also got in touch with anyone one thought could possibly help. He is so well-liked and respected that each of those interceding must have conveyed to the authorities the consequences of harm coming to him.

Significantly, within a short period of time Malik was moved from the prison to hospital, received proper care and started to recover.

“Never say die. … the legal fraternity is determined that the status quo be restored to November 3” as nothing less will be acceptable, I recall his words uttered with visible effort to a TV reporter who reached his bedside in hospital. Malik was yet to recover from renal failure, was on dialysis, but his resolve appeared unaffected.

Since March that year and the chief justice's suspension to his restoration to office by a Supreme Court bench in July, lawyers had remained in the forefront of the movement for the reinstatement of Mr Chaudhry and linked his fate to the independence of the judiciary.

Aitzaz Ahsan was the suspended chief justice's lead lawyer and an inspirational leader of the movement. One was also privileged enough to see the Karachi-based Malik's commitment to the cause at close quarters.

All through this period Malik, who was also part of the CJ's legal defence team, seemed either on his way to the airport or already on a plane to Islamabad, the centre of the campaign and, of course, the seat of the Supreme Court bench hearing the case.

There were few television images where Malik wasn't in the forefront of the street demonstrations he helped organise. He is a fine lawyer, a great and reliable friend and most of all an upright man. All who have come into contact with him will be prepared to vouch for his integrity.

His passion for the rule of law and the independence of judiciary is only matched by the zeal with which he defends freedom of expression. As a journalist having worked in different countries/media organisations, my experience of seeking 'legal advice' on 'tricky' stories is that it will almost always border on conservatism.

But in nearly four and a half years of having the good sense to seek his wise counsel, I can say that even as he remained wedded to the letter and spirit of the law, his passion for freedom of expression equally informed his advice as he let me push the frontiers whenever this was in the public interest.

Good heavens, no. This isn't a eulogy. But just some context in which to see what Muneer Malik told the New York Times earlier this week as he discussed the current state of play in the country and the judiciary's decision to take up some cases seen as more about politics than points of law. “In the long run this is a very dangerous trend,” said the former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. “The judges are not elected representatives of the people and they are arrogating power to themselves as if they are the only sanctimonious institution in the country. All dictators fall prey to this psyche — that only we are clean, and capable of doing the right thing.”

These weren't the words of a 'dirty' politician playing to the galleries but of a bright legal mind who all but gave his life to see an independent judiciary, constitutionalism and rule of law in the country.

If you examine his remarks carefully you may also realise the fear he expresses for how the judiciary may see itself is already true of the country's uniformed defenders and their holier-than-thou scorn for the 'bloody civilian.'

Watch almost any discussion programme or talk show for the shortest possible time and words such as 'sanctimonious' will jump to your mind as most popular hosts will have you believe that only they are clean and capable of doing the right thing.

The more popular the show as indicated by its higher ratings, the more you are guaranteed that the anchor's contempt, smirk for the elected 'dirt' will only be rivalled by the GHQ's disdain for the same lot.

When Pakistan's present day is written up as history tomorrow surely memogate and other red herrings will represent no more than a tiny blip on a larger canvas. But even as we remain obsessed with it for now, it has clearly been at a cost.

Pursuing high-profile cases is important as they symbolise an independent judiciary which neither fears nor favours those in power. But isn't it equally or even far more meaningful to ensure the provision of affordable justice at the grass-roots level and provide for the basic needs of the people.

Can we hope one day soon we'll see all pillars of the state joining hands in a collegiate effort to ensure that the deprived millions get their due rather than stay locked in a self-destructive battle of wits and egos, power-grabs?

All who observe Pakistan from within as well as from afar can see its slide into chaos. The only exception, ironically, seem to be those who by definition are entrusted with ensuring its well-being. Once they are willing to reflect on this, change in Pakistan will start to become a reality.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn .