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Why Musharraf alone?

July 30, 2009

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REMEMBER them, anyone? What happened to the puppies he sported in the first weeks in power? Given our sudden desire for punishing Musharraf, he could now also be accused of first using them to offend the faithful and then abandoning them to their fate as he made off to London. Animal rights activists of civil society, please step forward.

The cacophony surrounding the demands to bring the former president-general to justice makes a spectacle of the way we do politics. Retribution, when it is a one-sided affair, is vendetta; and justice cannot be served by certain individuals in power bent on settling scores, albeit with a wrongdoer.

It is a sorry commentary on our system that an independent judiciary should now appear to succumb to popular demands as opposed to the wishes of autocratic rulers in the past. In doing so the so-called 'doctrine of necessity' will still seem to be playing itself out, where the popular will can be seen as replacing the shackles put on the judiciary by autocratic rulers earlier on. It is well worth asking what, then, has changed since the dawn of this new brave era of democracy, post-Musharraf?

Public memory anywhere is short-lived. In Pakistan it is also steered by the shortsightedness of those who insist on erasing it from the record altogether. The transition to democracy is hardly a fait accompli as we speak. Democratic institutions weakened by Gen Musharraf's tinkering with the constitution are far from being stable entities today. While anyone in their right mind must blame the general for the mess at hand, the judiciary should also show the moral courage to shoulder its part of the blame.

The fact that it was the Supreme Court headed by the same honourable chief justice which gave Gen Musharraf the right to amend the constitution single-handedly in May 2000 cannot be overlooked. This was far more than what the then chief executive had expected to get from the apex court; he had just sought indemnity for the cir

cumstances under which the Oct 12, 1999 coup took place. The general himself did not stage the coup from mid-air, aboard a PIA commercial flight which was not even in Pakistani airspace when the 111 Brigade struck to depose the prime minister.

How could the same judge(s) now be prevailed upon by those wishing to settle vendetta against the general to indict and punish him for a deed, and all that followed it, for which he was only partially responsible? When the dust kicked up by Musharraf's opponents settles, public sensibilities based on moral grounds can equally challenge the judiciary's acquiescence in the whole sordid affair. Can the judiciary survive yet another fall from grace in the public eye that history books will ultimately assign it if it succumbs to the temptation of punishing someone who was also its tormentor?

Speaking of tormentors and violators of the constitution, and of public trust, there have been many. Any attempt at retribution in the past has only remained just that. Remember the post-1971 Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report, which has only gathered dust all these years? No one, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's fiercest opponents, has had the courage to act on the facts ascertained in that document, and bring those held culpable to justice. Before that, the Liaquat Ali Khan murder and subsequently, the Zia plane crash still remain shrouded in mystery. What the very expensive UN commission on Benazir Bhutto's murder will accomplish in real terms will be also there for all to see.

In the 1990s — that brief interlude when democracy struggled to strike root — we also saw the then discredited policies pursued by the elected leaders who were readily manipulated by the civil-military establishment to their own disadvantage. In the process, besides using the judiciary to set up their rivals in courts of law, presidents and army chiefs were removed, the Supreme Court was attacked, a chief justice was humiliated and thrown out of office.

Then, the removal of the last army chief proved a case of one too many; the army for the first time struck as an institution, and not as an instrument of its commander's ambition to pack up a democratic order that had become more of a disorder. The tragedy is that Pakistan's elected leaders have also acted like autocrats.

While no military coups can ever be justified, especially when our ambitious generals have overstayed their welcome every time they overthrew a government in the past, the popular perception of politicians' failings has also remained a sad constant. Democracy does not mean a free-for-all arrangement; it means first and foremost, living up to the people's expectation, leading to good governance. It also means engagement and dialogue aimed at consensus-building among political and social stakeholders, which should lead to effective and transparent governance that is accountable to voters.

Given our sudden zeal for retribution, and the sense of urgency that some are attaching to bringing the autocratic Gen Musharraf to justice, what an ailing polity like Pakistan really needs is a consensus-based truth and reconciliation commission if the demons of the past are to be exorcised. Such a commission must be representative of all political parties and opinions, including those of marginalised and consistently wronged sections of society. Among such groups, the poor, women, the religious minorities, the Baloch and the Ahmadi community readily come to mind.

If the urge is so strong today to start with a clean slate, all old and new holy cows must be brought to the altar of justice which, when dispensed, must also be seen by all to have been done.

The writer is the author of Musharraf the years in power, a political biography.