Military dictators have removed judges they did not like and they were some of our bravest judges.

IT was the evening of March 9, 2007 when I was on a flight from Karachi to Islamabad that I first heard of the sacking of the Chief Justice of Pakistan by Gen Musharraf.

A lawyer was talking about it in animated tones to his neighbour. As we disembarked, I asked the lawyer whether a president could legally remove a Chief Justice. He told me exactly how such a thing was possible under the law.

But — pardon my ignorance — it did not immediately sink into my mind exactly what had happened. Within a few hours and after a cursory re-reading of the much-abused Constitution, the enormity of the president's action struck me for what it really was — the biggest blow the judiciary had received for a long time.

And, mind you, ours is a judiciary which has received many a blow in our chequered history. Military dictators have removed judges they did not like and these were some of our bravest judges. No wonder the judiciary was cowed down. If you keep plucking out the best people from an institution every now and then you cannot expect it to grow or mature. Courage is created by security and not by throwing out anyone who dares to raise his head.

Anyway, because of this enormous abuse of the judiciary, we mostly had judges who buckled down under the might of the military. These were often called the PCO (Provisional Constitutional Order) judges. Those few who did not take the oath under the PCO were the ones to be sent off home unwept and unsung.This is where we had gone wrong as a society. We just did not care enough for our judiciary's independence. After all, a judge is a salaried person who gets used to a regular income and perks of office and who, like other people, looks forward to a pension and playing with his grandchildren and telling stories. So, when a judge chooses to go home rather than complete his tenure, he is making a really big sacrifice.

And yet, most of us including myself do not know the names of the judges who had given impeccably honest judgements and who had chosen to go home rather than take oath under PCOs. These were — and remain — our unsung heroes. We do not tell our children these things; we still give them the names of people who kill a lot of other people (like Alexander the Great) as heroes.

But this time things were different. Within a few days the Chief Justice proved himself capable of standing up to the bullying by the strongest man in Pakistan. He did not resign as many of us had predicted and he did not get bribed. This was novel. And the other strange thing was that lawyers all over the country were up in arms against the military ruler and in support of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

Many of us, including myself (shame be upon me), thought the Chief Justice could not withstand the pressure for long nor could the lawyers keep losing money. But the balmy March turned to scalding May and there were the lawyers in their black suits in sweltering heat. The media covered every moment of this living history in the making. It seemed as if a slumbering nation had come alive.

Wherever Aitzaz Ahsan went with the Chief Justice people thronged around the vehicle. They braved police batons, tear gas, barbed wire and the terrible heat. Journeys of a few hours took days and government ministers went black in the face lying outright. In the end they ran out of lies and got the TV channels blocked and then choked off. The media was attacked by policemen acting like goons and armed men running riot in Karachi. And still the judges, the lawyers and the media — large sections of these three institutions — kept up their rebellion against General Musharraf's arbitrary, dictatorial ways.

Then the Supreme Court restored the Chief Justice to his post. For me this was like living in a fairy tale. I had read of Justice Munir who had confessed that he had legitimised dictatorship because he was afraid that the courts would not he obeyed if he took on the mighty executive. I had looked at all the cases of the military's taking over the country and the judges exonerating it — unless the dictator was down and out.

And I knew that most judges did not even go home when the ruling generals had imposed the PCO upon them. Some had, of course, but they were few and far between. So, for me, this was a new experience. It was so new as to be slightly incredulous. And yet it went on and on.

And then, on Nov 3, things turned ugly. A draconian order removed the fig leaf from the pretence of democracy and what we witnessed was martial law. The chief of army staff sent the Chief Justice home and this time there was no court, no procedure, no legal trappings to help him.

The lawyers of the Chief Justice — heroes of civil society by now — were put behind bars. The media was closed down and members of civil society were arrested. Instead of fighting the militants Gen Musharraf was fighting those who put hurdles between him and the presidency. The judges were incarcerated in their houses and even their children could not sit in the sun nor breath the sharp autumn air. And still the ministers kept up the mantra that the judges were free.

This was the end, I thought to myself. But no, I was wrong. Wonder of wonders the students came on the streets. And these were not the politicised students of the 1960s but the apolitical Mummy-Daddy type of youngsters from LUMS and other such places. There were the lawyers still losing out on money and these young students braving the streets and, of course, the brave human rights activists like Asma Jahangir and I.A. Rehman braving the wrath of the establishment.

I watched with horror as they arrested Tahira Abdullah and hit Aitzaz Ahsan but those who can pull a Chief Justice by his hair and brutally beat up lawyers can do anything. This was not strange; this was expected. What I did not expect was that the movement would be sustained even as bomb blasts instilled the fear of violent death in the hearts of people. The blasts killed over 1,500 people in 2007 and the most momentous assassination was that of Benazir Bhutto. But still people braved the minefields of Pakistan. Still they went out to vote; still Aitzaz Ahsan did not run after ministerships; still he talked of restoring the judiciary as did Nawaz Sharif.

And now it is the first anniversary of this historic movement. It is the occasion when one must take one's hat off to the judges, the lawyers, the media, the students and members of civil society who did more for democracy and freedom and the dignity of the human spirit than most of us can comprehend. I myself am only an admiring bystander of the kind about whom Milton said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Indeed, I do not know if my admiration is service at all or not. But admiration it is. And if such people's salutations are acceptable then I offer the lawyers' movement my salute.



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