We have reached a point where inside information, rumours and political analysis have lost significance or even the morbid thrill, primarily because it is becoming impossible to tell them apart. The president leaving the country is not supposed to be big news; quite to the contrary, one of the major charges against him all throughout his term has been that he spends a bit too much time overseas. Hence, the outrage and conspiracy theory-mongering now would seem slightly odd. It is not completely out of the ordinary, once one inspects the context.
I hold no brief for President Zardari or any other political figure and by all means they should be voted out if they have lost public support. I suspect the silence of many pro-democracy activists and leaders can be explained by the fact that speaking against any and all potential extralegal or meta-constitutional measure will be construed as an apology for the president. That is ridiculous; our fascination with individuals, both messiahs and villains has reached absurd proportions. It has been said that the great censor of our times is the tyranny of ‘popular’ public opinion, and both the media and the judiciary have capitulated without a fight. The inherent mistrust of public representatives is classic masochism, it is self-hatred.
The lazy and implicit consensus amongst the media, the army and another crucial pillar of state seems to be that President Zardari has to be removed. The role of the khakis is no longer the taboo it was and has been replaced by another set of unelected gentlemen, the Supreme Court. I tread carefully now. There is a hazy sense of unquestioning deference when it comes to the conduct of the Supreme Court. The brave journalist or activist, who has an innate desire to display the latent bravado, feels compelled to write against the ‘military establishment’ and having done so can have a clear conscience and a good feeling. In the meanwhile, the same anti-politician rhetoric (which is by definition anti-people) manifesting contempt for the elected representatives and uncritical sympathy for the armed forces being voiced day in and day out from the Honourable Supreme Court goes unchallenged.
The genesis of this glorification is vague. However, it is either to do with some misplaced understanding of the law of contempt or the fact that most of the members of the bench stood up to a dictator. Undoubtedly, they stood up to a dictator, but to allow that singular virtue to give them lifelong immunity from fair criticism does not follow logically. Fortunately, we do not apply the same standard of quarrels with dictators on politicians. It is, above all, a squalid compromise by the lawyer community, more particularly the leaders of the lawyers’ movement, who betray the very spirit they ostensibly fought for.
The unhappily-worded ‘memogate’ is the latest example in a list of cases displaying a consistent trend. If I were to borrow a phrase which my lordships have in the past taken a particular fondness to, the Supreme Court displayed an ‘unholy haste’ along with uncritically taking the word of that buffoonish, self-contradictory and semi-coherent Mansoor Ijaz. And all this while the missing persons’ case, the Saleem Shahzad commission and lest we forget, Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s petition filed in the 1990’s remains pending. I do not allege complicity on part of the Supreme Court, rather I think they genuinely believe themselves to be the platonic guardians who will steer the country out of the abyss and that to me is the fantastically dangerous bit.
If the Supreme Court, the media or public intellectuals believe that the present government or the president should be removed even if it entails going beyond the strict confines of law, then that is what the real fight should be. Admittedly, the performance of the present government is not easily defensible by even the most ardent of supporters, yet the principle is absolutely clear. One is especially disappointed in Mian Nawaz Sharif, who seemed to have been displaying signs of a newfound political maturity up to this point — it seems old habits do die hard. I sincerely hope that Mr Sharif and leaders of other political parties wake up to the realisation that demagoguery has a tendency to be unforgiving and indiscriminate. Desperate times call for desperate measures, lesser evils, interim set-ups and other such claptrap is ‘doctrine of necessity’ and ‘martial law’ plain and simple.
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt is an exquisite play on the life of Sir Thomas More. One of the finest scenes of the play is when Sir Thomas is asked by William Roper if he will apply the principle of innocent until proven guilty on the devil. Sir Thomas unequivocally answered he would and in turn asked Roper if he will “cut a great road through the law to get after the devil”. Roper replied that he would cut every law down in England to get the devil. To this overzealous answer, Sir Thomas replied, “well when all the laws having been broken, the devil turns on him, where would he run for refuge, since all the laws of the realm having been struck down”. “Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” concluded Sir Thomas. It has not yet been alleged that President Zardari or Husain Haqqani possess demonic powers, although one would not be greatly surprised if some conspiracy theorist found evidence of that in one of their investigative journalism exposes. The media and the judiciary do not seem to understand that it is this architecture of democracy which gives them the freedom to thrive and prosper. One would expect scars of previous battles to have matured them to this realisation. The larger point being, if ‘due process’ and ‘the rule of law’ are to mean anything, they have to mean everything in tough cases. If any excuse however strong to subvert democracy is permitted, then every excuse however flimsy becomes kosher.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2011.