On June 12, 1975, the Allahabad High Court convicted former prime minister Indira Gandhi in a case of election malpractices. The conviction disqualified her as a member of parliament, but left room for appeal. However, Mrs Gandhi chose not to take that route. In a matter of weeks, the Constitution was suspended and India was in the midst of the Emergency. Opposition leaders were jailed; press freedoms vanished; and, as everyone remembers fondly, the trains ran on time. Mrs Gandhi and her son Sanjay, now ruled unfettered.
The judgment given by the Pakistan Supreme Court on June 19, might have had a similar effect on life in Pakistan, but for a key difference. It did not directly remove the actual centre of executive power, but rather a dispensable and replaceable, functionary. The real target of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s crusade against corruption is President Asif Ali Zardari, whom he would like to embarrass out of office. But this is a difficult task.
Some headlines called the judgment a ‘judicial coup’. Others saw it as proof that the Pakistani judiciary was genuinely independent. I am uncomfortable with both descriptions. I cannot miss the irony that the band of campaigners against corruption includes Nawaz Sharif. Or the fact that the judge’s son stands accused of taking bribes.
The complexity of life in Pakistan makes the idea of ‘independent’ institutions a romantic one. Looking in from the outside, there seems to be a bizarre Mad magazine ‘Spy vs Spy’ aspect to relationships between people representing different pillars of the state. Take Justice Chaudhry’s career. He was appointed advocate general of Balochistan in 1989, by then chief minister Akbar Bugti, and rose meteorically through the system in that province till he was nominated to the Supreme Court.
He was on a bench that validated Pervez Musharraf’s coup and became Pakistan’s youngest chief justice in June 2005. In August the same year, Akbar Bugti was killed in a military operation. An event President Musharraf called a victory for Pakistan.
When it was time for Musharraf to bully the system into perpetuating his grip on Pakistan, Chaudhry Iftikhar stood in the way and became a hero for the masses upon his suspension and arrest. The prime minster he removed from office on June 19 was also the man who released him in 2008. The president who delayed his reinstatement remains in office, but must deal with losing a key aide.
Yousaf Raza Gilani’s ouster tries to send the message that no one is above the law in Pakistan, but it would be naive to think that this is actually the case. And let us not forget that Gilani has been convicted for contempt, not corruption. However, the judgement does come at a time when there is increasing frustration with a government that is seen as weak and avaricious.
In India, circa 1975, there was a similar mood of disenchantment, not the least because of the centralisation of power in the hands of Mrs Gandhi and her son. There was a prevailing sense that India was effectively a monarchy, which wasn’t helped by Mrs Gandhi’s grim views on democracy (it threw up ‘mediocre’ people).
Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha, who pronounced the conviction that unwittingly sentenced India to the Emergency, did not achieve a fraction of the cult status Justice Chaudhry has. But he, too, was keen on sending the message that no one was above the law. Mrs Gandhi was found guilty on fairly minor charges, one of them being that at rallies she spoke from a dais that was built too high.
Sinha passed away in 2008. A fellow judge told an obituary writer: “Justice Sinha asked the registrar to take all steps to maintain the sanctity and dignity of the court in spite of the presence of the prime minister. So, while it was ensured that Indira Gandhi had an appropriate seat, it was lower than the judge’s dais. However, her chair was a little higher than the seats of the lawyers.
“It was also strictly ensured that no lawyer or official inside the court would stand up when she arrived; that honour was rightfully reserved only for the judge who would arrive a little later…”.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2012.
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