The lawyers’ movement has turned on itself. Consider the facts.
Members of the Lahore Bar first tried to secure the departure of a judge through pressure. Having failed, they resorted to force and when force was met with force, an unseemly confrontation ensued. Soon Ali Ahmed Kurd, the man who gave Musharraf a migraine and leaders from other bar associations descended upon the scene. Today you have paralysis in the legal fraternity, at least in Punjab and threatening to extend beyond.
Remind you of anything? These images almost mirror the moments that gave rise to the lawyers’ movement in the first place. Then a dictator sought the removal of a judge, first through pressure and then through force, giving rise to a confrontation that the rest of the legal profession flocked towards.
Today the Lahore Bar Association’s room is filled with thunderous speeches once again. Only this time it’s a new crop of bar leaders demanding the removal of a judge, the resignation of a chief justice, acceptance of the resignations submitted by all the subordinate judges of Punjab. Given that at its core this is a confrontation over judicial appointments, one is puzzled to see the Supreme Court opting out of the whole thing.
After all, when parliament unanimously passed the 18th amendment which contained a clause revising the procedure for judicial appointments, the Supreme Court opted into that legislative process on the grounds that this matter is too important to be left to the politicians. Yet when the bars revolt, when they barricade a chief justice out of their office, when they clash with police and light fires in the streets over the question of judicial appointments, transfers and resignations, the Supreme Court’s response to the warring parties is they should sort this out between themselves?
Something about this whole affair doesn’t make sense. If the parliament cannot vote on and pass a law that modifies the procedure for judicial appointments, then how can the bar be justified in demanding such appointments through the use of force and intimidation? If judicial appointments are too important to be left to the politicians, surely they are too important to be left to marauding lawyers?
We should note that the agitations have been restricted to Lahore, with some stray activity in other Punjab bars like Multan, DG Khan and Sargodha. But the whole affair has so far been contained within Punjab. The earlier lawyers’ movement had a brief moment of national mobilisation, when the bars in Karachi joined in and put on a show of force in the streets on May 12, 2007. I spent that whole day in the bar room of the Sindh High Court, interacting with the gathered lawyers, and felt the electric energy that crackled throughout the room all day.
But on March 16, 2008, less than a year later, much of that energy was gone. Again I spent the day with the lawyers congregated at the Karachi bar offices, as they moved in a small convoy towards the toll plaza at the edge of the city. This time hardly anybody showed up, and the crowd thinned progressively, until the final showdown with the authorities had more cameramen present than lawyers. A smaller convoy from Quetta was stopped at Jacobabad, less than a dozen lawyers showed up at the Sukkur Bar, and nobody from Multan was able to leave the city either. March 16 did whatever it did on the strength of Lahore alone. And even on that date, as I walked amongst the assembled crowd around the high court on the Mall, there were far more casual observers than lawyers present.
It’s remarkable to note that on the day of its biggest triumph, the lawyer’s movement was already a spent force. Now, more than two years later, the movement has come full circle. From demanding the restoration of judges, the movement is demanding their removal. From asserting the limits of presidential power, the movement is now debating the limits of judicial power. From its peak in 2007, the movement hit its trough in 2008, and has now emerged on the other side. History hides her hand well, but her ironies always give her game away.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2010.
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