Following the pronouncement of the Mumtaz Qadri verdict, watching lawyers indulging in acts of vandalism has been a disturbing experience. What has been even more shocking is that the District Bar Association (DBA) Rawalpindi, the representative body of the lawyers of Rawalpindi district, has been actively supporting these lawyers in the fulfilment of their agenda.
Following the pronouncement of the verdict on October 1, the DBA called for a strike and an ‘emergency’ session on October 3. However, it did not find broad support for its suggested actions, and this was apparent from the fact that the strike was only partially observed and most courts continued to function till the afternoon. The ‘emergency’ session, held at the Jinnah Hall, was attended by no more than 60-70 lawyers; the same hall was packed to capacity a week earlier, at an event to welcome a delegation of lawyers from India.
The DBA has a total of 2,056 registered voting members. By that account, the lawyers attending the session formed a maximum of three per cent of the DBA’s total members. Speeches were made in support of Qadri and against the Anti-Terrorism Court judge who had sentenced him to death. Apart from spiteful and derogatory comments against the judge, an official resolution was passed calling for his boycott. It was decided that the judge would be surrounded and prevented from attending the court the following day, his courtroom would be locked in order to prevent any lawyer from presenting his/her case, and the authorities would be asked to transfer him to another city immediately.
What has the judge done to deserve such fate? His fault was that he decided the case strictly according to the law of the land, as was his duty. More importantly, he did not budge under the pressure of the many threats that he got from the supporters of the accused, thus upholding the principles of judicial impartiality, rule of law and independence of judiciary.
When the verdict was given, it reminded me of the age-old phrase, ‘Let justice be done, though the heavens fall’. The heavens have indeed fallen upon the judge who had, until a few weeks ago, enjoyed a reasonably good reputation. Expecting violent reprisals, he was forced to take leave and stop performing his duties. The day after the DBA resolution was passed, the same lawyers who had attended the ‘emergency’ session vandalised his office. Keeping in view the threat to his life, he was eventually transferred by the authorities. It was indeed a sad and shameful day in the history of the District Bar Association Rawalpindi which had, only a few years ago, played the role of the vanguard in the lawyers’ movement for rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
As the whole episode unfolded, not a single member of the lawyers’ community displayed the courage and sagacity to raise an objection against the highly condemnable acts committed by their fellow lawyers. Equally worrying was the paucity of any debate on important, yet basic, legal questions which one would have expected to be raised in a community of professional lawyers. Does mere highlighting of the misuse of the blasphemy law, which is apparent in numerous cases, amount to ‘blasphemy’? Is the placing of procedural safeguards, in order to prevent wrongful convictions of accused who may be innocent, against Islamic law? If a person has been accused of the offence of blasphemy, isn’t he/she entitled to a fair trial and due process of law? Can individuals, rather than courts of law, be allowed to pass personal judgments on the conduct of others and summarily execute them? Would it be feasible for parliament to recognise a new defence in criminal trials under which the accused may be acquitted on grounds that his/her religious sentiments were offended?
There were other, more immediate questions. Can attacking the judge and vandalising his court be justified under any circumstance as a right response to a verdict? If the accused and his supporters were aggrieved, didn’t the law provide them with the remedy of appeal? Wasn’t the attack by the lawyers a direct assault on the independence of judiciary and rule of law? Hasn’t a dangerous precedent been set? Instead of supporting and encouraging these lawyers, shouldn’t the DBA have condemned their actions and proceeded against them under the Professional Code of Conduct?
One does not need to think hard to find out why these legitimate questions are not being asked. We can blame our intellectual bankruptcy and apathy; but that does not explain it all and we know it. The answer is fear. In this charged environment, anyone who even slightly dares to raise these questions, let alone answer them, risks being declared a ‘supporter of the blasphemers’ and thus liable to be harassed and condemned to death. The message is clearly written on the wall, and it’s in blood.
The lack of any meaningful debate on these legitimate questions shows how an ideologically motivated minority can effectively neutralise the voice of the majority, control the spaces of public discourse and hegemonise it’s otherwise logically indefensible and deeply distorted views by employing violent tactics aimed at spreading fear in society. Today, all doors for a rational public debate are closed, allowing the minority to indulge in morally reprehensible actions with impunity and without any criticism, while the majority watches in silence. This silence, dictated by the demands of individual self-preservation, represents the collective moral death of our society, where judges are being punished for making impartial decisions and upholding the rule of law while those vandalising their courtrooms, instead of being censured, are being hailed as heroes. The situation reminds me of Ayn Rand’s famous words: ‘Morality ends where the gun begins’.
The silence also affirms the death of Jinnah’s Pakistan, who had envisioned a democratic and pluralistic society where basic rights would be protected by the state. In 1927, Jinnah in his speech in the Legislative Assembly on the Criminal Law Amendment Bill (through which an older version of the blasphemy law was enacted) had said: “I thoroughly endorse the principle, that while this measure should aim at those undesirable persons who indulge in wanton vilification or attack upon the religion of any particular class or upon the founders and prophets of a religion, we must also secure this very important and fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in bonafide and honest criticisms of a religion, shall be protected.”
Imagine Jinnah accidently uttering the exact same words on television today. Considering the fate of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, I would expect the founder of our country to be running for his life, and eventually be hounded to death by another Qadri-type, who would then receive a hero’s welcome from the right-wing brigade. The rest of us will continue to watch in silence, the death dance in Qadri’s Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2011.