Two o’ clock in the morning is a good time for many things. Trying to figure out the front page of your magazine is not one of them.
This particular 2am revelation descended upon me in the summer of 1989. I was in Pakistan on vacation from college and had been dragooned into helping out at The Friday Times (TFT). The problem at hand was the front page of Issue No 2, which the editor of the new venture — one Najam Sethi — wanted to adorn with a picture of some politicians chatting to each other, enlivened by some cartoon-style dialogue bubbles.
Everybody told Najam that this was a bad idea. Since the “everyone” consisted of myself and others who were not the editor, Najam cheerfully informed us “But they do it in Private Eye” and went on ahead anyway.
A year later, I returned to Pakistan with the express intent of working for Najam. This time, I was responsible for all the features pages. On the other hand, since most of the relevant content was — ahem — “borrowed”, this was not the world’s most difficult job. Nor did I find working for Najam much of a problem. Yes, there was the one occasion when I went into the office of the esteemed editor and abused him soundly before storming away. On the other hand, I was diagnosed the same evening with acute malaria and by the time I returned a week later, everybody had forgotten my outburst.
When I went off again — this time to become a lawyer — Najam and the TFT were again waiting for me in Pakistan when I returned. In fact, I owe my first legal job in Pakistan to Najam. I had no idea which lawyer to work for in Lahore. Najam sent me off to Aitzaz Ahsan with the sage words, “Oye, Chaudhry nu pata hoye ga teray naal ki karna aye.” Indeed.
As a lawyer, I had little time to spare for writing for the TFT. Nonetheless, Najam soon resurfaced in my life. On the night of May 9, 1999, a contingent of the Punjab Police showed up at Najam’s house in Gulberg and dragged him off. Najam’s ostensible crime was to have made an anti-Pakistan speech in India but he had delivered the same speech to an audience of faujis at the National Defence College and nobody had questioned his patriotism then. Instead, Najam’s real crime was his constant criticism of the government of Mian Nawaz Sharif.
A habeas petition seeking Najam’s release was immediately filed before the Lahore High Court. I happened to be in court the day the petition came up for hearing. Two distinguished lawyers appeared for Najam, and with all due respect, neither did much. The Punjab government, on the other hand, refused to accept that it had anything to do with Najam’s sudden disappearance even though the goons deputed to arrest him had arrived from the local thana. Instead, the learned Advocate General argued that Najam was in the custody of the military and that the Lahore High Court had no jurisdiction.
It is now almost 14 years since the date of Najam’s arrest. I have never again read the judgment through which the esteemed Lahore High Court denied that it had jurisdiction. But it remains stuck in my mind as the single most intellectually dishonest piece of legal writing I have ever encountered.
Neither of Najam’s lawyers had pointed out that the question as to the Lahore High Court’s jurisdiction over military issues was not a new one. Neither of them had pointed out that according to the famous case of Brigadier (retd) FB Ali, the High Court would only lack jurisdiction if a person accused of a crime under military law had not only been named in an FIR but had actually been challaned. Instead, it was the judge himself who felt compelled to make that observation. He then noted that in Najam’s case, there was neither a challan nor an FIR. But since these were pre-judicial revolution days, his Lordship abruptly concluded that he lacked jurisdiction.
Najam’s case was then appealed to the Supreme Court where Justice Mamoon Qazi told the government authorities in blunt terms that they had no argument. Shortly thereafter, Najam was released.
I mention all of this for two reasons. First, it gives me great joy at a personal level that Najam has been chosen as the caretaker chief minister of Punjab. Yes, I know he has detractors. And yes, I know, some of the criticisms are deserved. But, at least for now, the hell with them. I am not in a position to be objective about Najam. Second, it gives me great joy to see that my country has matured enough that the person who once illegally imprisoned Najam Sethi, Mian Nawaz Sharif, is today entrusting Najam with the power of political life and death. Kudos to Mian Sahib.
Towards the end of Lincoln (the movie), there is a scene where Abraham Lincoln is talking to commissioners from the rebel South. When he tells them that they should have kept faith in the law and “in the democratic process, as frustrating as that can be”, their anger boils over. “Spare us at least these pieties,” says one. Another asks Lincoln whether the victory of the North had been won with bullets or with ballots. Lincoln’s answer is sublime.
“It may be you’re right. But say all we done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos, that there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union? Say that we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere? Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to?”
Pakistan is in a fragile state. I do not know if we will ever make it to our own equivalent realm of peace. But the fact that once-bitter enemies have managed to agree upon a safe pair of hands — and those too, the hands of a fierce critic — is a small but extremely heartening sign: that there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union; that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere; that the idea of democracy, to aspire to, can still be saved.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2013.