Musharraf’s tactical retreat
The Musharraf regime is stooping to conquer. Stunned, in the first instance, by the scale and intensity of protests against the operation to ambush the Chief Justice of Pakistan, it has been shoring up its defences against the main lines of attack.
The first objection to the Chief Justice’s removal from office was that he could not be sacked or suspended unless a recommendation to this effect was made by the Supreme Judicial Council, the constitutional forum for dealing with complaints of misconduct by judges of superior courts. The government promptly back-tracked and declared that Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was still the Chief Justice and the ‘mistake’ in removing his name from the official website had been corrected. However, he had been made ‘non-functional’.
That the President had no constitutional authority to render the Chief Justice ‘non-functional’ was the second objection. It took the Law Minister a whole week to discover the Judges’ Compulsory Leave Order of 1970 and declare that the Chief Justice had been sent on forced leave. The validity of this premise has been challenged but the Law Ministry has received a pat on its back for manoeuvring itself into a slightly less vulnerable position than before.
The third objection was that while naming the Acting Chief Justice and the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, the legitimate choice for both offices — the judge next in seniority to the chief justice, Justice Rana Bhagwandas — had been bypassed. The government and the Acting Chief Justice assured the people that as soon as Justice Bhagwandas returned home after ex-country leave he would assume his position as the head of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Judicial Council. The hearing of the reference against the Chief Justice scheduled for March 21 was accordingly postponed till April 3.
Some other signs of the government’s retreat to safer positions include General Musharraf’s repeated denial of any personal grudge against his prey, his assertions that he cannot think of acting outside the Constitution (no reference please to the Legal Framework Order whereby scores of changes were made in the basic law), his quick denunciation of violence against lawyers, his regrets at the police attack on a TV office and his appearance in its programme that had been ordered off air only a few days earlier.
Still, a change of heart on the part of the Musharraf government cannot be assumed. All that it is admitting is some refining of tactics. And if it has climbed down a step and a half the reason is that it was completely surprised by the countrywide agitation against its actions.
Quite a few aspects of this agitation merit attention. The lawyers abandoned the routine of issuing carefully-worded resolutions by their associations and took to street action spearheaded by the younger ones among them. They stood their ground in the face of unprecedented violence against them — the police surpassed its none-too-modest record of bludgeoning demonstrators when it lathi-charged lawyers and rained teargas shells on the Lahore High Court, probably for the first time. The media, especially the private sector TV channels, could not contain the thrill at the return of street-fighting days. As a result, the people saw scenes they had never seen before, such as fully uniformed policemen breaking into a media centre and smashing everything in sight. There has also been a wave of solidarity with the deposed judge and lawyers among the masses. They seem to be convinced that the Chief Justice has been penalised for taking up the cause of involuntarily disappeared persons and other victims of security personnel’s excesses. And the international reaction has been quite strong.
Quite a few people believe the government’s resort to violence on an extraordinary scale has already achieved its purpose — the media has been chastened and the weaker ones among the lawyers have been effectively terrorised. At the same time, however, the brutal suppression of protest has further alienated the jurists and lawyers. Those who have resigned their offices in protest include a judge of the Lahore High Court, a deputy attorney-general and eight subordinate judges. Besides, the media is by and large reluctant to yield to the establishment’s threats or blandishments.
The government on its part is persisting in its efforts to control the situation by stopping open discussion on the Chief Justice case. It has also been deemed prudent to reprimand international organisations for trying to tell the government of Pakistan what is good for it. While the US advice for restraint was quietly swallowed, exception has inexplicably been taken to the European Union’s statement of concern.
A major issue in public debate is whether, in the absence of a mass movement in their support, the lawyers can sustain their agitation for a long time, as the government has apparently chosen to prolong the crisis in the hope of wearing them down. General Musharraf himself has argued that a majority of lawyers has not joined the battle and the Punjab Chief Minister has shown his ability to collect a large number of black jackets. Efforts to win over lawyers with promises of sinecures and instant relief have also been reported. The inability of the political parties to launch a large-scale movement against the regime has caused much disappointment among citizens. Some observers have been critical of the lawyers for objecting only to the procedure adopted to get rid of the Chief Justice.
However, there is a wide measure of agreement in the country that neither the judiciary nor the presidency will be the same again. A fight to the finish will leave one of them, perhaps both, mortally wounded. A weakened judiciary will mean people’s loss of whatever protection of law they can at present boast of. A reverse suffered by the President may force him to look for desperate means to strengthen his personal writ, in which case Pakistan could be thrown at the mercy of a new knight on horseback.
The optimists never give up. They believe General Musharraf cannot but realise the impossibility of continuing to rule as hitherto and that a shift towards a more responsible Cabinet and a little more respect for democratic consensus might have become unavoidable.
Reason to keep one’s fingers crossed.
(The writer is a political commentator and a noted human rights activist in Pakistan)