Lawyers’ movement – one year on

Ishrat Saleem 

March 9, 2007 was the day when President Musharraf called the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, to his camp office in Rawalpindi and asked him to resign from his post. To the surprise of many, departing from the tradition of judiciary’s compliance, Justice Iftikhar refused. A bevy of high officials including the prime minister and the heads of intelligence agencies, set on the task of first coaxing and then threatening the Chief Justice with moving a reference against him in the Supreme Judicial Council. The CJ said that he would face the reference. Justice Iftikhar was prevented from going to his office and held incommunicado at his residence till the first hearing of his case on March 13, 2007. He was manhandled and humiliated when he tried to walk his way to the Supreme Court on his first hearing, the footage of which was taped and repeatedly run by several electronic media outlets. The judges and the lawyers were indignant. The military’s image crumbled in the minds of the people who saw it as an instance of ‘might is right’.

Our political parties may be confronting leadership crisis, which has been made more acute with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but the lawyers were fortunate to have people like Munir A. Malik, Ali Ahmad Kurd, Hamid Khan and Aitizaz Ahsan among them. The immediate response of the lawyers’ community to their call and the admiration and enthusiasm of the general people throughout Pakistan made them aware of the historic opportunity that had presented itself, to settle the issue of supremacy of the constitution and the independence of the judiciary once and for all. The indefatigable resolve of these icons inspired millions and induced the hope that organised and sustained action holds the key to the people deciding their destiny. The first victory of the lawyers movement was the restoration of the Chief Justice, when a nine member bench unanimously dismissed the presidential reference.

The imposition of the emergency and deposing of about 60 superior judges was a major setback, but it did not dampen their resolve and reinvigorated the lawyers to take to streets. However, this time they were not alone. Students from across Pakistan spontaneously poured out on campuses and expressed their agitation. Pakistani students in foreign universities also networked and organised protests around the world against the illegitimate military regime. For the first time, the judiciary realised its strength and responsibility towards the people of this country. The judges who refused to take an oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) earned the honour and respect of the people. Nonetheless, the lawyers deserve the most credit. They united across the class divide and refused to appear before the PCO-judges, forgoing their livelihood. They were one against the establishment and called on the people and the political parties to rise against the illegitimate rulers.

Munir A Malik, the former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, who provided the essential leadership to the lawyers’ community in organising against the regime, shared his insights of the year long struggle. Last year, at the height of public campaigning for restoring the Chief Justice, Munir A Malik had stated that the objectives of the lawyers’ movement are raising awareness among the general public, the political parties and the superior judiciary itself on the issue of civilian supremacy and the supremacy of the constitution. When asked how far these objectives have been achieved, he said, “We have made considerable gains in the first area. The awareness that has been created among the public is irreversible. We have also succeeded in sensitising the honest and true judges to the plight of the people. There have been setbacks on November 3, but this was a defeat in a minor battle in a long drawn out war. We are confident that in whatever way the judiciary is restored, it will emerge as an independent organ of the state. As far as the political parties are concerned, we have to go a long way in that area.”

The elections held on February 18 have changed the political dynamics of this movement. Now, the lawyers will be dealing with the erstwhile opposition parties, who have earned majority in the assemblies and have decided to form a coalition government, to get their demand for the restoration of the judiciary fulfilled. The single largest political party, PPP, appears evasive on the question of the restoration of judiciary. The other prospective coalition partner, PML (N), has taken the other extreme position, that the judiciary should be restored and it should decide the fate of the president. With political parties failing to agree on this issue, the future of the lawyers’ movement seems to hang in balance. It remains to be seen whether the lawyers’ adopt the path of confrontation with the newly-elected government, which will also serve the purpose of those who would like to see this government weakened, or adopt another strategy to press for their demands.

Talking about the future of the lawyers’ movement Munir A Malik said, “The coming few months will be critical. Our movement was anti-establishment and for civilian supremacy. There has been a slight change, which is manifest in the recalling of serving officers working in civilian departments on deputation. However, we must not forget that we are fighting an entrenched system that is 60 years old. There are also foreign pressures, we cannot ignore the advice of our ‘friends’ abroad. The lawyers also do not want the system to collapse because that will be against the very objective that we have been advocating. We need to bring a change in the real power structure to empower the people.”

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