OVER A COFFEE: Contempt: worth dying for? —Dr Haider Shah
If the executive feels that the court has crossed its limits by issuing a wrong decision, it can approach the legislature as it enjoys a majority and can hence undo the decision
On the television screen, one watches many horrible scenes, like a bomb blast carnage, havoc caused by natural calamities and tragic air accidents. But two scenes proved most painful for me as a viewer and stand out clearly. The first one relates to Mumtaz Qadri when he was garlanded by a group of lawyers outside the courtroom. The second scene was witnessed on Thursday this week when a smiling prime minister (PM) remorselessly collected greetings from party supporters that had encircled him after he came out of the court with a conviction for contempt of court.
There were many occasions during the last four years when the PM could have claimed martyrdom and perhaps I would have been in the forefront giving him a congratulatory hug. For instance, the Domestic Violence Bill had been languishing in parliament for many years. Frustrated with lack of progress, the government could have promulgated the law as a Presidential Ordinance, which would have caused a stir among the right wing radical political parties and their sympathisers in the media. In an imaginary conspiracy-ridden world, the court might have declared the law void but the government would have refused to budge on a principled stand of human rights-related legislation. If the PM was then forced to resign, he would have been celebrated as a martyr for the cause of human rights.
There was again a very appropriate occasion when the ‘memogate’ crisis was in full bloom. As the PM thundered in a speech that no state-within-the-state would be tolerated, I jumped with joy and readied myself to forgive the government for all its acts of omission and commission, as in this heroic struggle against the deep state, it needed our unconditional support. Again, in an imaginary situation, the deep state-judiciary nexus would have forced the PM to lose his seat and we would have conferred the honour of martyrdom on a heroic PM.
Another opportunity for exhibiting bravery and steadfastness was when the court had asked the deep state to produce missing persons. The PM could have issued a clear order that if a single person remained missing he would dismiss the heads of the agencies responsible for that. In the ensuing tussle, if he had lost his prime ministership we would have all lit candles in his support.
When late Salmaan Taseer was shot dead, and civil society and human rights activists made loud calls for revisiting and rationalising the Blasphemy law, the PM could have shown his zeal for martyrdom. He could have boldly declared that examining, amending or repealing any law is the exclusive power of the legislature and any person or organisation threatening the sovereignty of parliament would be sternly dealt with with the full force of the law. In this imaginary situation, if the radical elements in the media, in connivance with the judiciary, had brought down the PPP government, we would have had no hesitation calling the PPP a great martyr for the cause of championing human rights and secularism.
But on all these occasions, the PM proved a runaway who took refuge in the safety of political expediencies. A bold statement issued in a defiant voice against a state-within-the-state in the morning was taken back the next evening. Salmaan Taseer’s family was left in the lurch. The chirpy Sherry Rehman disappeared from the scene, as Rehman Malik became the outspoken supporter of the Blasphemy law, promising that all voices of rationality on these issues would be muffled by brute force. In Balochistan, the party has shut its eyes to human rights abuses, appearing clueless in the wake of incessant killings of people belonging to the Hazara community.
In this despicable imbroglio, one genuinely feels sorry for Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan. The saintly figure of the lawyers’ movement has done himself no favour with the arduous task of draping an emperor that imagines wearing the finest suit in the world. He was worth much more than a senate seat. In the Indian movie, Damini, Amrish Puri demolishes the case of a rape victim with his clever advocacy. Neither in Damini nor in the political arena, lawyers are only lauded for their advocacy skills. If brilliant lawyers help the government in flouting Supreme Court judgements, they do not win an ovation — whether the lawyers win cases for martial law dictators or civilian aristocrats.
It would be helpful to revisit the fundamental structure of constitutionalism in our country. The separation of powers between three pillars of the state is also backed up by a system of checks and balances. If the executive feels that the court has crossed its limits by issuing a wrong decision, it can approach the legislature as it enjoys a majority and can hence undo the decision. This is what Indira Gandhi did when she was disqualified by the Allahabad High Court on the charge of corrupt practices during an election campaign. She not only changed the law that empowered the court to disqualify her but also amended the constitution. The Indian Supreme Court though, struck down the amendment, invoking the doctrine of ‘Basic Structure’. Instead of wilfully disobeying the court’s judgment, the PPP government should have passed a nullifying Act of Parliament. In all probability that would have been challenged in the court again, but at least a shameful precedent of contempt of court would have been avoided.
In a popular Hollywood movie on Robin Hood, just before Robin and Azeem are catapulted over the castle wall to save Marian, Azeem asks Robin, “Is she worth it?” Robin replies, “Worth dying for.” When Yousaf Raza Gilani decided to commit contempt of court by disregarding its clear directive, one must have asked the PM, ‘Is the cause worth dying for?’
The writer teaches public policy in the U.K and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org