Kiran Omar


The unlawful removal of the Supreme Court and High Court judges by Pakistan by President Pervez Musharraf in November 2007 triggered a major resistance, which was joined by a large section of the civil society. All political parties made the restoration of the judiciary as a key point in their platform during the February 2008 elections. However, the coalition government that came to power is dragging its feet on this important issue.


The legal community in Pakistan took a historic stand against the unlawful removal of Supreme Court and High Court judges and the Chief Justice of Pakistan by President (retd) General Pervez Musharraf in November 2007. Their courageous and principled stand resulted in a tumultuous wave of resistance and protest that swelled steadily as civil society members, activists, and ordinary people, joined their ranks. It was a historic movement because in the brief history of Pakistan, it was the first time that the legal community had openly and aggressively challenged a military government. What was remarkable was the wide-ranging support the Lawyers’ Movement gained from a cross-section of mainstream Pakistani society. It reflected the frustration and anger felt by the average Pakistani citizen who was largely apolitical, but wanted to register his/her strong protest against the suspension of the judiciary and the Rule of Law in the country. It marked a reclamation of public space and affirmation of commitment to democracy and the democratic process. The message sent to the ruling military government was loud and clear.


The elections held in February 2008, were supposed to have carried this wave forward and were perceived as the basis for the restoration of the judiciary. The coalition government that resulted from these elections made Restoration of the Judiciary, essential and pivotal to its mandate. All parties that chose to participate in the elections, made the restoration of the deposed judiciary as their slogan to rally popular support. The mood of the public was palpable, the clamor for reform was strong, resolutely supported by a cross-section of society.


Despite the commitments expressed by the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz group (PML-N) and its support of the lawyers, the coalition has faltered and been in at odds at the resolution of this issue. Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly expressed his firm support and kept up the pressure on the government to resolve the issue as expediently as possible. However, the leadership of the People’s Party (PPP) of late Benazir Bhutto has not been able to either form a consensus on a satisfactory resolution, or been able to firmly establish their commitment towards the issue.   There is much ambiguity and disagreement within the Party’s leadership, and has resulted often in conflicting points of view being presented to the public via the media. This lack of clarity and commitment has resulted in frustration and disappointment. The coalition government, after being in power for close to four months, has been unable to carry out the writ of the people who brought them into the corridors of power.


This frustration and anger spilled over into the streets of Pakistan and resulted in a Long March from Lahore to Islamabad, and hundreds of thousands of lawyers and ordinary citizens marched to the capital demanding redress. It was hoped that a “sit-in” would take place at the culmination of the march, and would be in place until the restoration question was addressed. This did not take place as there seemed to be confusion and miscommunication amongst the lawyers and the organizers of the march. The government, to its credit, did much to facilitate the logistics of the march, but did little to address the core issue.


The critics of the march claim that the Lawyers agitation is taking away the government’s attention from more pressing issues of sky-high prices of daily commodities, a looming food and energy crisis, and the ever omnipresent threat of militancy in the North Western Province, that is ever ready to spill over to the rest of the country. The supporters of the lawyers movement argue, that these economic and security problems will not only remain rooted, but will steadily increase, unless democratic and legal institutions are strengthened. Corruption at all levels of government bureaucracy and in the socio-economic institutions of the country can only be tackled with a strong and independently functioning judiciary. There can be little meaningful progress unless the legal system functions efficiently and effectively.


The Long-March is being labeled in certain circles as an exercise in futility; it is an excessive show of misplaced zeal but not a popular movement with huge public support. There is a danger if these perceptions prevail and the real message behind this march is dismissed and trivialized. The writ of the people is clear; there is anger, frustration and mistrust, and the state must be cognizant of these sentiments.  People have endured many false promises and have witnessed extreme mismanagement of national resources, public funds and trust. They are no longer willing to endure passively the many inequities visited upon them in the name of governance and democracy. There is growing realization that accountability is owned to the public, and can only take place within a strong democratic framework, which is centered on a strong justice system, accessible to all.


The coalition government and its partners cannot afford to over look the pressing demand for legal reforms and restoration of the judiciary. It would be politically imprudent to ignore an issue that refuses to be shoveled under the carpet. There are fissures appearing within the governing coalition over issues, and the public refuses to be swayed into a compromise. If the coalition is to hold, then some settlement that is widely acceptable has to be achieved. The newly installed government cannot afford a stalemate or stand-off at this early stage of its governance. It will loom as a major obstacle and stumbling bloc and any efforts to move forward towards tackling pressing problems like inflation control, security challenges, etc., will be hamstrung.


The leadership of the lawyer’s movement will have to devise a tactical plan for the future to maintain the pressure on the state. The pressure must be sustained if real and meaningful reforms are to be enacted, and the culture of corruption and parochialism changed. The sincerity of the lawyers movement cannot be denied, however their leadership has to continue to exert its pressure continuously and firmly. Pakistan today is at a crossroads, and the opportunity to usher in a new era is within sight. This tryst with history must not be missed if we are to evolve as country of substance and pride in the nations of the world.


(Kiran Omar is a social activist and keen observer of Pakistan political developments; she lives in Montreal)

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