Beware the Ides of March!
Their lordships—the five of them on the Panama bench—have created as much suspense as an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. If this were a movie it would have filled the picture houses and their lordships would have been nominated for some kind of a directing prize.
Not the entire nation, because the nation has other things to worry about, but at least the political class and that great body of opinion and gossip called the chattering classes await with a mixture of trepidation and excitement the verdict in this gripping case, for on it hangs so much—the political fate of the Nooras, the future of the N League and indeed the direction of national politics.
Bhutto’s ouster changed the face of Pakistan. The Afghan jihad—the so-called jihad—had an enormous impact on us. There was a Pakistan before Gen Zia’s 1977 coup, a Pakistan before the Afghan jihad, and a different Pakistan thereafter. We are living in that different Pakistan. It wouldn’t do to exaggerate the importance of this case but it holds some of our future in its grip.
Admire him or loath him, Sheikh Rashid has a way with words, and he puts it nicely: from this case will come a coffin, either of the N-League or the concept of Pakistani justice. Of course he’s being tendentious and self-serving. The ends of justice according to him will only be served if Nawaz Sharif’s goose is cooked. If Nawaz Sharif comes out of this unscathed, imagine the jokes and the cynicism immediately pouring forth. In a polarized environment that’s how it is: everyone with his own take.
There was a time when the people of this country showed imagination and daring. They would take to the streets and face lathis and police bullets for the sake of their beliefs. They took to the streets against Ayub Khan and the rightwing and the ultra-right took to the streets against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Interior Sindh rose against Gen Zia in 1983. It is easy to talk brave today…so many of us are armchair warriors. But resistance then was not easy and the price for it was often heavy. Military courts could order lashings which was quite scary. And political workers could be sent to places like the Lahore Fort.
People are made to ‘disappear’ in parts of Balochistan and even elsewhere, this being an aspect of the terrorism wars that we are living through. But otherwise there are no political prisoners in Pakistan today. The political repression which was a feature of the Zia regime, and which earlier (let us not forget) was something also to be found under the Bhutto government, is mercifully absent from the Pakistani scene today.
Today we have social repression. We have hate crimes against minorities. We have dubious cases registered under the blasphemy laws. There is regular torture practiced in our police stations all over the country. The police also carry out staged encounters…not just involving terrorists but also persons accused of ordinary crimes. And there’s jihadi terror, bombs and killings, etc. But political repression of the kind existing once upon a time—the jailing of political activists and things of that sort—is not there.
Yet the paradox is that political activism is also largely dead. People take to the streets and block roads to protest, say, against police highhandedness usually when after the commission of a crime the police are found to side with the strong against the weak. People block roads for local, immediate issues and usually disperse when the local authorities give them a lollipop, some false assurance about an inquiry, etc. But mass movements of the kind which used to erupt here have also disappeared.
The masses and even the political class which used to lead them are more lazy and apathetic than they used to be. Their favourite mode of political participation now is to sit in front of their TV sets and watch others talking or shouting. The TV talk show has taken over from the street protest.
The last time anyone took to the streets was during the lawyers’ movement launched for the restoration of Chief Justice Chaudry who had been asked to go home by Gen Musharraf. When that movement got going—and it began quite spontaneously, whatever anyone may say about it now—it set in motion such a wave of idealism that to recall it now brings a wry smile to one’s lips. Indeed, the level of nonsense spouted during those marches was quite extraordinary, sober-minded people assuring everyone that Pakistan finally was on the verge of discovering the rule of law.
I recall one talk show in which Aitzaz Ahsan was asked about the economy and he said that with the restoration of an independent judiciary everything would be set right, including the economy.
Aitzaz Ahsan’s assessment today is somewhat less starry-eyed. The most notable achievements of that movement, he says, are violent lawyers and proud judges. This is quite on the mark but it misses a crucial factor. Besides any baggage of haughtiness that they may or may not be carrying, superior judges have also become more independent. In the old days, before the lawyers’ movement, I can’t imagine any high court judge giving a stay order against, say, the Orange Line project. And I can’t imagine any Supreme Court bench conducting hearings into the Panama case as this bench has done.
A few PML-N ministers have said some silly things but, all in all, the PML-N hasn’t really been able to mount any kind of public pressure against the Supreme Court. Certainly there has been nothing on the lines of the rallies that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan staged when he railed against the Turkish courts for having Gulenist sympathies.
So whether the verdict sends a wave of joy across the country or drives people up the wall, one thing is for sure—the decision will be their lordships own, with no influence much less dictation from any other quarter. Virtually on Mount Olympus, where the gods sat and feasted, sit their lordships. They have it in their power to write history.
But meanwhile the suspense not only carries on but as the days go by it is mounting. Now the question being asked is not what the verdict is going to be but when will it come. And there was something I was about to miss altogether: these are the Ides of March, corresponding to March 15 on the Roman calendar, the day of Julius Caesar’s assassination, made memorable by Shakespeare’s great play on the subject. “Beware the Ides of March,” the soothsayer warns Caesar and Caesar, calling him a dreamer, pays him no heed.
Their lordships are all men of learning. Knowing their Shakespeare, they would know the meaning, or rather the significance, of the Ides of March.
Thanks to Dunyya News.