On 12 May, Pakistan had its Black Sabbath. It turned out to be more bizarre than the surreal happenings that had preceded it, which included the takeover of the sole children’s public library by hordes of black-hooded women, a mosque imam referring to the female students in Pakistan’s premiere public university as prostitutes, and law-enforcement personnel dragging the country’s chief justice by his hair. And all this in the capital, regarded as quite removed from the hurly burly of Pakistan’s agitational politics!
Saturday, 12 May will go down in history as a shameful day for Pakistan. On that day, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had been abruptly deposed by General Pervez Musharraf on 9 March on spurious charges, was to address the legal practitioners of the Sindh High Court, in Karachi. On arriving at the Karachi airport, Chief Justice Chaudhry was detained for nine hours, before finally being put back on a plane bound for Islamabad. The entry points to roads from the airport to the High Court had been blocked by hundreds of trucks, buses and containers, orchestrated by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), one of Musharraf’s key support bases. Armed MQM thugs, with the tacit support of the MQM-dominated Sindh government, had also coerced lawyers and opposition party activists not to show their support for the suspended chief justice. One observer commented that even the Pakistan Army could not have so successfully halted life in Karachi.
The intimidation was not completely successful, however. All of the major opposition parties had already endorsed the call to greet the chief justice, and thousands defied the MQM threats to take to the streets. Earlier, Sindh Governor Ishrat ul-Ibad, also of the MQM, had warned Chaudhry to postpone his trip (although his talk had been planned long before); the chief justice in turn asked that the MQM not hold its rally on the same day.
As it happened, Chaudhry arrived in Karachi on schedule, and the MQM goondas proceeded to wield their street power on the gathered crowds, eventually opening fire. By the end of the day, 40 people were dead, 150 injured and countless vehicles destroyed. Although the state authorities had ordered the deployment of 15,000 security personnel, they did nothing to stop the MQM thugs. It has been reported that not only were the troops specifically directed not to intervene, but even their weapons were taken away. As such, security personnel were widely observed simply standing about, watching the violence unfold. This was in stark contrast to the previous 10 weeks, when the security forces had acted with alacrity against pro-Chaudhry protests and journalists covering the demonstrations. On 12 May, it was MQM supporters who assumed this role – firing repeatedly at the Karachi headquarters of Aaj TV, which was airing live coverage of the day’s events.
As demonstrators dropped dead and the injured lay unattended, smoke rose from burning tires and vehicles on the streets of Karachi. In the midst of these warlike conditions, preparations were underway for another kind of gathering, in Islamabad. On 12 May, Jinnah Avenue, Islamabad’s central road, wore a sudden festive look, with men in dhotis hoisting banners and placards festooned with pictures of Gen Musharraf. The loud, rhythmic beat of drums even led many to dance the bhangra. The centre of the show, a 20-foot-high platform surrounded by bullet-proof glass, stood waiting for important guests. But even as the state-television cameras stayed on this sedate scene, the public was tuning to other channels, all of them airing grim footage of the death and destruction in Karachi.
All the while, huge bus convoys, largely filled with paid participants, were flooding Islamabad’s main thoroughfares. The riders, from outlying areas of Punjab and NWFP, were evidently glad to tour the capital – and keen to receive payments of PKR 100-300 and a free meal. Annoyed by the success of Chief Justice Chaudhry’s journey from Islamabad to Lahore on 5 May – a four-hour drive that stretched to 24 hours and generated humongous crowds along the Grand Truck Road – Gen Musharraf had his office and his confidante, Punjab Chief Minister Parvez Elahi, arrange his own extravaganza in Islamabad. The district nazims (heads of municipalities) were utilised for crowd-gathering and transport.
Following speeches by Pakistan Muslim League leaders and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Gen Musharraf finally arrived at the glass enclosure. He claimed to be shocked and grieved by the carnage in Karachi, but blamed Chief Justice Chaudhry for the tragedy. He also went on to hint at further violence, should the opposition continue to defy the government’s will. “If they think they are powerful,” the general intoned, “then they should know that the people’s power is with us.” No one needed to tell Gen Musharraf that the crowds he saw on the other side of the glass were mostly trucked in; the truth no longer seems to matter for those in the general’s camp.
A thorn in the side
Gen Musharraf’s relationship with the MQM, his key support base and coalition supporters in Sindh, is a fraught one. With key members of the MQM – including its exiled leader, Altaf Hussain, as well as Sindh Governor Ishrat ul-Ibad – under grave legal charges, it is somewhat ironic that the general keeps direct telephone contact with Hussain (now a British citizen and living in exile in London). On 12 May, to underline his and his party’s support for Gen Musharraf, Hussain, the Mohajir Messiah, addressed a huge crowd by telephone, to try and douse the flames in Karachi. He, too, blamed the chief justice for the violence.
Unlike the safely exiled MQM leader, on home ground Gen Musharraf needs to go through legal acrobatics to justify his maintenance of power as both president and army chief. In his 12 May speech, the general reconfirmed his intention to have the country’s legislators re-elect him for another five-year term before the coming elections. Gen Musharraf’s worry that Chief Justice Chaudhry would not allow such a move may have been the most significant reason for making Chaudhry ‘non-functional’; even today, the matter remains topmost on everyone’s mind.
Several other cases scheduled for hearing in the Supreme Court during 2007 were also potentially embarrassing for the government. Among these is one enquiring into the alleged dual citizenship of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz (Pakistani and American), and his eligibility to hold his current office. Chaudhry had also issued judgments and taken suo moto action on issues that had exposed the underlying shady nature of existing or proposed government deals. These have included the privatisation of the country’s steel mills, which were to be sold to a person closely connected with Shaukat Aziz; as well as Chaudhry’s orders relating to the ‘disappearances’ and human-rights violations by the country’s security forces.
Chaudhry also raised the government’s ire over a plan to transform the pristine forest of Patriata – which serves as the watershed and filter for drinking water for Rawalpindi and Islamabad – into a pleasure garden for the country’s wealthy. A few weeks before the historic suo moto hearing in the Supreme Court, the chief justice received a dossier opposing the proposed destruction of the Patriata forest, which brought to his attention a plan by the Punjab government to construct on the site luxury hotels and foreigner-only enclaves. Due to the court’s subsequent intervention, work on the Patriata ridge was stopped pending environment-protection assurances.
The full bench of the Supreme Court is now set to hear the allegations against the former chief justice. This is the first time in Pakistan’s history that a sitting chief justice has been dismissed due to such charges. Given the atmosphere in Pakistan and the widespread disgust at the way Chaudhry has been treated, it is unlikely that the court will find him guilty of the current charges of ‘misconduct’. More crucially, the general-president may have inadvertently brought about the beginning of the end of his own political career.
With Chief Justice Chaudhry returned to his old seat, the chances would be significantly greater that Gen Musharraf’s re-election plan would be halted by the court. There is already a petition before the court, recently filed by the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, questioning Gen Musharraf’s ability to hold his army position past the retirement age of 60. (The general will turn 64 on 11 August.) Gen Musharraf has retorted, however, by warning that he will use “extra-constitutional means” to ensure his election and that of his partners. If the corporate interests of the military, coupled with the desire of the US government for a pliant military leader in Pakistan coincides, Gen Musharraf’s next step could be to declare a state of emergency.
After the events of 12 May, the chances of a brewing agreement with the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Benazir Bhutto, suddenly became remote. Bhutto would be committing political suicide if she were now to side with Gen Musharraf. In the current political tussle, Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-parliamentarian, has gathered considerable support through his sharp criticism of the MQM and the general.
These are interesting times in Pakistan, made more so by a chief justice who has had the courage to contest the allegations against him. Pakistanis who support Iftikhar Chaudhry hope that the new opening will prove to be a watershed – perhaps even ushering in a new era of honest politicians, one that returns the military to its barracks, and gradually undermines the military’s corporate interests, diminishing their desire to interfere in politics. If this were to happen, we could perhaps even see a peaceful and speedy solution to the Kashmir problem. Who knows – such dreams could lead Pakistanis to act, and make these hopes come true.
~Q Isa Daudpota is an Islamabad-based physicist who writes on the environment, education, science and IT policy