Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan himself

Hearing Aitzaz Ahsan, the lawyers movement personified, was a real pleasure. He gave a talk at the LSE on 10 November. The talk was moderated by Lord Desai.

The two have co-authored Divided by Democracy which discusses why India is a democracy and Pakistan is not. I should probably get a hold of this book at some point and read it.

I attended the lecture with my mother and, little Saira and Tariq joined us too. There was a great buzz in the lecture theatre and, I saw a lot of the same faces that I had seen at Ahmed Rashid's talk at SOAS. In fact, I saw the 'retired-academic' chappie and even asked him his name again and promptly forgot it. I saw the the same fellows who had been at the after-party at the student bar at SOAS. And might I add, I said hello to Mr. Ziauddin and, he actually remembered my name!

Aitzaz Ahsan started off and said his talk would be about 'law in a lawless frontier' and the 'transformative role of the lawyers movement' in Pakistan. He described frontier as something that could be the geographic outline of a region but also the outline of a region of civilised, normative, constitutionally functioning world. Pakistan does have laws which are of an Anglo-Saxon tradition. By and large, we have a refined legal system except for some regressive laws installed by General Zia ul Haq. However, our laws have not been applied or enforced.

He said that the lawyers movement has brought Pakistan to a high point of existence however some issues had been 'befuddled.' Pakistan has managed to democratically elect a government, parliament and provincial assemblies. However, people ask him why in the face of such great achievement, is it so important to reinstate one Supreme Court judge.

His answer is that it is not the issue of the judges themselves but the question of how could one man suspend, amend and mutilate the Constitution? How could one man arrest 60 judges along with their wives and families? The Chief Justice was house arrested with his family for five months.

And the two most advanced, the two oldest, the two most stable, the two most wonderful - Aitzaz Ahsan really built up a crescendo and boy did he work it - democracies in the world, the USA and UK, did not utter a single syllable against this grave injustice. And, Aitzaz Ahsan, who wrote a piece for the Newsweek lamented this and said, if any foreign dignitary goes up the hill to meet President Musharraf they should also think of a prisoner on another hill. Yes, yes, this is how he went on about it. It sounds pretty theatrical, no, not even, it sounds really silly. But this is the trouble with translating poetic Urdu thoughts into very unpoetic English words.

So what was the excuse for the USA and the UK to ignore such grave abuses going on in the country ruled by their darling of the West, the great Musharraf? The war on terror, the war on terror. The effective weapon in this war is not a hi-tech one but a sympathetic population with rights and rule of law. The Taliban on the other hand do not provide schools or roads - in fact, they blow them up - but at least provide quick and brutal justice thereby gaining the loyalty of the population. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry was reaching out to the oppressed, the victims such as Mukhar Mai. He had zero tolerance for corruption, human rights abuses and environmental degradation.

Harvard University has decided to award Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry with the Medal of Freedom which has only been ever awarded twice: Justice Thurgood Marshall (was an American Jusrist and the first African American to serve on the Supreme Courst Justice of the USA. Before becoming a judge, he was a lawyer who was best remembered for his high success rate in arguing before the Supreme Court and for the victory in Brown v. Board of Education) and the great Nelson Mandela.

Chief Justice Chaudry will be awarded the medal on 19 November in Boston. It is an honour for Pakistan. Ahsan said that Pakistanis were grateful to the American and European academia for having shown solidarity but unfortunately the administrations did not. Rather, he said that the administration think Pakistanis should be grateful to them for the change that has come about it. He said it the lawyers movement which weakened Musharraf and not any external pressure.

What triggered the lawyers movement in Pakistan? Ahsan said that it was a long time coming. The judiciary had been abused for a long time and, the movement was inevitable. He described the moment when the Chief Justice was sacked and Khan was arguing against it with the panel of judges who told him to 'have faith in Allah' (the usual call-to-God-befuddling-diversion invoked in our parts) and he retorted 'he did have faith in Allah but not in them'.

Pakistan's lawyers movement has to be seen as an aspiration of its people for rule of law. Pakistan is a South Asian state, not an Arab one, where the judiciary is almost non-existent.

Historically, democracy and parliament cannot be sustained without an independent judiciary. We have to look towards our neighbour, our colonial cousin, India, where democracy has managed to survive the 'din and chaos.' Why? Because its judges have been independent. Even under Indira Gandhi's emergency rule, the judiciary was independent. Similarly, the judiciary was not suspended even during the American Civil War. In Britain, the judiciary as an institution existed 3-400 years before Parliament; the writ of habeus corpus predates parliament (e.g. of 5 Knights case). Hence, the British experience says 'democracy is a creature of independent judiciary.' And, South Asia derives most of its legal system, if not all, from the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

He passionately stressed that an independent judicairy is necessary for progress and economic development. 'No country can develop on dole.' It needs investment - sarmaya kari. He said economic development required capital, not necessary capitalism, which was a very interesting distinction that he made. And, capital can be invested where a contract can be enforced and an independent and 'fearless' judiciary resides.

The talk concluded and, the floor was opened to questions. Lord Desai - and what an entertaining character to look at, observe and hear - I was mesmerised by his pouffy white hair - strictly told everyone that they should only ask questions and not make statements. He quite got a bang out of all the Zardari-PPP related questions that Khan wanted to dodge but had to answer.

Ahsan said that he had a fundamental disagreement with Zardari over the deposed judges. Zardari had effectively abandoned his support for the Islamabad Declaration i.e. the judges would be reinstated 24 hours after the departure of Musharraf. Of course, that has not happened and the judges issue has been left unresolved. He was highly unimpressed with this turn of events. Moreover, the cabinet is comprised of characters who have publicly said really stupid things, for example condoning cruel judgements passed by village jirgas.

As far as his position was concerned, he has remained in the PPP because it is not a one-person party. The part is made up of millions of people. He has been part of it for 40 years. He is actually the voice of dissent.

As for inheritance in political parties, it seems to be a South Asian phenomenon. He gave the example of the Gandhi dynasty in India, the relations of the political leaders in Bangladesh and even in Sri Lanka.

However, the audience did not seem to be convinced that there was any dissent in the PPP. He said there was. He drew a rather strange parallel with the politics of the Democrat party in the recent primary elections and the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He said that Clinton has gone to great lengths to slander Obama but, when defeated, had to accept his victory and the party line. I guess he was trying to say that divisions occur in parties but he cannot really compare that mechanism for electing a Democrat nominee with the cracks within PPP over the issue of whether or not to reinstate deposed judges.

As for why Pakistanis haven't called for Musharraf's punishment, he said that in Pakistan we 'presribe for a more collective action.' There should be accountability however, it would probably create more division. Moreover, culturally, we prefer to say, 'let's forget it.'

It was clear that much of the audience was not convinced with his insistence that he was the voice of dissent in the PPP, that he had still clung on to his principles. Pakistanis can certainly be forgiven for being cynical in this regard. Pakistanis would never have believed that Asif Zardari, the guy famously referred to as the 10% man, the guy who is often blamed for Benazir Bhutto's tarnished track record and corruption charges, would one day be their President. The lawyers movement which engendered an entirely new wave of political and civic consciousness in Pakistan - of which Aitzaz Ahsan is a big part of, nay, is synonymous with - has sort of been betrayed by the new government under Zardari.

While discussing the talk with Tariq afterwards, indeed, I can understand the general disappointment among Pakistanis. They don't see Aitzaz Ahsan putting into action his principled stand. Tariq said that if the ANC can split, so can and should PPP. Perhaps that would create fresh blood within party politics in Pakistan and is what is exactly needed in Pakistan.

As for how I found Ahsan to be, I think he was quite a distinguished speaker, obviously a politician and mostly made sense to me.


  1. His name is Chauhadry Aitzaz Ahsan, not Aitzaz Khan. Kindly correct it.

  2. Okay - did it. Happy? No other comments?