Following the military government’s decision January 26 to ask the judges of the Supreme Court, Federal Shariat Court and four High Courts to take a fresh oath of office swearing loyalty to the “new provisional order”, a number of judges have chosen to retire rather than stand to ceremony. Many among them were very good judges who did their profession proud. We are sorry to see them go.
Equally, however, several judges did not enjoy the best reputations in the business, while others were marked for overt political or ideological bias. Too many tears will not be shed for them. It is also significant that none of them had the courage to take up arms and punish the guilty when their holy shrine, the Supreme Court, was assaulted by violent mobs at the behest of the ruling party in 1997.
No matter. Good and bad alike, this was a matter of conscience and we should respect their decision as a matter of principle. Significantly, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mr Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, did the unprecedented and rather heroic thing by standing down.
Equally, however, those who have taken the oath have not done the dishonourable thing. Many among them are good and distinguished judges, no less than the best, just as the others are no worse than the worst, among their departing colleagues. Indeed, all of them have been as practically neutral as their predecessors were when the given order was abrogated, suspended, overthrown or replaced by similar military or quasi-civil dispensations in the past. In fact, at times like these, it is worth recalling that the judiciary in this country has never been chaste and there is no immutable or pristine yardstick against which it may be measured. Like political leaders and constitutionalism, it as emerged pockmarked from the debris of civil society in the aftermath of military-bureaucratic or autocratic-civilian interventions.
The real question is different. Why didn’t General Pervez Musharraf issue this critical order the day after he seized power instead of four months later? Every unemployed political pundit had offered this advice gratis but it was spurned by the high and mighty in Rawalpindi. However, now that there seemed no escape from it, given the tortuous web of legal niceties confronting the regime, we reckon that such political naivete is unbecoming a regime with such grand ambitions of transforming state and society.
In fact, we might take this opportunity to raise afresh certain other issues which are hanging fire and which could embarrass, possibly even derail, General Musharraf’s government in time to come.
First, you cannot have a clear-cut mission statement without a clear-cut timetable. The two are flip sides of the same coin. This suggests, at best, a blurred vision which could lead to false starts and dead ends, and, at worst, no vision at all, which would be tragic. It also implies a lack of confidence in being able to steer along the straight and narrow path to “true democracy”. The fact is that in this time and age a timetable would have imposed some necessary political discipline in Rawalpindi as well as removed some of the obstacles in the path of the government by the international community. Finally, it would have imbued the new dispensation with a degree of political certainty and assurance that would have revived confidence in the economy and country.
Two, conventional wisdom suggests that tough economic and political decisions should always be taken at the very beginning of a new regime when there is goodwill aplenty for it in society, or when everyone is in awe or fear of it. This is especially true of us, considering how many times we have been led up the garden path by adventurers, demagogues and democrats. Regrettably, this time-tested approach seems to have been abandoned in favour of one which naively proclaims sincerity and integrity above performance and consistency. The areas in which this strategic shortcoming is most marked are: economy, foreign policy and accountability. These are precisely those where expectations were at an all-time peak when the new regime seized power and where the greatest erosion has subsequently taken place.
Three, it is clear that this is a military government without even a credible civilian face to take responsibility for, or share the burden of, any mishaps which will inevitably follow. The decision-making centre is GHQ which constantly cues the federal and provincial cabinets as well as the NSC. If this arrangement had been on a strategic level, we would have learnt to live with it. But on a day-to-day basis, with GHQ’s powerful tentacles all over the provinces and districts via the Corps Commanders masquerading as “Monitors” and the various Governors and cabinets meekly acquiescing in matters big and small, the situation could become alarmingly self-perpetuating. There is no fall back position, no fall guys, no “alternative” advisors, no political (as opposed to military) strategists. The mind fairly boggles at the thought of a unprepared military junta with a leaky umbrella caught in the midst of a sudden downpour as it stumbles across a terrain splattered with land-mines.
General Musharraf should pause to evaluate the quality of advice he has received so far. There is too much at stake to remain smug any more.