Did the movement bring a fundamental change in the state and the society and the relationship between the two?
by Ayesha Siddiqa
The protests, rallies and demonstrations by the legal community from 2007 to 2009 took everyone in and outside Pakistan by surprise. People were impressed with the perseverance of the lawyer’s from around the country in the face of a military dictator and in forcing a political government to ensure that the chief justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was restored. However, it is worth asking whether the movement brought some fundamental change in the state and society and the relationship between the two?
The above question cannot be answered without retrospectively, though briefly, looking at this event in history that got labeled as a movement. There are scholars who did not consider this as a movement even then. It did not qualify as a movement, perhaps, in comparison to what Pakistan witnessed during the late 1960s when the under-privileged people from all walks of life came together to protest Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship. The movement of the 1960s included the farm labor, factory worker, students, and people like the small-time chaiwala who were willing to sacrifice their meager earnings for long-term political benefits.
On the other hand, the political action spearheaded by the legal community, in which others such as the media, civil society and ex-servicemen and some other groups took part, had an urban and middle class character. A lot of them such as some members of the ex-servicemen association had immense dislike for Musharraf (but not necessarily the military). This was then an event where personal interests and biases got compounded with a cause.
The real dispossessed Pakistani did not come out on the streets for two reasons. First, the lawyer’s protest did not until the very end establish any link between security of the judiciary and empowerment of the legal community, and socioeconomic uplift in the country. The economic explanation for a free and fair judiciary was a point raised in Aitzaz Ahsan’s speech at the end of the long march but it had the impact of being too little too late. Second, the legal community failed to convince the general public of their earnestness to improve the fate of the common man who sees that lawyers and the judicial system as much a part of overall elite exploitation. A visit to the katchaihrey in any big or small town bears witness to the might of a system that exploits people. The black coats were not able to distance themselves from the image of the exploiter that they become in their own sphere.
Thus, the entire notion of the lawyer’s protest representing the strengthening of the society versus the state requires a serious reassessment. Surely, the idea is not to take away the achievements of that time as it was the first fairly massive right-wing movement after the PNA movement against Bhutto in the late 1970s. The decade of the 70s marks not only the relative and systematic weakening of the left in Pakistan but also the gradual strengthening of the right-wing. The bulk of the legal community, the mainstream media and key civil society groups may have differing views on the use of religious ideology in state politics, but these are fairly centrist or right of center forces. An urban-middle class setting means a natural inclination towards the state as a symbol of power that must be controlled for furthering of personal interests. The legal community, in any case, as is very obvious from Stanley Kochanek’s work on power groups in Pakistan, is inclined towards the establishment from the early years after independence.
It can be concluded from the socio-political nature of the legal community and its behavior after the end of the 2007-2009 protest that a strengthening of the system of justice for the benefit of the common man was certainly not the core purpose. It was a means to an end denoted by the empowerment of the legal community, building up of its nuisance value and membership as a secondary partner of the powerful establishment. The lawyers in general did not demonstrate a willingness to apply the rule of law principle to themselves. For instance, in one particular case in which a lawyer tortured his 12 years old Christian house maid to death, the lawyers in general were forced not to represent the victim’s family. Similarly, lawyers resorted to physical abuse of those with opposing views and gross misconduct in the premises of the superior courts. Some of the starts of the protest also benefited by building up their personal fortunes as people were attracted to them due to their close connection with the chief justice during the lawyer’s movement. Thus, perceptions built during the protests were of great value.
The legal community-media partnership, in fact, worked out to be a great combination that created new heroes and pitched the two communities as ultimate beneficiaries of the political struggle. This is not to suggest that the struggle did not bring any change in the country. However, it did not necessarily denote a transformation of the mindset and change the overall system of governance as there was hardly any introspection by the legal community of its attitudes.
Referring to the ideological bent of the protest, it indicated a further step towards strengthening of the right wing. As a matter of fact, some of the lawyer’s used their newly acquired nuisance value to exhibit their ideological power as was obvious from the trial of Mumtaz Qadri for the murder of Salmaan Taseer. The middle class traders from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, who were also on the forefront during the lawyer’s protest, were there on Qadri’s side as well along with hundreds of lawyers.
Religiosity and militant-nationalism are two of the key traits that have evolved amongst Pakistan’s middle class in the past couple of decades. This is laced with authoritarian tendencies and inclination towards strengthening of kleptocracy. As the dust settles on the ‘lawyer’s movement’ we will realize that it ultimately resulted in further solidification of the establishment. The military, for one, is no less out of business than it was before November 2007.