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Pakistan's Longer March Ahead

Pakistan's Longer March Ahead

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Revolution, as Mao Zedong warned, may not be "a dinner party." But the rebellion in Pakistan certainly ended in street celebrations across the country from Monday on, complete with drum-beating and dancing. There was no mistaking the mood and the message: people's power had won the day for democracy.

Had they, however, won it for the days to come?

Not only are skeptics and spoilsports asking this question; prominent supporters and participants of the pro-democracy movement are posing it as well.

About the positives of the situation today, there can be precious little doubt. The most dramatic achievement of the movement lies in its least-dramatic outcome. Pakistan has sprung its second major surprise on itself and the world in the space of about a year. The general election of February 2008 led to a peaceful transfer of power, and not to a flight of former President Pervez Musharraf from the land. The Long March of lawyers to Islamabad from all over the country, to demand reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and other judges, too, ended in a political settlement of the issue, without the crisis precipitating a catastrophe as predicted by many pundits.

The people of Pakistan, rallying together on the academic-sounding issue of the rule of law, had indeed made this possible, more than anyone else. But was it only the people - and even only Pakistan?

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The role of the US and the UK governments in ensuring such resolution of the crisis is an open secret by now. Particularly crucial, by all accounts, are the telephone calls to Pakistan's power centers over the weekend from US Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had also weighed in, hinting that US aid to Pakistan might well hinge on an expeditious solution to the conflict. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also reported to have added the weight of his word.

The intervention, of course, served the interests of Pakistan's democracy in this instance. The practice of such interventions, however, had not helped the cause at all in the past, to put it more than mildly.

(Official India, which has been talking of a pro-democracy partnership with the US through the presidential days of George Bush, played no such role. On the contrary, in fact, while the lawyers and others were getting ready for the Long March, Musharraf was invited to a "leadership summit" hosted by a media house in New Delhi. At the event, rather transparently part of India's Track II diplomacy, the retired general responded positively to suggestions of his return to power in order to save a country in crisis.)

Significantly, Holbrooke and Miliband made their most important calls, by all accounts again, to Pakistan's Chief of Armed Services Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, who had returned home from a working trip to Washington on the eve of the country-wide agitation. The role of the army chief in "leaning on" both President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has been widely acknowledged and even acclaimed. The question, however, remains: did the army and its chief have any role in the resolution of a political crisis, by any true definition of democracy?

The pro-democracy camp, which one would expect to deny such a role, is witnessing a debate on it. While human rights activist Tahira Abdullah voices reservations about Kiyani's role, her colleague Asma Jehangir does not think it can be interpreted as "military intervention" in civilian affairs.

The political composition of the pro-democracy movement in its current phase must provoke questions as well.

Peace activist and prominent columnist Beena Sarwar writes: "The 'long march' demanding the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, spearheaded by the legal fraternity and sections of civil society, has ready allies among the right-wing political opposition."

She adds: "This includes Sharif's PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz) and the Jamaat-e-Islami, a mainstream religious party sympathetic to militant Islam, as well as others sympathetic to the Taliban, like ex-chief Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and anti-India hawk Gen. (retd.) Hamid Gul, retired bureaucrat Roedad Khan, who brutally quashed political opposition during the Zia years, and cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan, chief of the Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice)." She recalls: "All these forces boycotted the 2008 polls except Sharif, who rescinded his boycott decision after Bhutto convinced him that elections were the only way forward."

Some cracks have naturally surfaced in the movement. On the morrow of its victory, the Jama'at-e-Islami was reported to have complained that once again the two mainstream parties had "made a deal" without consulting it.

Sarwar talks of both groups in the movement, the larger right-wing contingents and the minority of rights activists and others, trying to "use" each other. Who will succeed will be a question of concern.

Concern is eminently warranted because the crucial issue of Taliban and terrorism is connected to the movement's composition. This, too, is an issue of democracy, given the socio-political agenda of the fundamentalist groups.

On March 8, just a week before the final rebellion, Ayesha Siddiqa, who has done more than anyone else to expose the extra-constitutional power of Pakistan's military establishment, wrote: "There is much to criticize about the PPP (Pakistan People's Party) government's functioning, but the biggest concern must be the army's perception of the situation. Does it plan to continue with the so-called 'war on terror'? So far, the armed forces give the impression they are silent spectators, quietly playing along with the decisions of the civilian government."

Talking of a truce between Islamabad and militants in the Swat Valley, she added: "... Kiyani keenly marketed the ... agreement ... during his recent visit to the US. Many believe the agreement, according to which the NWFP (North-West Frontier Province) government agreed to implement sharia law in Swat in exchange for peace, will only strengthen the Taliban."

The militants chose the time of "victory" celebration by the pro-democracy movement for a suicide-bomber attack in the heart of Rawalpindi, killing 14 people. Lahore-based newspaper Daily Times commented caustically: "The victory of the Long March which came at the end of an almost year-long political bickering has been gained at the cost of ignoring the two-ton gorilla in the drawing-room: terrorism from the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the erstwhile jihadi organizations now on the payroll of Al Qaeda."

Writing in the same paper, Ejaz Haider noted: "While the rest of Pakistan was celebrating the restoration of the deposed chief justice of Pakistan as indicative of the rule of law, in another part of Pakistan (if it can be called that), a more regressive step was being taken."

"In Swat," he said, "where state authority has been ceded to the Taliban by the provincial government, ... (militant chief) Sufi Muhammad, leader of the Tehreek-e Nifaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi, has asked the lower judiciary and the lawyers to leave the area since the system they represent is not functional in his domain any more." Chaudhry's post may have been restored, but not the jurisdiction of the judiciary he will preside over.

There is much talk of the settlement leading to changes in the system in order to strengthen it. Some even speak of striving for a scrapping of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) of 0ctober 6, 2007. Seeking to end corruption cases against PPP leaders as part of a US-brokered deal with Musharraf, the NRO withdrew all charges "to promote national reconciliation, foster mutual trust and confidence amongst holders of public office and remove the vestiges of political vendetta and victimization, to make the election process more transparent ..." Annulment of the NRO may, however, be too ambitious an objective at the moment.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has also promised follow-up action on the issue of judges on the basis of the Charter of Democracy signed between Benazir Bhutto and Sharif in London on May 15, 2006. This will mean PPP-PML-N cooperation to work out judicial reforms through an amendment in the Pakistan Constitution.

Also on the anvil is action to undo the 17th Amendment of the Constitution of December 2003. By this amendment, Musharraf gave himself the authority to dissolve the National Assembly and thus effectively to dismiss the prime minister.

Some cominister with the judiciary was not beyond reproach. Some commentators have spoken of the poor democratic credentials of some political players in the pro-democracy movement. Sarwar quotes former lawyer Mustafa Qadri as saying :"Sharif's attempts to paint himself as a radical, grassroots activist are at odds with his political origins." Another analyst recalls that Sharif gained prominence as a businessman under the patronage of military dictator General Zia -ul-Haq, the father of politico-religious fundamentalism in Pakistan. Sharif's own record as Prime Minister with the judiciary was not beyond reproach.

Similarly, it is recalled that Justice Chaudhry, starting on the bench of the Balochistan High Court, was one of the first judges to take an oath on the infamous Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). This allowed him to be elevated to the Supreme Court to fill one of the vacancies left by the 11 judges who had resigned in protest at taking this oath. The judges, taking this oath, upheld the order that "the Supreme Court or a High Court and any other court shall not have the power to make any order against the President or the Prime Minister or any person exercising powers or jurisdiction under their authority."

Chaudhry was also one of the five Supreme Court judges who dismissed all petitions challenging Musharraf's constitutional amendments. His confrontations with the former president were to come over other cases, including privatization of a public-sector steel mill and "disappearance" of political activists.

These smudges on the records of Sharif and Chaudhry only show how little the images of individual leaders have to do with movements like the Long March. The future of the movement will depend on whether the people will remain the same, steadfast pro-democracy force they have proven themselves to be.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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