When President Pervez Musharraf attempted to dismiss the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, on March 9, 2007, allegedly on charges of corruption, he did not realize that he would have a fight on his hands. Since then, Chaudhry has toured the country north-to-south with his team of defence lawyers, rallying public support in every corner of Pakistan. Although appointed by Musharraf in 2005, it soon became clear that “the Chief” as the public endearingly refer to him, had a mind of his own. Deciding against government interests in a notable privatization case, he took up several human rights abuse cases, including those where individuals had gone “missing” in the middle of the night in the name of fighting the “war against terror”.
As Chaudhry’s popularity soars, Musharraf’s has diminished significantly. The government is viewed as insecure and balking in the face of criticism previously tolerated. Independent television channels covering the rallies organized to protest Chaudhry’s ouster were reprimanded initially and subsequently barred from live coverage. Previously, the government prided itself on encouraging a free press, but today, it insists the media is biased. In the eyes of the people, the media has played its role exceptionally well, covering all sides of every story.
Rebuked by government officials for airing every word of the Chief’s address and criticized for its over-zealous coverage of the dead bodies that lay helpless in Karachi on May 12 when thugs allegedly supported by the provincial government, a coalition partner of Musharraf’s party, clashed into opposition forces, the media have braved threats, sticks and even bullets to bring the true picture to the homes of average Pakistani citizens.
“You are leading the new jihad,” call-in viewers tell current event talk show hosts, ratings for whose programs far surpass those of soap operas and reality television. Jihad, an Arabic word adopted into Urdu, literally means struggle. Newspaper editorials and op-ed pieces regularly comment on the struggle for an irreversible transition to democracy and civilian supremacy over military rule.
Musharraf’s government is suffering its worst political crisis yet and the silent majority who did not speak up when Pakistan allied itself with the United States in the “war on terror” and did not respond to Musharraf’s call for “enlightened moderation” is finally rallying behind a cause. Independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers and establishment of rule of law are subjects the Chief speaks about in his rallies and the common folk come out in droves to listen to him. Sixty thousand turned up at the address in Abbottabad, where the population of the entire district is less than a million.
It is no longer just the lawyers in their black coats marching out in solidarity with their Chief. The movement has reached out to the common person. A distance normally covered in three hours takes the Chief’s car sixteen because of the large number of people surrounding his vehicle and lining the streets in every little town along the way. In Faisalabad, the Chief’s birth place, they prepared for his arrival as they would for a prince’s marriage, horsemen on white horses standing guard, dancing in the streets to the beat of powerful drums, rose petals covering every inch of his car.
Chaudhry did not disappoint. “A society can live with kufr (non-believers),” he said, “but not with injustice.” The liberal, secular nature of the movement is clear from the signs on display in the audience, which no longer read “Down with America,” but instead, “We want Freedom!”
The team of defence lawyers, more articulate than the Chief himself, is carefully chosen, comprising of lawyers representing the spectrum of Pakistan’s linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. Led by Mr. Aitzaz Ahsan, Ali Ahmed Kurd, Hamid Ali Khan, Tarique Mehmood and Munir Malik together can pull crowds the way ex-prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif may no longer be able to.
Criticized by the government for politicizing the issue of the Chief’s dismissal, the lawyers’ movement is filling the political vacuum created by exiling the leaders of the two mainstream political parties in the last decade. The old guard political leadership has come out stale and largely irrelevant in the current crisis, with Ms. Bhutto watching the unfolding events from her villa in Jumeirah and Mr. Sharif from his flat on Park Lane, analysts are speculating that the Chief and his legal team may be the dominant political players in the upcoming elections.
Lead counsel, Aitzaz Ahsan, calling for the reinstatement of the Chief, has told wildly applauding crowds that “our struggle does not end there.” Politically groomed in Bhutto’s party and a serving member of the National Assembly on her party’s ticket, Mr. Ahsan may have political ambitions of his own. Traditionally, Lahore has been his constituency, but today he is nationally recognized for his role in taking on the Chief’s case against the President. A Cambridge-educated barrister, Mr. Ahsan is outspoken yet level-headed. His bold piece, “Time for Moratorium,” called for an end to the senseless violence that erupted in Pakistan after a Danish newspaper published derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, when other politicians used the controversy to gain political advantage.
With support from the masses, a liberal, secular democratic movement led by Mr. Ahsan and his legal team is poised to take root. Sceptics argue that existing politicians will be too ready and willing to strike a deal with the military and thus the movement of lawyers will not be allowed to reach its fruition. However, when the media is willing to fight till death for transparency and the common man living on less than $2 a day is tired of sixty years of injustices, the cry for a jihad against injustice is quite a potent one, as in the words of Victor Hugo, “there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”