‘Never a dull moment’ is a cliche, even more so for Pakistani politics. How could we have a dull moment when there is a steady stream of cases and audio/video leaks? The sad reality is that these moments are not amusing or entertaining, as many on social media tend to project.
Pakistan has a long history of registering cases against political opponents. From the controversial Public and Representative Office (Disqualification) Act (Proda) 1949, misusing laws against opposition leaders and parties became a common practice. The Liaquat Ali Khan government was the first one to embark on a journey of maligning and targeting all those who dared to differ with government decisions and policies. Later, in 1951, a baseless Rawalpindi conspiracy case targeted left-wing and progressive activists and intellectuals in the country.
Literary stalwarts such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer, Hasan Abidi and many others faced years of imprisonment. In 1959, the martial-law regime of Gen Ayub Khan enacted the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO) to disqualify a large number of politicians from carrying out electoral activities for eight years – until December 31, 1966. Most of these top-notch leaders could reenter the political arena in 1967. This was a blatant mockery of law by a dictator who claimed to introduce ‘basic democracy’ in the country and in the process demolished the entire political spectrum.
In 1971, the Awami League emerged as the largest political party with enough seats to form the government. Gen Yahya Khan refused to hand over power to the elected representatives and initiated a devastating military action. He registered cases against the entire leadership of the Awami league and arrested Mujibur Rehman, who was the most popular leader of the country at that time. Gen Yahya Khan imposed a ban based on those cases on the party that had just won elections. Those cases and the accompanying military action caused a lot of harm to the country.
In the mid-1970s, prime minister ZA Bhutto used cases against a major progressive and secular political party that Wali Khan was leading. Bhutto used the Hyderabad conspiracy case to target the opposition and imprisoned the entire leadership of the National Awami Party (NAP), dissolved that party and confiscated all its assets. The judicial tribunal (Hyderabad tribunal) prosecuted opposition politicians on the charges of treason and acting against the ideology of Pakistan. The case could never conclude, and the arrested leaders remained in prison for years without proof.
Consequently, when Bhutto himself became a target of such cases, there were hardly any political parties who could support him in his battle against state institutions. Gen Zia used his state machinery to persecute dozens of political leaders and hundreds of activists. Most of those cases were false and ill-intentioned, targeting anyone who had any democratic aspirations and was vocal about it. This was the period when Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto endured long detentions; they did not have access to proper medical treatment, and state machinery was up in arms against them, but they remained steadfast.
The martial-law regime implicated thousands of political workers in false cases, sentenced them to flogging and lashes, imprisonments, and even hangings. These cases left an indelible mark on the polity or the political system of the country.
In 1988, after an 11-year-long dark night, Benazir Bhutto assumed charge as the youngest and the first woman prime minister of any Muslim country. There were spin doctors who worked against her, churning out allegations of corruption, sedition, and even treason.
When she hosted Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, her opponents declared her a security threat. Nawaz Sharif was at the forefront of this nefarious campaign, with the likes of General Hameed Gul supporting him wholeheartedly. When president Ghulam Ishaq Khan removed prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he could not have done it without the support from the then army chief General Aslam Beg. As soon as she lost power, the new government initiated cases against her and other PPP leaders. Nawaz Sharif hounded Benazir Bhutto, and in turn she did nearly the same when she returned to power in 1993.
The entire decade of the 1990s saw hundreds of cases against political opponents initiated by the sitting governments to target the opposition. Most of these cases did nothing but weaken the democratic foundations of the system that never saw any stability. When Gen Pervez Musharraf’s commanders staged a military coup in 1999, there was once again a long list of cases that the PML-N faced, apart from the cases that the PPP was facing that the Nawaz Sharif government had registered against them. But then on BB’s initiative, Nawaz Sharif agreed to sign the marvelous document called the Charter of Democracy in 2006.
After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, when the PPP came to power once again, president Asif Ali Zardari avoided repeating the mistakes of the 1990s. He tried his best to accommodate the opposition and did not initiate any cases that could harm his relations with the PML-N.
The 2008-2018 decade established the judiciary as an active player in nearly all major decisions that the successive governments of the PPP and the PML-N were trying to make. From Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to Justices Saqib Nisar, Asif Saeed Khosa, Gulzar Ahmed, and the present judiciary – all stretched themselves too much out of their designated domains. They delivered verdicts that were not entirely in accordance with the established judicial practices of keeping their hands clean. From removing former PM Yusuf Raza Gilani to targeting Nawaz Sharif on dubious charges, there is a litany of substandard decisions and observations.
Traditionally there have been three centres of power in the country: the GHQ, the judiciary, and parliament. In his almost four-year-long tenure, Imran Khan had the distinction of enjoying almost unconditional support. All the cases the Imran Khan government initiated against the opposition smacked of fascist tendencies in the PTI leadership that is now facing the music.
All said and done, the current government must not initiate any false cases against the opposition. There should be solid proof of involvement in any criminal activity before an accused is put behind bars. Of course, those who themselves have been highly intolerant against the opposition are now begging for mercy and calling for a ‘democratic dialogue’ that they never initiated while in power. Culprits and miscreants must face cases and get sentences, but in this process it should be ensured that there is no miscarriage of justice.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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