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January 8, 2015
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Cry me a river

Opinion

January 8, 2015

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Unanimity is anathema to a democracy. Platitudes about consensus play well with a public sick of bickering politicians but without argument and debate we end up with a parliament moving in dissent-free unison.
Some of the very worst pieces of legislation in history, like the Patriot Act and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the US, passed with very few objectors because fear had trumped good sense. The passage of the 21st Amendment is one of those moments. No one wanted to say, “Hey, wait a minute, this might not be a great idea”, so everyone went along with it.
Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly stressed that the military courts will only be used to try terrorists. This is meant to reassure us, even though ‘terrorism’ is a word that holds different meanings for different people and is infinitely malleable to include anyone the government doesn’t like. Would Baloch separatists, for example, be considered terrorists? The more extreme of them have been outlawed and the army would certainly call them terrorists.
Going by our history, we cannot yet be sure if the most peaceful of nationalist groups could, one day, not be tried for terrorism or for being security threats. The scary part is that now the army will get its way on one more thing. This isn’t a hijacking of our democracy, as some have claimed, but it does shift the balance of power – already tilting in the army’s direction – further in their favour.
The military courts are scheduled to lapse in two years. This may be the most laughable provision of all since the army does not give back power it has acquired. The militant menace is not going to be defeated in the next two years and there will be more attacks. The next time the TTP goes after civilians – and it will be very soon – our bloodlust will return and we will extend the duration of the military courts indefinitely.
There was some sympathy for the PPP’s Raza Rabbani, who burst into tears and said he had never felt so

ashamed in his life. Then he went and voted for the amendment, likely on the orders of his party. Cry me a river. If the desecration of the constitution – which is exactly what the 21st Amendment is – was so important to Rabbani he should have followed his conscience. Now he just comes off as the Hamlet of the Senate, whose dithering and emotionalism doesn’t prevent him from doing the wrong thing.
The JI and JUI-F at least abstained from voting for the amendment but did so for all the wrong reasons. They objected to the presence of words like ‘religion’, ‘sect’ and ‘madressah’ in the text of the amendment. These parties have no issue with the military issuing summary judgements against civilians so long as those civilians aren’t grouped according to religion. And even then, the religious parties did not object strongly enough to vote against the amendment; they just straddled the fence.
The PTI, which had publicly supported the military courts and then opposed them, didn’t have to go on the record since its members still haven’t realised they are part of a political party that is still boycotting the National Assembly.
Anger is directed at the politicians because they represent the people. The men in uniform might naturally feel like the country needs their iron fist. The idea of military courts was mooted, the army chief pushed for it and everyone – the odd tear aside – folded.
The only remaining hope is that the Supreme Court finds the amendment unconstitutional. There is not much reason to expect the judiciary to show the backbone our politicians lack. The current judiciary is less confrontational and has given the government a wide berth. It is almost enough to make one yearn for the days of Iftikhar Chaudhry who, whether through ego or principle, hated ceding any territory or influence to others. This is what the branches of government should be doing: jealously guarding every last bit of their power rather than gift-wrapping it and presenting it to others.
Parliament has decided it doesn’t want to govern and it just wants the judiciary to adjudicate. With one vote it has shown it will wrap up our system of government if that is what is popular, convenient and, most importantly, being demanded by the real power in the country.
This, not any overblown allegations of rigging, is the biggest problem with our democracy. It doesn’t require months on the streets of Islamabad to rectify. Just the ability to show up in parliament and cast a vote with your conscience would have been enough. Yes, our politicians are corrupt, craven and all of that. It would just have been nice if they were a little selfish – at least to the point of guarding their own power – too.
The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. Email: [email protected]

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