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January 12, 2020

‘I’m going home, sir’


January 12, 2020

The writer is a senior journalist.

Well, this is mainly about Fakhruddin G Ebrahim. But it so happened that on the same day that the conscientious jurist and a great defender of human rights passed away, another event also sought the nation’s attention. As headlines told of bills being passed without a murmur.

Think about this coincidence. Does it not enhance our sense of loss in terms of our desperate need for individuals in positions of authority who have the courage of their convictions? Why are we so deprived of upright people like Fakhruddin?

So, we pay tributes to our beloved Fakhru Bhai against the backdrop of a depressing political scenario. Once again, we are passing through a phase that is marked by some dark, Machiavellian manoeuvrings behind the curtains and suspense is building up about how the power equation would change in the wake of the compromises made by the leading political parties.

Fakhru Bhai – I take the liberty of using this appellation because I had known him – died on Tuesday. His death prompted an outpouring of grief and appreciation across the nation. Those who issued condolence statements included the prime minister and the chief of the army staff. Exceptionally grieved was the legal community as well as the civil society.

He was a founder member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and in its statement, the HRCP noted that he was an “upright jurist, committed democrat and public intellectual”. His obituary would be extensive since he held many offices and left some of them on matters of principle.

A high point in his career was his refusal to take oath on Gen Zia’s Provisional Constitutional Order in March 1981 when he was a judge of the Supreme Court. That incident is truly worth recording, given the history of our higher judiciary’s repeated encounters with military rulers.

As Fakhru Bhai would recount it, when the PCO was promulgated, the then Chief Justice Anwarul Haq called a meeting of all the judges of the Supreme Court to ask if they would be willing to take a fresh oath under it. Fakhru Bhai was the youngest and the most junior and was the first one to answer the question.

He said: “I’m going home, sir”. This, he would recall, was an immediate and instinctive response. What else would a judge committed to principles of law and justice do? However, he was taken aback by the response of the other judges who were willing to take oath under the PCO. Yes, Justice Dorab Patel, another outstanding example of integrity and righteousness, and the chief justice also did not take that oath.

I am tempted to recall one incident. There was this large convention of the South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of defenders of human rights, in New Delhi in 2001 and our delegation from Pakistan was led by Asma Jahangir. We had some exciting time within the premises of the India Habitat Centre. One afternoon during the convention, four of us – Fakhru Bhai, Uzma Noorani, Attiya Dawood and I – stepped out for what seemed to be a little adventure. I had persuaded Fakhru Bhai to come with us to see a Bollywood movie in a cinema. It was ‘Asoka’, starring Shahrukh and Kareena.

Standing outside the Habitat Centre, we waited for a taxi that was not there. A rickshaw pulled up and the driver offered to take all four of us. I sat on the edge with the driver and I remember telling him that look, this person has been a judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the governor of the province of Sindh.

In a way, here was the reversal of the stereotypical image of the pompous lifestyle of our high functionaries, compared to the relative austerity of their Indian counterparts.

Fakhru Bhai would agonise over the prevailing state of affairs whenever I had an occasion to talk to him. Once he wondered if the decline had really been triggered by the breakup in 1971, making our society more vulnerable to corruption and political waywardness.

Sadly, these are matters that have hardly been debated objectively in the media and even at the academic level in our institutions of higher learning. And this brings me to the present political situation and how it is in a state of flux. The narratives that had insistently been projected by the PML-N and by the PTI seem to be fading out.

One feature of the arrangement that is now unfolding is the disillusionment of political workers, primarily of the PML-N, who feel that their leadership has betrayed them in recent days.

Obviously, taking its cue from Imran Khan, the PML-N has negotiated a major U-turn. For that matter, many more U-turns are in the offing by players in this game. After all, no political party would change its stance without making some kind of a deal. A good sign of this is the new disposition towards collaboration in parliament. The political temperature is gradually coming down.

At the same time, however, a sense of uncertainty about the future is increasing. Apart from the fact that we are located in a region of conflict and turmoil, the domestic situation in the context of the misery of the common man is also very combustible.

There was this incident on Wednesday when a labourer set himself on fire in Karachi for not being able to buy warm clothes for his children. We have reports on rising incidence of suicides is some parts of the country. After a long interval, a major act of terrorism was committed in Quetta on Friday – a suicide bombing in a mosque with at least 15 fatalities.

These difficult and dangerous times are more frightening because we do not have many individuals of sufficient moral, intellectual and human calibre. That is why the loss of someone like Fakhruddin G Ebrahim becomes so much more painful.

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