There is something rotten in our public discourse on justice and fair play. Having a problem in the dispensation of justice is one thing, but why is it that our demand for justice, as a society, is as straight as the leaning tower of Pisa? Why is our sense of justice selective at best? Need examples? When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged despite being the elected prime minister of the country, the judicial system had gone through all the necessary motions. When an appeal was filed by Bhutto’s lawyers against the verdict, there were four judges who agreed with the original decision. But of these, only Justice Nasim Hasan Shah came on record in the final years of his life confessing to there being a bias among the members of the bench. This was, however, a very feeble confession. And nothing new. If you have gone through the verdict spread over 825 pages, you would know that the court had already pointed out how Bhutto had offended the bench with his hostile attitude. But since nobody bothered to do this, the PPP took Justice Shah’s words for it. In February 2010, at a public ceremony, former president Asif Ali Zardari made fun of the former justice’s short stature and called him the murderer of Bhutto. This charge was repeated several times on national television by numerous PPP leaders. But did this mean the part played by the other three did not merit any attention? Or that the three on the bench who disagreed with the verdict, including Justice Dorab Patel, were not important? Of course not. But Justice Shah was an easy target in person and as the symbol of decay of the judicial system. So the PPP took his words as a formal confession and carried out the entire judiciary’s media trial.
I am no fan of Justice Shah. But the way Bhutto’s trial was conducted — admittedly in a deeply skewed manner — it still cannot be attributed to one man. In the scheme of things, he was only a small player. And herein lies the poverty of political arguments when mixed with the appetite for justice. Only that is demanded which is politically useful. It is worth noting here that the PPP has always preferred to fight its cases outside the court of law and preferably in the media. And yet it also complains of being a victim of media trials.
Another very interesting example of selective amnesia is that of Chief Justice (retd) Iftikhar Chaudhry. I hope you remember when the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) judges were being taken to task. The PPP and Pervez Musharraf’s supporters kept pointing out that Justice Chaudhry had also taken an oath under Musharraf’s first PCO. This argument kept snowballing. In the days when Musharraf’s high treason trial was in the news, it reached epic proportions. Nobody realised that if that argument was taken seriously, the entire judicial branch, sparing a few new entrants, would become dysfunctional. The second PCO was more important because it seriously damaged the steady recovery being made from military rule. I am no fan of Justice Chaudhry either, but you cannot let your anger and dissatisfaction cloud your judgment when you demand justice. The two emergencies had different contexts that should not be mixed. You cannot isolate and pick on one man just because you hate him.
Finally, a word on former army chief General (retd) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The man went through a media trial throughout his stay in office. The reason for that would be his crucial role in the days leading up to Musharraf’s departure from office. Musharraf’s supporters in the power structure never forgave him for that. The PPP government at the time was also not his fan because it always has to see conspiracies around it whenever in power. Then came the matter of his extension of tenure and there was a whispering campaign against him. Now once again, he is being criticised for alleged excesses of a sibling. I don’t know the man and have met him only once. I don’t know how he thinks. But here is the problem: you can’t allow your inherent bias, imported from Musharraf’s dissatisfied minions, to affect your judgment. The army’s image and morale was partly restored during Kayani’s time and the first-ever peaceful civilian-to-civilian democratic transition took place during his time. That should amount to something. As long as you keep subjecting your sense of justice to emotions and political expediency, nothing good will come of it.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 23rd, 2016.