Volume 22 Issue 2, February 2018


Pakistan is supposed to be a working democracy. Its leaders cry hoarse about furthering democracy and democratic institutions. The late Benazir Bhutto was a great believer in the concept “Democracy is the Best Revenge.” After her assassination, first her husband Asif Zardari and then her son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari have continued to harp on the strain.
At the other end of the spectrum, Nawaz Sharif and his party leaders also talk about being champions of democracy. It is another thing though that between these two parties and Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf thrown in for good measure, none of them practice any concept of democracy even within their own parties. Each is a microcosm within himself and so are the other parties like the ANP, MQM, APML, JUI-F, etc. They all revolve around the leader’s personality.

Pakistan continues to be a ‘democratic’ state where the government is ushered in through elections as opposed to various interregnums of military rule when elections were held but ended up as ‘selections.’ Democracy in Pakistan comprises all the three pillars of state - the Parliament, the Judiciary and of course the Executive. It has a relatively ‘free’ media as well. But that is where the narrative ends. The so-called democratic institutions do not seem to be doing their part of the job. That is the reason why perhaps, while Pakistan is one of the world’s major countries with a population of over 200 million, has one of the strongest armies in the world and possesses a reasonable nuclear and missile arsenal, most Pakistanis continue to live in abject poverty and do not have access to basic amenities such as education, healthcare and a reasonable standard of living.

The Judiciary watched the suffering of the people for years on end and realizing that while the country’s parliament slumbered and the political and ‘democratic’ government in the centre and the provinces was caught in its own agenda and interests, something had to be done to allay the sufferings of the masses. It is obvious that the Judiciary acted with hesitation, especially the superior Judiciary, because it was also fighting a battle on behalf of the people in its own front yard - the courts. Even then, its senior judges took out time to enter those areas of public welfare where the government (the Executive) was simply invisible. From land-grabbing to health and education issues, they started looking into everything.

Their starting points were the Punjab and Sindh but they were well aware that the rot had set in across the land and all because the government, whose job it is to attend to these maladies, was just not visible anywhere. In fact, in most cases, it was the government itself and its lackeys who were involved in the wrongdoing.

The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar has said that the Judiciary has to intervene when the government fails to fulfill its constitutional duties. The CJP has noted that while providing clean water and a healthy environment was the responsibility of the government, it had failed to fulfill its responsibilities and the Judiciary had to intervene.

According to a report, some 77% of the water in Sindh was not being utilized while 80% of the water supply in Karachi contained human waste. It was also reported that 90% of the city’s residents did not have access to clean water since all the water treatment plants had malfunctioned. Said Justice Saqib Nisar, “In a democratic system, Judiciary has the status of a guardian… if any pillar of the state does not function, we will hold it accountable.”

This shows that judicial activism, keeping in view the ideals of democracy, is necessary to ensure that unheard voices are not buried by more influential and vocal ones. It has been observed in India that after playing a largely “interpretative” role in the 1950s and 1960s, starting from the 70s, the Supreme Court has surfaced as a major force, standing up against legislative and executive excesses and inactions.

There is also the view that empowering judges to decide on policy issues amounts to disrespecting democracy. The Judiciary would certainly not intervene if the Legislature and Executive were performing their functions efficiently. When the Legislature and Executive are inactive, the Judiciary can still play its role without actually stepping into their shoes. The Judiciary certainly does not create policies to enforce people’s rights but it requires the government to follow its own policies through judicious execution.

The current Chief Justice of Pakistan and his fellow judges have only acted after they watched for a long time and then reached the conclusion that neither the Parliament nor the government seemed to be interested in providing good governance. All that the governments were interested in, whether in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar or Quetta, was in amassing personal wealth by dint of their positions and indulging in all kinds of corruption and nepotism. It is then that the Judiciary sprung into action and began addressing those basic issues that had created absence of any sort of governance across the land.

The writer is Editor of SouthAsia and a regular contributor on political and social issues.
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