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The Movement to Restore the Judiciary in Pakistan

Sahar Shafqat
Date Published: 
July 1, 2009

The year 2007 was designated "Visit Pakistan Year" in a bid by the Government to boost tourism.  In retrospect, it was one of the lesser miscalculations that the Government made that year. 2007 turned out to an epic year for Pakistani progressives, with the rise of the lawyers' movement, also known as the Movement to Restore the Judiciary. Qalandar Bux MenonQalandar Bux Menon

In many ways, the movement has been extraordinarily successful, being responsible for the final ouster of General Pervez Musharraf as president, in reinstating most of the judges who were sacked by Musharraf in November 2008, and finally for having Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary reinstated in March 2009. But perhaps the most significant achievement of the movement has been its mobilization of Pakistanis for the goal of social justice. It is this last achievement that will continue to reverberate for years to come and that may provide an opening for progressive politics in Pakistan. 

Beginnings of a movement

The movement began over two years ago, when Iftikhar Chaudhary, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, was sacked by then-President General Pervez Musharraf on March 9, 2007 on trumped-up charges. Musharraf's dictatorship was entering its eighth year, and Pakistanis—who have struggled against dictatorships for most of the country's history since independence—were growing restive.

The response from Pakistanis was massive and immediate—and in many ways unexpected. It makes sense that lawyers would react strongly to an action threatening the autonomy of the judiciary, but what was surprising and unexpected was that other segments of civil society reacted strongly as well. In particular, students, women’s rights activists, the media community, labor unions, political activists, and groups that consisted mostly of the urban middle class, rose up in support. This was a first for this latter group, which has interesting implications for the future of Pakistan.

A major difference with past movements for democracy was that this time around, political party activists did NOT rise up immediately. Indeed, activists from the Pakistan's largest political party (the Pakistan People's Party) remained resolutely outside the fray, instructed to do so by their party leadership. Therefore, the movement remained largely a non-partisan movement, galvanized public opinion against the Musharraf dictatorship, and mobilized a previously dormant segment of the population.

Mobilizing against the dictatorship

The initial mobilization focused on reinstating the Chief Justice through a constitutional process, which was eventually successful in July 2007 when Iftikhar Chaudhry was cleared of all charges. But this triumph would prove to be short-lived.

Elections for the presidency were in October, and General Musharraf was preparing to run for a second five-year term. Although parliamentary elections were scheduled for December, Musharraf hoped to remain in office in the July election and retain all control, with parliamentary elections subsequently providing a veneer of democracy.

The problem was that constitutional provisions barred any current military personnel from serving in public office. Although several legal challenges to Musharraf's candidacy were filed, the Supreme Court allowed the election to take place. Musharraf won handily, but following the election, the Supreme Court then took up a challenge filed by one of Musharraf's opponents.

On November 3, 2007, the Supreme Court was about to rule on the case when General Musharraf imposed an "Emergency," the ostensible reason that was given to enable the government to fight the “war on terror” more robustly. The Emergency was presented as a brief and extraordinary measure that had a limited purpose, but in reality it was martial law. (A popular sign at the mass protests that followed perhaps best illustrates the confusing aspect of this: "One Coup Per Dictator.") Musharraf sacked all the judges of the Supreme Court as well as the judges of all the provincial high courts. Judges were now required to take a fresh oath, not to the Constitution but to the illegal Provisional Constitutional Order. What was unprecedented for Pakistan was that more than sixty judges refused to take this illegal oath.

The dictatorship also shut down all television and some radio broadcasts. Thousands of people including lawyers, journalists, intellectuals, women's rights activists, and other civil society activists were arrested. The Constitution was suspended, along with all fundamental rights. A climate of absolute fear gripped the country.

The unintended consequence of the Emergency was that it mobilized people as never before. Whereas General Musharraf had always sought to project himself as a benign and benevolent autocrat, the November 3 Emergency revealed him to be just another petty dictator, intent on clinging to power at any cost. Therefore, even some constituencies who had hitherto supported him turned against the dictatorship and joined the movement, most notably students and the urban middle class. The movement took on a truly broad base, especially in ideological terms, with leftists, liberals, and right-wingers all supporting the single-issue demand of the movement: restoration of the judiciary. Polls showed that over 80 percent of the population supported the restoration of the judiciary.

Notable in all of this was the absence of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). However, the other major political party in Pakistan, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), led by Nawaz Sharif, publicly committed itself to the goal of the restoration of the judiciary, a strategy that was to yield him a significant electoral advantage.

How a judge became a hero

How did judges and lawyers get turned into such unlikely national heroes? The answer lies partly in the person and actions of Chief Justice Chaudhry, who had become perceived as the "little person's judge" due to his role in two cases that directly threatened the hegemony of the military.

One of these, the "missing persons' case," dealt with the 600-2,000 people who have gone missing after being picked up by authorities as part of the “war on terror.” In March 2007, Chaudhry took notice of this issue, and instructed the Government of Pakistan to provide information concerning the whereabouts of several of the missing people. The second case had to do with Steel Mills, a national industry that had fallen under Musharraf's massive project of privatization. The Steel Mills workers’ union brought a suit against the Government; the Supreme Court intervened and sided with the workers, suspending the sale and leading the original investor to withdraw their bid.

Both these decisions made heroes of the Supreme Court and particularly out of Chaudhry, but they also aroused the wrath of Musharraf, and it was within days of these decisions that the Chief Justice was sacked. Indeed, both of these cases presented major challenges to Musharraf’s rule, but they were also, interestingly, challenges to the United States' agenda on two counts: the “war on terror” and neoliberal economic policies.

The effects of such policies on the social and economic structure of Pakistan are another reason for the movement's success, as most Pakistanis became even more impoverished under the neoliberal economic policies instituted by the Musharraf dictatorship, and have been reeling from a series of economic crises such as high inflation and food shortages.

For most Pakistanis, the military has always been seen as an institution of oppression. Pakistan is absolutely dominated by the military, which serves not only as a political force but also maintains extensive economic clout as the largest real estate owner and one of the largest conglomerates in the country. The military has also historically worked in concert with feudal elites as well as with religious extremists in order to maintain its control. This was one of the rare times in Pakistan's history that the judiciary had stood up to the military, and Pakistanis instinctively grasped this moment as one that was ripe with the possibility for lasting political and social change. The movement to restore the judiciary thus became a major vehicle for opposition to military rule.

Long marches

The movement was eventually successful in forcing parliamentary elections to be held in February 2008, which resulted in a coalition led by the PPP coming to power.

Much was expected of the new government, but signals coming from Islamabad suggested that they would remain firmly committed to the establishment's way of doing things and stand against the restoration of the judiciary. Strategically, the movement and its leadership were in a bind. It was one thing to stand against a military dictator, and quite another to stand against a democratically-elected government led by the storied Pakistan People's Party.

After much confusion, pressure, and failed promises on the part of the PPP, the lawyers' leadership decided to organize a “Long March” on the capital to demand the restoration of the judiciary. In July 2008, over 200,000 people gathered in the streets of Islamabad, demanding that the judges be restored. However, as a result of confusion, panic, and tactical error, the leadership called off the subsequent dharna (sit-in), an action they had planned to continue until all demands were met. This led to tremendous disappointment on the part of movement activists.

The new government attempted to further exploit the situation by reinstating most of the dismissed judges, although these were reinstated as new appointees (technically not the restoration that the movement was demanding). As time wore on, it became clear that the PPP-led government would remain opposed to the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry. Consequently, the lawyers' leadership organized a second Long March on the second anniversary of the sacking of the Chief Justice, in March.

In the same manner in which the Musharraf regime had been unmasked in 2007 as a petty dictatorship, the Long March of 2009 revealed the Zardari government to be essentially anti-democratic. The Government tried all the tricks in the book to try and prevent the Long March from taking place, including blocking all major highways, imposing colonial-era laws to violently target peaceful assembly, and detaining the leaders of the movement. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Government also employed the language of the “war on terror” to try and forestall the march. But this time, neither the leadership, nor the rank-and-file activists, nor the public at large were to be dissuaded. After a chaotic few days, Prime Minister Gillani appeared on national television at dawn on March 16 to declare the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry. And in that moment, Pakistani politics changed forever.

What now?

The reinstatement of the Chief Justice is an enormous triumph of civil society, of political activism, and of the mobilization of ordinary citizens for the cause of social justice. Remarkably, it was the first time in Pakistan's history that such a major non-partisan movement had mobilized to press demands on an elected civilian government. This surely is a positive development and one that progressives can take much heart from. While the short-term goal of the movement may have been achieved, the lasting impact of the movement lies in the very fact of its mobilization of a new generation of Pakistanis.

There is also an interesting contrast to previous pro-democracy movements. While the previous military dictatorship of General Zia was toppled by the "movement to restore democracy," the Musharraf dictatorship was overthrown by the "movement to restore the judiciary." This suggests sophistication on the part of Pakistanis, who demand not the façade of a democracy but a genuine democratic system with robust civilian institutions that are responsive to the needs of the people.

The challenge for the future is to build on the success of the lawyers' movement. The movement was so successful partly because it was a single-issue movement. But lasting social justice can only be achieved in Pakistan if those active in the movement are willing and able to turn their energies to issues such as land reform, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and the escalating civil war in Swat and surrounding regions. Is civil society up to the task? For the sake of Pakistanis, let us hope so.

Sahar Shafqat is Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Mary's College of Pakistan, and a member of Action for a Progressive Pakistan.