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Lawyer Movement: What it was, what it wasn’t ? reflections twelve years on

9 1 26

Moeed Pirzada |

Lawyers Movement or “Adlia Bahali Tehreek” (Restoration of Judiciary) occupies an important chapter in Pakistan’s colourful political history. Kickstarted on 9th March 2007, when the then Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was suspended by President Musharraf and later manhandled by a police officer outside his office, this movement continued in two phases (Mar-July 2007 & Nov 2007 to Mar 2009) lasting almost two years formally ending on 16th March 2009 when Iftikhar Chaudry was reinstated the second time – this time reluctantly by President Asif Ali Zardari.

Only twelve years have passed since its sudden eruption, (March 2007) and its too early for a meaningful nuanced cool-headed analysis of what lead to it and what was achieved or not achieved in those months of turbulence. Most characters who played an active part in pushing forward Lawyer’s Movement or fighting against it are still around with their strong opinions making it difficult for a balanced historical evaluation. But there is no denying whatever camp one may belong to, that the movement transformed Pakistani politics, media, civil society, and led to the emergence of a powerful assertive judiciary – the latter with all its advantages and disadvantages.

Iftikhar Chaudhry because of his peculiar personality – more akin to an action prone police officer than a sophisticated thinking judge of a top court – converted Supreme Court into a populist institution, a bold messiah deriving support from the street and the media. This is a trend which still continues, or resurfaces after brief interruptions, and many in the top court want to apply brakes and exorcise this “Chaudhry spirit” – the struggle continues.

Iftikhar Chaudhry because of his peculiar personality – more akin to an action prone police officer than a sophisticated thinking judge of a top court – converted Supreme Court into a populist institution, a bold messiah deriving support from the street and the media.

On the positive side judicial assertiveness has created a life of its own. In today’s Pakistan, governments, political parties, media, elite sections of society and the establishment all have to be mindful of the presence of courts, especially the Supreme Court and the common man has developed a feeling and a belief – maybe exaggerated – that he has a recourse to some sort of justice in the form of the Supreme Court. The same belief, in turn, creates populist pressures on the judges and temptations for the court to intervene in areas where normally courts should not venture into. It has become two-way traffic – a situation now unique to Pakistan. All this would not have been possible without the lawyer’s movement.

However, one may ask: if the quality of judicial work or dispensation of justice has improved? Apparently, there is not much evidence to be hopeful. More than 1.9 million cases are pending before courts at all levels and more than 41,000 cases are pending before supreme court alone. Legal fees have mounted, most top lawyers demand fees in an arbitrary fashion, and are allegedly taking most of their fees as cash; there is no concept of “hourly or daily work fees” and most lawyers will not bill their clients explaining the legal work and legal hours spent – as is the common practice in the western countries.

Read more: A sorry tale of lawyers vandalism and ‘judicial surrender’

In general, Lawyer’s movement has been seen, understood and described by media through an overly romanticized lens: and this mix of romance, idealism and Pakistan’s customary love for hagiography compels us to believe that it was a messianic movement by the lawyers and bar associations against a dictator, for democracy and justice. This overly romanticized narrative pushed down repeatedly and forcefully through television, print and social media has made it impossible, for most Pakistanis, to appreciate the underlying political currents and the dynamics that were shaping it from inside and outside; simply put: who was fighting whom and why, and who won in the end is still not clear to most.

Christopher Marlowe, in Doctor Faustus (in late 16th century) referring to Helen of Troy, or as Marlowe had it ‘Helen of Greece’ had made his famous comment:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

Lawyers Movement: Power of an Image?

Like the “face that launched a thousand ships” immortalized in Homer’s unforgettable Illiad, perhaps the single most important element that kick-started Pakistan’s Lawyer’s Movement was an iconic image. The abduction of Helen of Sparta, daughter of Zeus and Leda and wife of Menelaus by Paris of Troy was an act of dishonor and treachery and the rivalry of Greek city-states was legendary but what launched the thousand ships was a beautiful face – Homer describes her as the most good looking woman on earth. Musharraf’s act of suspending the Chief Justice may have been dictatorial, stupid or blatantly wrong but what suddenly united the disparate elements amongst the lawyers, the media and civil society was the shocking image of a tall bearded policeman grabbing country’s Chief Justice by his hair and pushing him to move in an ordered direction – rest is history.

In March of 2007, Musharraf was into eighth year of his arbitrary rule, his international allies – namely........

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