WHICH institution is believed to have caused the most damage to Pakistan? It’s a tough question as they have all competed to outdo the others.
But according to Javed Hashmi, a senior member of the PTI until a couple of years ago, it is the higher judiciary. In a newspaper report of a press conference he addressed recently, Mr Hashmi is quoted as alleging: “The Supreme Court has caused more destruction in the country than any other institution.”
For the sake of self-preservation, he went on to add: “I know that if I say anything about the current Supreme Court, it will amount to contempt of court.” The report added that, according to Mr Hashmi, many of the judges had “sworn to get plots”. However, he did clarify that he was not talking about the current lot of judges who, he said, were saints.
Uninformed verdicts may have caused much harm.
Amen to that. But we should be careful about what we wish for. Remember those heady days when thousands fought on the streets for the independence of the judiciary, and the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice? Lawyers were in the forefront of the struggle, and look at them now as they go around threatening and beating up judges, cops and witnesses.
As to Mr Hashmi’s allegations that some judges had previously claimed plots in a controversial manner, I am witness to one such case.
Somewhere in the mid-1990s, I saw a letter from then chief justice Nasim Hasan Shah to the chief minister of Sindh in which he claimed that as he had to visit Karachi regularly on official work, he would like a plot to build a house. A plot was duly granted and quickly sold.
I wrote a column here on the scam under my old pseudonym of Mazdak, and then went off on a holiday to Skardu. These were pre-internet days, and I had no idea about the firestorm my article ignited in my absence. Shah issued a contempt notice to the editor, the redoubtable Ahmad Ali Khan.
His instruction to the Dawn lawyer was not to reveal my identity as I was then a civil servant. My late friend Ardeshir Cowasjee turned up with a legal team as well. On the appointed day, I was later told that the courtroom was full of journalists and human rights activists. Apparently, when he arrived, the judge was taken aback to see such a large crowd, and invited Khan Sahib, as he was universally known, to his chamber for a private conversation.
There, he said that he admired Dawn, but was disappointed with my column. Khan Sahib replied that if my column had been inaccurate, he would publish a clarification. His reported response was a classic: “Your columnist claimed that I had ‘flogged the plot overnight’. Actually, I sold it a month after it was allotted to me.”
Twenty years on, the Supreme Court is vastly more independent. However, it is seen by some to be using its powers without exercising much restraint. It is worth considering whether making politicians and bureaucrats jump through the hoops at the drop of a hat and frequent interventions contribute to the destabilisation of the political system. Earlier, it was the defence establishment that was assigned this task, but now controversial judgements are seen to be weakening elected leaders.
There is no denying that our politicians have given judges plenty of ammunition, but physically eliminating one prime minister, sentencing another for contempt, and disqualifying a third one for not declaring a small salary he never drew appears to be a record of sorts. And, as has been pointed out, uninformed judgements in past years may well have caused incalculable harm to the economy.
From Reko Diq to the privatisation of the Steel Mills, a lack of knowledge of international law has been on display. Pakistan has already lost the arbitration case over the cancelled mining contract for Reko Diq. In the Steel Mills case, the highest offer was rejected by the Supreme Court because, as the short order reportedly said, the deal had been conducted in “indecent haste”. Over a decade and billions of rupees in losses later, the biggest state enterprise remains barely functional for lack of funds, and is acquiring further liabilities. Take a bow, Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Meanwhile, in a recent reply to a question in the Senate reported in this newspaper, we were informed that a retired judge or his widow are entitled to the following benefits: a monthly pension of Rs800,000; one driver; one ardali; 3,000 free local calls; 2,000 units of free electricity; and 2,500 cubic metres of free gas amounting to Rs50,000.
And we all remember the unseemly tug of war over Iftikhar Chaudhry’s official bullet-proof Mercedes when the retired chief justice refused to return it to the government. Clearly, he had his priorities right.