Is Plunged into Political Crisis
Pakistan is going through
another of its periodic political and religious
upheavals. A rise in sporadic sectarian blood
letting and a deepening political crisis over
the firing of a judge pushing this country
of 165 million towards an uncertain future.
The reverberations from the ongoing war in
Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban in
that country are being felt with increasing
frequency and ferocity in the main cities
of Pakistan. Recently a suicide bomber killed
25 innocent people in the northern frontier
city of Peshawar located close to Afghanistan
border. A message tapped to the leg of the
bomber said it was in retaliation for the
recent killing of a prominent Al Qaeda leader,
Mulla Dadullah, by NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is still paying the price for its
support of the US against the Soviet invasion
of Afghanistan twenty-eight years ago.
As if random suicide bombings and sporadic
sectarian killings were not enough. Pakistani
president Pervez Musharraf has helped plunge
the country into a political crisis by firing
the chief justice of Pakistan two months ago.
It was done to assure the continuity of his
Musharraf came to power in 1999 in a bloodless
coup when army took over and dismissed the
democratically but thoroughly corrupt and
extremely incompetent government of Nawaz
Sharif. The people welcomed him and he promised
to restore economy and curb the rising influence
of Islamic fundamentalists among other things.
He allowed the constitution to function and
allowed unprecedented freedom of the press.
While he delivered on the promise of improving
the economy he has failed to curb the influence
of fundamentalists and to stop the sectarian
violence in the country.
His term in office as the president is coming
to an end later this year. In order to continue
as president he needs to be re-elected by
the parliament and the legislative assemblies
of the four provinces. The opposition parties
have demanded that he either give up presidency
or his job as head of the armed forces but
he intends to hold on to both. Musharraf wants
to be reelected by the sitting parliament
and provincial legislatures (where he enjoys
considerable support) but according to constitution
experts he must be reelected by the new parliament
and new provincial assemblies to be elected
later this year.
Enter the Supreme Court chief justice.
The Court was headed by Iftikhar Choudhry,
a maverick and activist judge. On many occasions
the independent minded judge had ruled against
the government in suo-motu actions.
Most recently, he embarrassed the government
by demanding the whereabouts of hundreds of
missing people who were believed to have been
picked up by state security agencies. It is
also believed that many of them have been
sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Musharraf’s reelection by the sitting
parliament would certainly be challenged in
the courts and also his ability to hold on
to dual jobs of president and army chief.
And the case would have certainly come to
the court headed by Choudhry.
In a surprise preemptive move in March Musharraf
suspended the judge on corruption charges.
This has led to massive demonstrations in
the country in support of the judge who has
been touring the country and receiving tumultuous
welcomes at every stop. Few weeks ago he went
to the southern port city of Karachi where
Musharraf enjoys considerable support. Violent
clashes between the judge’s supporters
and Musharraf’s supporters left more
than 40 dead. While the government had warned
the judge not to go to Karachi, it did little
to prevent the violence.
For many observers the government is allowing
the situation to deteriorate in order to have
an excuse to impose emergency and thus postpone
elections. It is also widely believed that
Musharraf has been negotiating a power sharing
deal with Benazir Bhutto; the two-time prime
minister of Pakistan who now lives in exile
in Dubai. She and her Pakistan Peoples Party
have considerable grassroots support.
The Choudhry suspension is now under review
by the Pakistan Supreme Court that is presided
over by Justice Bhagwandas, a superb jurist
and a practicing Hindu. Musharraf has promised
to abide by the decision of the apex court.
It is a wonderful irony that a Hindu judge
could end up determining the future direction
of a Muslim Pakistan.