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Pakistani Institutions And Their Blurred Moral Compass

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We have a civil society where majority of individuals act as cult followers of their respective parties or national institutions without ever questioning them for their excesses or paradoxes. They are quick to buy into the ultra-nationalistic rhetoric and conspiracy theories instead of questioning the facts on ground, writes Awais Saleem.

Prime Minister Imran Khan wanted the judiciary to dispel the impression of powerful and weaker segments being treated differently under the law of the land. He went on record with this appeal to Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa. Judiciary obliged at double speed. To top it off, they started by taking the proverbial bull by the horns. Two back to back cases that involved an institution considered literally untouchable throughout the country’s judicial history. That’s where the contradictions set in.

PM Khan and his cabinet, instead of feeling elated that the courts are indeed ready to serve justice across the board in an independent manner, are making their discontentment known in no uncertain terms. Once again, they are caught in the web of their own words. They can’t come out and say this is not what we wanted when we asked for “across the board” justice. Perhaps, PM Khan implied “across the treasury benches”, but the judiciary took his words on face value.

We are a nation of strange contradictions. Our optics hardly ever match our words or latent desires. But is it the first or the last time something like this has happened? Is there any single institution or influential group in the country that can be absolved of this charge?

At the end of the day, it all comes down to rhetoric that is self-serving in nature, their quest to grab a share of the pie even if it means bulldozing their way to it, and a tendency to take everybody else for granted. More than anything, it is their blurred moral compass that provides justifications for them to go south rather than helping them stay the course.

We have a government that assumed power riding slogans of lethal accountability. The extent of these promises manifested in corruption cases against opposition being expedited and similar cases against those in the ruling party and their coalition partners being put on the back-burner. Their trigger-happy cabinet members have been demanding public hangings for the corrupt but are now oh-so-agitated as to why the judge has made a similar observation in General Musharraf’s verdict.

Lest we forgot, they also wanted to make sure that no individual is stronger than the institution. Now they are bending backwards to make everybody understand how an outgoing army chief is indispensable for the country and how it is too unwise to prosecute another former chief. The positions taken by PM Khan on these subject in the last few years are conveniently forgotten before framing a politically expedient official narrative.  

We have an opposition that resorts to all kinds of grandstanding to woo its supporters in the name of respect for democracy. They start stuttering when asked if the service to democracy also includes abuse of office and amassing unexplained stashes of wealth? They publicly express disenchantment with the judiciary when they are sentenced but when the same judiciary provides them some relief, it becomes an example of how law is upheld. They take on the sitting government and the armed forces for trampling over the electoral process to put a handpicked regime in place, but all such complaints subside at the slightest hint of a deal. They want the civil-military balance in the country to be restored but hesitate to take a position when a former military dictator is convicted.

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Their entire campaign rhetoric starts with and ends at the interest of party heads with hardly any consideration for their voters.

We have custodians of law and interpreters of constitution who don’t see a problem in going beyond their mandate in their observations and decision-making process. They are often more concerned about their public and media image than the image being conveyed through their decisions. When one of their wings attacks a hospital in broad day light, they look the other way and urge rapprochement. The leaders of this wing shamelessly justify the attack giving two hoots to the loss of innocent lives because they know very well how they can blackmail to get away with it. Community politics and power-grabbing tactics rule the roost for these officers of the court.

We have defenders of national frontiers who want to take credit for their successes but don’t want to be held accountable for their shortcomings. They are more than happy waving pictures of journalists and civil society activists in press conferences to brand them anti-national and treasonous, until one of their own has to bite the bullet. Apparently, peaceful dissent is a bigger crime than subverting constitution in their book.

They don’t mind secretly leaking information about politicians to frame public narrative negatively against them and toppling elected regimes or prime ministers as and when they deem fit without any care for the continuity of system or morale of the nation.

But when a court convicts one of their former bosses, it becomes a threat to the entire rank and file’s morale. If that morale is so fragile, it really should be a cause of concern for the entire nation. That morale, by the way, remained unaffected when a retired general and two brigadiers were convicted by military court for espionage. But some animals are more equal than others.

During the entire proceedings of the Panama Verdict case and the trial of Pervez Musharraf, the avowed position of the armed forces was to believe in rule of law and that Musharraf is now a civilian stood exposed in the wake of the verdict. Perhaps they didn’t think that the untouchable could be pinged this time. Overconfidence can indeed be counterproductive sometimes. Yes, the observation about hanging the corpse in D-chowk was totally unwarranted, but they had rejected the verdict and taken an offensive position even before the detailed judgment came out.

We have a media that has been crying hoarse for change and equal accountability. They have been more than happy to endorse and give airtime to voices baying for blood of the so-called corrupt mafia. In doing so, they have taken positions in support of rival political parties, manufactured facts that suited their and their owner’s narrative, and lied through their teeth whenever the need arose. When courts ousted elected prime ministers previously, they responded to the critics by arguing that no single person is above the Constitution and those at the top should face the harshest accountability. One may ask if such a drive excludes the period when military dictators were at the helm?

The same media justified instances of judicial activism on the grounds that courts needed to be proactive in countries like Pakistan to fill the void of other non-performing institutions. Now all of them suddenly want the judiciary to confine itself and not tread uncharted territories. Fresh conspiracy theories are being minted handily to validate such an abrupt about-face.

We have a civil society where majority of individuals act as cult followers of their respective parties or national institutions without ever questioning them for their excesses or paradoxes. They are quick to buy into the ultra-nationalistic rhetoric and conspiracy theories instead of questioning the facts on ground. They criticize the opposing camps for the very same things that they keep practicing themselves. In their make-belief world, courts are only dispensing justice when it suits their preferred party and corrupt elements are only present in the rival parties.

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Road rage and bullying their way out of every problem by “don’t you know who I am” is commonplace. Venting out on social media without any background knowledge on the given subject and tolerance for opposing viewpoint is their answer to everything. They hail students and civil society groups for standing up to curbs in India and other parts of the world but are quick to denounce those doing the same in Pakistan. All of them do complain about problems prevalent in the society and want systems to work like western countries without ever looking in the mirror. The lens of personal likes and dislikes is considered more than enough.  

We have professional groups that have started acting more as a pressure group. University professors are taking out rallies in support of a convicted former dictator because it can help them gain access in the power corridors. Who cares about declining academic and research standards then? Doctors are involved in fistfights in hospital premises almost on a daily basis and take refuge behind strike and politicking. Clergy has held the entire society hostage with the show of overt religiosity and issuance of fatwas on the most trivial of issues without ever thinking how it undermines the spirit of religion itself. Business sector wants subsidies and all kinds of relief measures in their respective sectors but ask them to cooperate in documentation of economy or taxation over their dead bodies.

All these groups, at least publicly, want reforms and situation to change, as long as that process stays away from them for all practical purposes. They talk the talk, but don’t want to walk the walk. It just doesn’t work like that. If you don’t acknowledge the elephant in the room, you lose the opportunity to tackle it as well. All the important pillars of the state are involved in turf wars in which other groups only serve as cannon fodder. It is nothing more than an exercise in futility and requires some serious soul-searching and self-accountability by every stakeholder in the system.

Without taking care of such demons first, we might keep moving in circles (as we have been doing for over seven decades) but certainly stand no chance of moving forward. Dusting off the moral compass might be a good starting point. When there is rubble all around, it is pointless to expect an island of excellence to emerge out of nowhere. Point to ponder, if you may.

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Naya Daur