A man from whom Pakistan’s women and religious minorities can expect little is now President of Pakistan
President Tarar faces a peculiar dilemma. The liberals will always suspect him of furthering an orthodox agenda, while like-minded supporters will keep pushing him to prove his "Islamic" credentials. President Justice Tarar is known for his jokes rather than his sense of humour. His latest quip was to proclaim himself a liberal, a champion of the rights of women and religious minorities.
Perhaps high office transforms individuals. In this case, the President’s statement may well reflect a sudden change in values and thinking. One can only hope that the president is true to his word, and stands tall in the face of pressure to dissuade him from his newfound desire to promote the rights of women and minorities. In fact, his words may soon haunt him, once the ulema express their annoyance with their old friend.
President Tarar is as much a liberal as Benazir Bhutto is an orthodox Muslim. Her head coverings and prayer beads failed to endear her to the orthodoxy, and only made progressive movements suspicious of her commitment. Mr. Tarar will face the same dilemma. The liberals will always suspect him of furthering an orthodox agenda, while like-minded supporters will keep pushing him to act in order to prove his "Islamic" credentials.
Before his elevation to the presidency, the former judge was not simply known for his orthodox views but was seen as an activist reactionary. He did not simply pass judgments which infringed on the rights of religious minorities and women, nor did he only strengthen the possibility of executing hadd, or Islamic punishments. He was also vocal and active with regard to these issues long after having retired from the bench. As such, his newborn liberalism is hardly convincing.
Obviously, the President is not expected to turn liberal overnight. But the hope is that he will at least remain neutral, and not lend open support to the orthodox lobby. Power compels individuals to disown many past actions. Before he was elected, Mr. Tarar learnt this lesson when he faced disqualification from the presidential race on the grounds that he had ridiculed the judiciary. His lawyers argued that his remarks in an interview he gave to the Urdu daily, Jang, were misinterpreted. Tarar had not called the former chief justice "a judicial terrorist who left his office in disgrace", they claimed; these remarks were directed at someone else. Regardless of whether or not it was misrepresented, the statement in Jang pales in contrast to the judge’s interview reproduced in the Urdu magazine, Takbeer. His description of judicial intrigues and improprieties makes more than mockery of the judiciary.
Ironically, President Tarar only discovered his aversion to the judiciary after having spent a couple of decades in the institution, much the same way in which he stumbled across this sudden affection for the rights of women and minorities. His Takbeer interview lends the impression that the unfortunate Tarar suffered a good 20 years in the company of rotten eggs untainted, as though he went through a rough English public school without being molested. Like the proverbial Razi, he was surrounded by goondas, or thugs. If the Takbeer interview is not contempt, then nothing short of physical threat — such as the PML attack on the Supreme Court building — can be held as contemptuous.
Religious extremism will promote sectarianism, narrow-mindedness will bring Punjabi chauvinism to the fore, freedom of expression will be curbed and economic degradation will deepen. Above all, Pakistan’s political institutions will remain stunted under the spectre of orthodoxy.
For most politically aware citizens, however, it is not simply the President’s interviews which are a matter of concern. His comments about the judiciary are a legal issue, not a political one. Their fears about Tarar are different.
Most democratically-minded Pakistanis have staunchly opposed the constitutional amendments made by General Zia-ul Haq. The articles which qualify and disqualify members of the Shoora or candidates to the presidency are also high gifts to the nation. If these laws were to be applied in earnest, no one would make it either to Parliament or the presidency. And, in the long term, it is in no one’s interest to remove a president through these laws. However, such provisions have to tested. As such, the opposition made its point, and may even succeed in getting the ruling party to do away with them. However, their goal should be to bring about systemic changes, rather then to lodge or dislodge individual adversaries. For the rest, they must watch actual changes in the decision making positions rather than the rhetoric of the President.
For their part, women enjoy equality in the constitution, so in theory they need no support in securing that basic right. Where they lose out, however, is in practice, when social norms and orthodox considerations override principles of equality in matters of interpretation and implementation. Certain laws, such as the Hudood Ordinances and the laws of blasphemy, carry in them virulent germs of persecution. As long as they are on the statute books, women, religious minorities and the underprivileged remain at the mercy of so-called unbiased rulers and institutions. It is this self-professed neutrality that has to be watched closely.
Whether the connection is made explicit or not at the moment, it cannot be denied that the new President is firmly supported by an orthodoxy which in turn expects to be patronised by the presidency. As a corollary, a willingness on the part of the administration to empower the President’s coterie will soon emerge, in order to oblige the head of state and to come closer to him. In such a situation, it will not be the presidency directly, but its proteges, who will colour the future course of Pakistani politics.
Initially, liberal values will be undermined at the cost of vulnerable sections of society, but ultimately this will hurt the nation as a whole. Religious extremism will promote sectarianism, narrow-mindedness will bring Punjabi chauvinism to the fore, freedom of expression will be curbed and economic degradation will deepen. Above all, Pakistan’s political institutions will remain stunted under the spectre of orthodoxy.
Ironically, history shows that this orthodoxy remains reasonably tamed during periods of martial law and only begins to make a major public nuisance of itself during civilian rule, particularly when the government in question appears to be less conservative or where political instability is built into the equation.This lobby cannot resist the temptation of stirring up trouble when the opportunity has been handed to it on a silver platter. This time, too, there is no reason to believe that it will not play the role of a spoiler.
Meanwhile, no one knows who to really thank for this latest development. Or should one simply and cryptically say, "Thank you, Abbaji".
(Courtesy, ‘Herald’, Karachi)
Archived from Communalism Combat, February 1998, Year 5 No. 40, Neighbours 1