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Asma Jahangir Conference 2021 — I

After a hiatus of two years brought on by the Covid pandemic that forced postponement last year, the Asma Jahangir Conference 2021 (AJC21) was held in Lahore on November 20-21, 2021. The Asma Jahangir Conference has become an eagerly awaited event in a milieu in which free expression is conspicuous by its absence in an incrementally worsening manner. Over two days, the speakers and audience were regaled with views that otherwise have become virtually non-existent in our polity. There were so many sessions packed into these two days, some held simultaneously, that space constraints make mention of, let alone doing justice to, the valuable contributions to the discussions difficult. For this lapse, apologies to those not considered or adequately dealt with in these lines, without meaning in any way to depreciate their invaluable input.

Day one of the AJC21 saw more than its fair share of fireworks. The first, inaugural session was on “The Role of Judiciary in Protecting Human Rights and Strengthening Democracy”, with a whole galaxy of the country’s top legal minds in attendance. The panel of speakers boasted the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Gulzar Ahmed, Supreme Court (SC) and high court judges, the Bar, diplomats, etc. The tone was set by a fiery speech by former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and a leading figure in the 2007 lawyers’ movement in support of the judiciary against military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s attack on the venerable institution, Ali Ahmad Kurd. The bee in Kurd’s bonnet seemed to reflect his disappointment and anger at the dashing of the hopes accompanying the restoration of the judiciary in 2008 amidst Musharraf’s ignominious departure from power that the appropriate lessons had been learnt by the superior judiciary from the 2007 events as much as the past controversial role of the judiciary vis-à-vis military dictatorships and the people’s constitutional and human rights. Expressing his deep seated anger during his speech, Kurd did not spare anyone. The AJC21 organisers were taken to task for the very title of the session and its implications. “What judiciary are you talking about?” Kurd challenged the organisers. He then went on to assail the judiciary for the state of affairs in our judicial system. He claimed our judiciary was on the lowest in world rankings because of its controversial functioning. He further claimed a division within the judiciary (without explicating the basis of this division). Disparagingly, he said one army General was superior to the 220 million citizens of the country, contributing thereby to the perceived lack of credibility of our judiciary in the world rankings.

Kurd’s uninhibited lambasting caused unease amongst the organisers, not the least because CJP Gulzar Ahmad was in attendance as the chief guest and keynote speaker for the session, but also because Kurd’s fiery rhetoric evoked constant sloganeering from the audience, particularly its younger component and students. It was left to SCBA current president Ahsan Bhoon (recently elected to his post) to intervene and ask the participants to show respect and maintain the decorum of the event.

Amongst the other speeches in this session, there were two that stood out in stark contrast. Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice (CJ) Athar Minallah (also a former heavyweight of the lawyers’ movement) threw away his prepared speech in favour of addressing impromptu the criticism levelled by Kurd. To his credit, despite being one of the top judges of the present judicial structure, CJ Minallah struck an honest note in arguing that the judiciary could not refuse to accept its mistakes. As examples of such mistakes, he quoted the Nusrat Bhutto and Zafar Ali Shah verdicts of the SC (the first was the controversial trial and hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto). Had he wished to, CJ Minallah could have found many other examples stemming from the Doctrine of Necessity that provided justification for military coups, martial laws and military dictatorships in our troubled history. Perhaps CJ Minallah exercised deliberate restraint despite his exemplary honesty. Following on at the end of the session, CJP Gulzar Ahmad attempted to defend his institution by dismissing the overly broad and generalised critique of the judicial system implied in Kurd’s remarks. He then turned the argument towards his own and his fellow judges of the superior judiciary’s mode of dispensing justice without fear or favour or accepting any pressure or dictation. While it is possible to agree with CJP Gulzar Ahmad’s assertions, he chose to ignore the elephant in the room from the past to which CJ Minallah had (partially) pointed.

While discussing the judiciary and its mistakes and failings in our history, CJP Gulzar Ahmad’s desire not to throw the baby out with the bath water, thereby preserving the respect and credibility of the institution, is perfectly understandable. However, this may not satisfy the trenchant critics of the judiciary’s history like Ali Ahmad Kurd. Only a reckoning with the past, and efforts not to repeat previous mistakes can restore and even enhance the respect, dignity and credibility of our judicial institutions.

Rashed Rahman, "Asma Jahangir Conference 2021 — I," Business Recorder. 2021-11-23.
Keywords: Political science , Covid pandemic , Supreme court , Military dictatorships , Judicial system , High court , Military coups , Martial laws , Gulzar Ahmad , Ali Ahmad Kurd , JCP , IHC , CJ

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