Guilty as charged
By Farhat Haq: Dawn, December 14, 2007
UNTIL Nov 3, when President Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, I was living the life of an academic in the safety and comfort of a small Midwestern college town in the US where my biggest worry was that my sixteen-year-old son now had a driver’s licence. The declaration of emergency pulled me into the peculiar emotional state inhabited by those of us who experience the turmoil of their native lands while living in the safety and comfort of their adopted homelands.
I watched on the television screen as Pakistani protesters were beaten by plain-clothed security personnel and hauled away to prison. It made me want to join the street demonstrations. Instead I tried to go about my daily routine, almost bursting into tears once as the checkout person at the grocery store asked innocently, “How’s everything?”
Then the emergency came to find me. “They have issued an FIR [first information report] for you along with three other faculty and two students,” a Pakistani colleague from a university in Lahore, where I sometimes teach, informed me. To my colleague the fact that I was accused of disturbing the peace by “chalking on the wall … writing inappropriate things about the government” when I was not even in the country was just one more indication of the Kafkaesque world Pakistan has entered since the declaration of the state of emergency.
The government is supposedly fighting Islamic radicals and bringing on what is alleged to be the ‘third stage’ of democracy. Oddly enough, it seeks to accomplish these goals by suspending the Constitution, shutting off the independent media, manipulating the January election, packing the courts with compliant judges willing to take an oath of office under whatever President Musharraf says is the law and, finally, imprisoning secular and progressive figures who dare to voice truly democratic aspirations for their country. Add to this last strategy the issuing of arrest warrants for troublesome scholars (including yours truly) who are not even residing in Pakistan.
Of course I am very proud of this FIR. It makes me feel as if I am actually doing something. But my husband is not amused. He has experienced imprisonment and interrogation at the hands of Pakistani police, during another dark time in Pakistani history, when another general hung the first popularly elected prime minister and arrested student leaders in order to keep ‘peace’ in the streets. “You do not know what kind of trouble they can make for you when you go back to Pakistan,” he told me as I cheerfully showed him the email. “This is not a laughing matter.”
Growing up in Pakistan, I knew FIRs were nothing but trouble. My extended small-town and rural Punjabi family mostly kept on the right side of the law, but there was a maternal uncle of mine, a rabble-rouser who had eloped with another man’s wife, who was familiar with FIRs, thanas (jails) and police. Such involvement was no picnic. Nor was the process particularly fair.
Successfully lodging an FIR against one’s adversary was a sure sign of one’s connections and ability to humiliate the enemy. With FIRs in hand the police could raid your house and arrest all the males. If they really wanted to humiliate the family, they would haul the female members to the thana too.
For a middle-class Pakistani, no encounter with the law could possibly be very good. For working-class and poor Pakistanis, encounters with the law are likely to be ruinous. One does not turn to law to get justice; the powerful use the law to keep others under their control. Equality under the law, a rudimentary principle of modern citizenship, remains elusive for Pakistanis. FIRs, along with other legal instruments — the detritus of British colonial rule — has continued to subjugate the Pakistani public.
A few months before the current state of emergency was declared came a glimmer of hope. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the judges of the Supreme Court resisted arbitrary rule and asserted supremacy of the law. Sitting here in the US and looking at the unfolding political drama in Pakistan, I saw the first act as being ho-hum. A chief justice was told that he should resign or he would be charged with misusing his office and thus dismissed anyway. There were rumours of sweetening the deal further by promising sweet real-estate deals and cash.
The chief justice refused and insisted on facing the charges against him. The accused chief justice became a lightning rod for a movement for an independent judiciary. The chief justice got reinstated. The ordinary people rejoiced and looked to the Supreme Court to get justice. People started urging the courts to take suo motu action on all kinds of grievances: traffic jams, graft and corruption, kidnapping, disappearances, unfair selection for the national cricket team. Could it possibly be that, for ordinary people, the law would no longer be their enemy; that they could finally look to the legal system to get justice?
Unfortunately, this first act concluded with the imposition of the current ‘emergency’. We are now in the middle of the second act. How it will turn out, nobody really knows. But I am part of it. A warrant has been issued for my arrest, despite the fact that I am thousands of miles away from the trouble. I accept this warrant proudly. In a way, it is no mistake. If it is criminal for a daughter of Pakistan to long for freedom and justice, then I plead guilty.
The writer teaches political science at Monmouth College in Illinois, US.