Thursday, January 24, 2008

Who is afraid of Aitzaz Ahsan?

VIEW: Who is afraid of Aitzaz Ahsan? —Tanvir Ahmad Khan
Daily Times, January 25, 2008

Continuity has been the buzzword of the regime that has determined our individual and collective fate for more than eight years. It is nowhere better seen than in the methods that it employs to coerce people to submit to its will. With clockwork regularity we see the representatives of the regime offering amnesty, condonation or a simple loan write-off in exchange for change of loyalties or a willing suspension of individual beliefs. The unshakeable faith in this barter is understandable; after all it created a political party that the sovereign needed and enticed away some of the regional stalwarts of the PPP, a party not easy to break.

Perhaps this method got over-estimated when the principal law officer of the government reportedly told Aitzaz Ahsan that he could be a free man if he would not ‘agitate’ in future. Aitzaz Ahsan says that the first words he spoke as a child born into an activist political family were a “slogan”. Because a slogan ruptures whatever surrounds us more violently than whispered conspiracies in a well-appointed drawing room or the decorous conversations in a higher military mess, it is undeniably an agitation. Aitzaz Ahsan cannot be a demagogue but his low-key, structured and closely reasoned submissions to a court on points of law and statements within the councils of his own political party alike reach out to what is meant to remain hidden. This is a good enough reason to be afraid of him.

But there are other reasons too. In a public realm dominated by linear personalities, Aitzaz is a man with many dimensions each of which links up with a legacy that he cannot turn his back upon. He is the son of soil; he tells us that his village in the land of five rivers can be traced back to 2000 years. But that does not make him, like many others, a contender for district-level eminence. His being rooted in the Punjab is a subset of a larger allegiance that flows out of an intense awareness of an ancient civilisation straddling the Lion River, Indus.

This was the land (including a truncated moth-eaten Punjab) that was all that we managed to salvage from the cataclysm of 1971. If its unity is threatened today by reckless violations of the federal Constitution, can one of its sons who is steeped in law, literature and folklore sit back and trade silence for freedom from incarceration? The present dispensation in Pakistan simply finds it difficult to understand that men and women can have a higher calling too.

Aitzaz’s ‘agitation’ may have a redemptive aspect as well. Lahore, the city of Iqbal, symbolises a strange contradiction, an almost schizophrenic split, in the soul of the Punjab between self-serving inertia and an occasional exalted state of moral outrage. Historically, inertia made it provide safe passage, reinforcements and a forward base to invaders for their march to Delhi. Inspired by saints and charismatic leaders — not all of them Muslims — the Punjab has also defied Mogul emperors and imperial Britain.

More recently, its elite, including its legal luminaries, has shown greater propensity to reap the harvest of moral inertia. Many of its leading lights have got dimmed over the last few years because of compulsive casuistry on behalf of a dictatorial and destructive system. The inexhaustible energy that Aitzaz Ahsan displayed in defence of the Supreme Court was perhaps deliberate atonement for the sins of others. There is a reasonable fear that he may still not accept it as a lost cause. Not to do so will certainly be considered as agitation.

PPP faces a crisis after the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto that is no less grave than the one after the elimination of her illustrious father. Such traumatic events can change the mission of political parties. Benazir Bhutto struggled against the party militants who wanted to opt for violence in fighting the military junta of the day as well as those who were totally disheartened and wanted to give up the party’s creed altogether. She developed a conceptual framework which was somewhat different from the one underlying the party’s foundation charter but was still coherent and arguably more tuned to the emerging global realities. Once again the party needs a major intellectual effort if it has to maintain a distinctive character. Aitzaz Ahsan’s active presence in this process of redefining the principles and purposes of the party may well be a source of so much concern to the regime that he has to be stifled.

The history of the five decades leading to the end of the British Indian Empire shows that imprisoning the leaders of great movements never helped; in fact, it foreshortened the time for their success. Lord Wavel considered Nehru a quixotic fanatic but his successor, the last Viceroy, had to eat out of Nehru’s hand to extricate Britain from an untenable phase of its rule over the sprawling sub-continent. Mountbatten disliked the Quaid’s “diamond-hard” ideas on how to safeguard the interests of Muslims but ended up as an advocate of an accelerated partition. Mindless repression had not worked in either case. The present movement for constitutionalism, democracy and the rule of law in Pakistan does not have the magnitude and momentum of the pre-1947 Congress or the Muslim League but that does not mean that it would go away with a subterfuge or two.

The Musharraf era explodes the myth that authoritarian rule accelerates economic development and provides greater security. Conversely, India’s chaotic democracy, punctuated by collapsing state governments and run by uneasy coalitions at the Union level, has achieved these objectives much better without a heavy price in individual liberty. Aitzaz Ahsan is one of many men who know this difference and are, therefore, obsessed with democracy and human rights. This alone is a sufficient reason for the hard core of a perennial civil and military oligarchy to be afraid of him.

The writer is a former foreign secretary

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