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A case of selective memory

On 28 July 2017, when the Supreme Court of Pakistan announced their decision to disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office, many around the country took a moment to reflect on this momentous occasion. The highest court in the land, had just ousted the sitting Prime Minister of the nation, for deceiving the public, and for failing to disclose his financial assets.

Not many people could have predicted this turn of events when the Panama Papers were initially leaked, none more so than Nawaz Sharif himself. Sharif was defiant from the very beginning, vowing to fight the decision in the courts and restore his premiership. He then directed his ire against the judiciary itself. In one speech he called it “an insult to 200,000 people of Pakistan” who had voted for him only to see “the five honorable judges send me home with a single stroke of a pen”.

Over the next few months, he, along with many of his PML-N party members, started attacking the courts and judges, calling into question their track record, as well as their “true motives’ behind the sacking of the former Prime Minister.  While the establishment, the PTI and its leader Imran Khan, as well as several other covert forces have since also been accused of conspiring against Nawaz, it has been the judiciary that has taken the brunt of the blame.

There is however an intriguing common theme that Nawaz and his supporters have alluded to, in every one of their tirades against the courts; the judiciary’s history with Military dictators. In a speech made to supporters a few months after his ouster he talked about how “every prime minister in this country was given one-and-a-half-year tenure, on average, to govern. Some were executed, some jailed, some handcuffed, and some exiled. On the other hand, dictators were allowed to rule for decades and the judges even allowed them to rule. Is there any court in the country to hold a dictator accountable? One of them (General Pervez Musharraf) went out for medical treatment for a backache and never came back to face cases,”.

It seems that Sharif and many of his supporters realized that in order to delegitimize the court’s verdict, they had to first discredit the judiciary by associating them with a divisive time in the country’s history. By once again reminding the public of the contentious military dictatorships that had ruled over the nation multiple times in the past, they hoped to stir up enough resentment against the judiciary to steer the conversation away from Sharif’s past indiscretions, and on to the validity of the court’s decisions.

During a recent meeting with lawyers at Punjab House, Islamabad, he once again targeted the judiciary, saying “look at what is happening in your own courts. Hundreds of thousands of cases are pending in court and people are awaiting their decision. Justice is so expensive that even I am tired of paying my lawyers’ fees”. He then compared his situation to that of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh, saying he was not a rebel, but was “made into one” and that he too was similarly being mistreated and “pushed towards revolt”. This was another attempt at distancing himself from the establishment, by comparing himself to the former leader of the East-Pakistan based Awami League, who were prevented from forming a government by Chief Martial Law Administrator General Yahya Khan, back in 1970.

Nawaz further went on to talk about the reverence given to dictators by people in the country, saying “They were told that had you not arrived, the country would have been destroyed. They were told that ‘this is Pakistan’s Constitution, and it is your property’. They were given authority to amend the Constitution; an authority that the judges themselves did not have. They were told ‘We will never ask you, no one will ask you’, and the nation kept quiet”. He then brought the conversation back to the judiciary, saying that they were at fault for “inventing the doctrine of necessity” and for “legitimizing dictatorships”.

Faded Memories

It is becoming abundantly clear that as the elections get closer, Nawaz Sharif will continue to disparage the Judiciary, and it seems that the easiest way for him to do that is by persistently referencing their alleged support for military dictatorships over the years. However, for those people who have followed the former Prime Minister’s career since the very beginning, his harsh criticism against the judiciary seems a bit contradictory. It was after all General Zia Ul Haq, the longest serving military dictator in Pakistan’s history, who gave Nawaz his first big break in politics.

It was under Zia Ul Haq’s tutelage that Nawaz was first appointed the Finance Minister of Punjab, and then its Chief Minister in 1985. Later he would go on to become a senior leader of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), a coalition of pro-Zia, conservative parties who united to contest the 1988 elections against the popular Benazir Bhutto, after Zia’s death in August of that year. Even though the IJI lost these elections, Sharif still managed to remain Chief Minister of Punjab, and would eventually go on to become Prime Minister as well, only two years later in 1990.

Stories about the establishment’s role in funding the IJI plagued the coalition since its inception, and Nawaz didn’t do much to curb these rumors. Instead, there can be found several interviews and speeches in which he went on to praise the army, and Zia Ul Haq specifically. In one interview shortly after Zia’s death, Nawaz talked about his admiration for the late dictator, saying “he set a very good precedent for the politics in this country, which have had a very healthy impact and I’d like to pursue those policies (as well)”.

It is after comments like these that the hypocrisy of Nawaz’s constant criticism of the Judiciary really becomes palpable. You cannot accuse the whole institution for “legitimizing dictatorships”, when you are a product of the same entity. Perhaps in the future, the former Prime Minister would be better served reflecting on his own past instead.

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