Sunday, June 23, 2024

How a movie scene summed up Pakistan’s legal and political history (and present)

Bollywood has a new money-spinner. Gadar 2, a sequel to the 2001 classic Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, has set the box office alight with its bombastic, larger-than-life action sequences and stirring, albeit unoriginal, dialogues. The lead character, Tara Singh (played by Sunny Deol), has all the features of a vintage action hero — machismo, superhuman strength and a thunderous roar that would put a lion to shame. As a cult figure in his own right, it is no surprise that moviegoers thronged theatres by the bushel for an encore of Tara Singh’s skull-crushing, handpump-uprooting escapades. Yet what could otherwise only charitably be described as a typical 1990s-esque potboiler had one scene that exuded an uncharacteristic brilliance and appeared to be (intentional or otherwise) a subtle caricaturisation of Pakistan’s torturous history of military and judicial coups d’état.

Amrish Puri

The sequel picks up the narrative from where its vaunted progenitor left it, in 1954. Ashraf Ali, the character portrayed by the late Amrish Puri in the first movie, a civilian politician and one of the leaders of the Pakistan movement in pre-partition India, is sent to the gallows by the Army for betraying Pakistan. Ashraf Ali’s ostensibly treasonous crime was allowing his daughter Sakeena and son-in-law Tara Singh to escape. The execution scene is blink-and-miss, with Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) creating the likeness of the now long-passed Amrish Puri, but it encapsulates with supple brevity the sinister military-judiciary nexus in snuffing out political challengers.

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Doctrine of Necessity

The assault on Pakistan’s nebulous civilian political culture began early, but it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date. Some view Liaquat Ali Khan’s 1951 assassination as the starting point; others go as far as identifying Jinnah’s lonely last hours in 1948 as a portent of things to come. At any rate, by February 1954, a mere 7 years after independence, when Prime Minister Bogra’s hand was forced into appointing General Ayub Khan as Defence Minister, Pakistan was well on its way to becoming a garrison state dominated by the military.

General Ayub Khan

The descent into autocracy was aided in no small measure by the judiciary. When Governor General Ghulam Muhammad dissolved the constituent assembly in October 1954, just as it was about to unveil a constitution for the new country, the judiciary intervened decisively against civilian democracy. Chief Justice Muhammad Munir’s Federal Court infamously ruled in favour of the constituent assembly’s dissolution in the Maulvi Tamizuddin case, invoking the ‘doctrine of necessity’ under English Common Law to rubber stamp an unelected executive’s decision to nip democracy in the bud.

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Munir’s judgment brazenly defiled the spirit of constitutionalism by drawing upon Bracton’s maxim, ‘that which is otherwise not lawful is made lawful by necessity’, as well as a Roman law axiom championed by Ivor Jennings, ‘the well-being of the people is the supreme law’. Subsequent decisions of the Pakistani Supreme Court have put a formal end to the doctrine of necessity, but the damage it has wrought on civilian supremacy is irreparable, and its haunting repercussions continue to shape contemporary affairs.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

Bhutto and Nawaz

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was Pakistan’s first genuinely elected leader. Although not immune to an autocratic streak, his five-and-a-half-year tenure at Pakistan’s helm was the closest the country ever got to genuine civilian rule. Bhutto’s ambitious manoeuvring to wield influence over the military, however, ultimately proved his undoing, as it culminated in his ousting via a coup d’état and subsequent execution, facilitated by a complicit judiciary in what is rightly labelled a ‘judicial murder.’ What followed was a prolonged period of outright military rule and ‘hybrid’ democratic experiments.

Similar treatment has been meted out to other civilian politicians since. Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, was assassinated in mysterious circumstances, with many holding the military and intelligence agencies responsible. The judiciary has thus far failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. Nawaz Sharif has been elected Prime Minister thrice, and he has been deposed on all three occasions by the military with the judiciary’s connivance, with the infamous Panama Papers case judgment rendered in 2017 being the latest in a long line of politically motivated decisions aimed at undermining civilian democratic institutions.

General Asim Munir

Imran’s incarceration: Back to square one

Long a beneficiary of the military-judicial-bureaucratic complex’s penchant for intervening in politics, it is now Imran Khan’s turn to face the music. Having fallen out of favour with the military brass in Rawalpindi, Imran has been implicated in a litany of criminal cases. He was arrested earlier this month and sent to prison after being convicted of misappropriating gifts received in an official capacity. Suffice it to say Imran is not being given a fair trial. The hastily cobbled-together judicial proceedings are kangaroo courts for all practical purposes, with glaring procedural lacunae resembling a witch hunt.

By all indications, matters may be taking a turn for the worse. The military has pressured parliament to amend existing laws conferring extraordinary powers to the Army Chief, General Asim Munir. Civilians will now be subject to the jurisdiction of military courts, the rules for which will be made by the Army Chief (a power previously reserved for the elected executive). Draconian amendments have also been made to the Official Secrets Act, empowering intelligence agencies such as the ISI to eavesdrop on civilian politicians and threaten them with dire consequences for “leaking secrets.”

Pakistan is stuck in a quagmire of its own making and just cannot seem to catch a break. Judges and Generals have teamed up repeatedly to murder (both literally and figuratively) elected leaders. Gadar 2 has, perhaps accidentally, encapsulated the single greatest tragedy of Pakistan’s chequered history and the bane of its chaotic present.

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Varun Nambiar
Varun Nambiar
Varun Nambiar is a lawyer and research scholar. He is a doctoral candidate at South Asian University, New Delhi. His research area is international law, and he writes on law and international affairs, global governance, the accountability of international organisations, geopolitics and human rights.


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