Our democratic conscience

Aug 7, 2017
Those who disagree with former Supreme Court Bar Association president Asma Jahangir over the Panama Papers judgement have a right to do so. But they would do well to express their disagreement by presenting counter arguments, rather than hurling personal attacks at her, spreading rumours about her, or attributing malicious intent to the remarks she made at the Islamabad Press Club last week.
Like many in the press and the civil society, Jahangir had opposed the Panama Papers judgement, terming it weak on legal grounds. She also objected to certain constitutional provisions that have been used for derailing democratic process in the country. Her remarks were a reminder that we are still far from achieving a perfect balance between elected and unelected institutions of the state and that those leading the latter have frequently overstepped their constitutional mandates in the past. In short, Jahangir said what she has been saying since 1980s and what needs to be said until supremacy of civilian institutions is firmly established in Pakistan’s political system.
Among other things, Jahangir’s detractors have also accused her of attacking state institutions. Only if they would have listened carefully to what she said in Islamabad last week, they would have understood that the veteran lawyer was just pointing out that institutions needed to work within their constitutional mandate. That is, the Apex court is first and foremost an appellate court with its original jurisdiction restricted to matters of grave importance only. Article 184(3) of the Constitution provides one ground for exercise of the court’s original jurisdiction. Since it does so without laying out objective criteria for the purpose, the outcomes of such an exercise have to remain subject to scrutiny. It should be obvious that this scrutiny needs to be reasonable and done with sincere intentions. And this is precisely what Jahangir undertook when she called for a right to appeal in cases involving fundamental rights of the citizens.
Regarding the armed forces, again, she pointed out a constitutional principle that holds them responsible for national security. Importantly, the threats to national security that require use of this executive agency have to be identified by the Parliament alone. That is, the policy direction has to come from the Parliament, is to be expressed through ministries of defence, interior and foreign affairs and, enforced through agencies operating under these ministries, including the armed forces.
Pointing out this constitutional principle is far from an attack on state institutions. On the contrary, Jahangir has in fact shown us the way to guard state institutions against ill-designs of those who have yet to come to terms with cardinal principles of democratic governance.
And for doing this, she deserves our support and commendation. We wish her more power so she can continue to serve as the democratic conscience of Pakistani polity.
Daily Times, August 7, 2017

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