By Nasim Zehra
There are many reasons to celebrate Asma Jehangir’s election to the office of the Supreme Court Bar Association president. Without prejudice to class, colour and religion or political creed, she has consistently fought for democracy, human rights, rule of law and entitlement of Pakistan’s underprivileged. She fought for all this as an individual and in an institutional context within and outside Pakistan.
She has believed in tolerance and also lived by it. Her liberal views made her believe in debate. Forever ready to engage people of any ideological orientation, Asma has always understood the rationale and the value of debate and tolerance, without prejudice. She has never demanded that only people of her choice be brought on to TV channels to debate with her.
Today, Asma appears before the Supreme Court petitioning for the rights of missing persons, irrespective of their ideological affiliation. A strong opponent of the Taliban, Asma still continued to ?question the decision to conduct army operations in Swat and the Tribal Areas from the standpoint of human rights violations.
A firm believer in democracy, Asma consistently opposed martial law regimes, strongly criticised political exclusion and marginalisation of people from Balochistan and Sindh. She stood up for the minorities, was at the forefront of Pakistan’s brave women who stood up against the military with a diabolical political agenda, including reducing women to half a status, legalising persecution of minorities, fanning sectarian hate, etc.
Asma’s achievements are hard to summarise but she is a courageous, committed and honest woman — indeed the conscience of Pakistan. A trailblazer in much that she did, learning of course from those who fought before her, she acknowledged her teachers such as IA Rehman and the late Nisar Osmani with grace and humility. She was in the forefront in questioning the militarised definition of national security when many of us saw national security in narrower terms.
Much of the old wisdom promoted by the establishment and supported by mandarins in the political class, the media and the academia, has been waylaid in the face of our crisis-ridden context. ?We are paying the wages of dehumanisation at the ideological, material and intellectual level of those whose fundamental rights the state and executive are bound to protect.
But now everyone acknowledges these facts as Asma takes over the challenge as the SCBA president, at a time when relations between the bench and bar have become disturbingly close. Therefore, she will have to lead a graceful and non-confrontationalist, yet firm pullback.
Asma’s victory is a victory of that school of though that does not believe in the lawyers being foot soldiers of the bench; neither should they be there to ensure that SC judgements are implemented. Similarly, under Asma, the SCBA will not give itself the task of ensuring independence of the judiciary.
Instead, the SCBA will focus on its actual mandate – of principally ensuring that the legal fraternity adheres to the highest ethical standards in the performance of its role in administration of justice, and thus contributes to the elimination of inefficiency, incapacity and corruption in the Pakistani judicial institutions.
Asma’s job will not be easy. Her victory came with a narrow margin. Those who believe they are the judiciary’s foot soldiers will still continue in that vein. Asma’s challenge will be to not only lead the lawyers towards a non-anarchical and non-partisan professional mode but also remind the judiciary of its own code of behaviour, of ensuring that there is a level playing field where application of law is concerned. That no selective toughness or leniency be shown to any position or institution. Equally, the SCBA will have to remind the executive and the Presidency that the law minister and the law ministry do not mess around with law, in fact they uphold law in the highest tradition of a democratic society.
Asma’s voice will carry weight as a constitutionally valid voice in spelling out the correct place of parliament, executive and judiciary within Pakistan’s constitutional framework. As the president of the SCBA, the mettle of this homegrown lawyer, human rights activist and the conscience of Pakistan will be put to test.