Asma Jahangir’s victory in the Supreme Court Bar Association elections is a momentous event in the country’s political and legal landscape. Even the worst of her critics grudgingly admit that her principled stance has remained consistent in a country where intellectual honesty and integrity are in short supply. More importantly, her reasoned approach to recent bouts of judicial activism has been a source of strength for stakeholders in the democratic process. Almost every progressive Pakistani has been overjoyed with her election as head of a professional body which was on the verge of losing its credibility due to indulgence in partisan politics.
Since the lawyers’ movement created a stir in 2007, the bars had started to assume the role of a political party with an exaggerated notion of their power. Instead of focusing on what ailed legal education and the maligned profession, the regulators had turned into rowdy mobs, televangelists and spokespersons of the free and restored judges. Encouraged, a Supreme Court judge reportedly remarked how ‘popular will’ was above the Constitution. The pinnacle of this approach was the judgment in the NRO case. Asma Jahangir and a few other sensible lawyers highlighted the problematic aspects of the verdict. This was a game-changer and Jahangir was at the centre of this rational discourse.
Her detractors, which are many in a radicalised, post-jihad Pakistan, construed her independent view as affiliation with the government. This limited understanding of her persona and principles, ignoring nearly four decades of activism, was disingenuous at best. The tirade against her by a few zealots in the media even on the day of the election will go down in history as a shameful episode. Positioning her as an opponent of the judiciary was simply untenable as she has always been at the forefront of movements calling for an independent judiciary and democratic governance. Of course, the majority of senior lawyers have proved the media non-gurus wrong by discarding their biased rants.
Pakistan’s fragile democracy is compromised and corrupt; it can only evolve if adequate space is provided by the power players. Asma’s success comes at a time when a courageous voice, free of corporate interests, is required. Above all, her election is also significant for she is the first woman to hold this office, having defeated a wide coalition of right-wing lawyers who even used the Khatam-e Nabuwwat card to demolish her image and credentials.
Asma Jahangir has faced threats to her life and remains undaunted. She is the conscience of Pakistan and her international acclaim is based on her steadfastness, which our bigots wish to ignore. An Urdu columnist called her a danger to Islam and now the usual black-coated suspects are levelling charges that the government injected resources into her campaign. Obviously they have lost their control over the apex bar body and know that Asma will be a fearless and independent leader. They can worry for their agendas but liberal, democratic Pakistanis are rejoicing this much needed respite in the gloomy times that we live in.
This column by Raza Rumi was originally published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2010.