The man who played with fire

In those few hours when the CJ was illegally detained, Pakistan changed forever. Its people changed, its politics changed and its judiciary changed

Never before in history has a single snapshot shaken up the whole nation and ignited a powerful movement across the country as it did in Pakistan after the incident of March 9, 2007. The photograph, which was taken a few days later, portrayed the former Chief Justice (CJ) of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, being manhandled by a police officer in Islamabad. Just like he would treat an ordinary citizen, the officer was holding the CJ by his hair and obstructing the top judge from moving forward. The old and feeble Mr Chaudhry seemed powerless in front of the giant officer who had enfolded the CJ with his other arm. The snapshot was taken from behind and one could hardly identify the CJ in it. The police officer’s face was also partially visible, yet the message in it was loud and clear: power rests with the people in uniform. 
Looking at that picture in the newspapers, Pakistanis identified their own vulnerabilities and recognised their own helplessness. They saw that a part of them was being humiliated by an arrogant military dictator, yet again. Facing the same allegations of corruption and nepotism, they witnessed another civilian being casted off after losing his utility. They had had enough. They decided to stand up against the tyranny of an illegal ruler and put a stop to this ‘on and off’ game with the constitution. Ready to face the consequences, they came out in thousands to show their solidarity with the CJ. Their resolve was so powerful and so massive was the campaign to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry that it shattered the whole administrative paradigm in Pakistan forever.
Just before the meeting in which General Musharraf demanded his resignation, there was nothing unusual happening in Islamabad. The morning was pleasant and the capital was ready to welcome spring with all its colours and beauty. It was geared to shower the delicacies of wealth and authority in the influential corridors and it was certainly prepared for a ‘little’ change in the apex court. There were no signs of being concerned anywhere. General Musharraf’s eighth year in power was not supposed to bring any turmoil for him and the transition towards democracy was going to be uneventful. He would be elected for another term as the president of Pakistan in seven months and then, at his leisure, would take off his uniform. He thought people adored him as a courageous general, admired his charisma as the president and were impressed with his clean reputation. Polls too had shown a consistent job approval rating of 65 percent for many years. At that time, he was the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), patron in chief of the PML-Q — the ruling political party — and a close ally of the US. He was untouchable.
Intoxicated with power, he was confident that the matter was trivial and would be resolved in a few hours without any significant resistance. He was therefore scheduled to offer Friday prayers after the meeting and had planned to leave for Karachi later that afternoon. All arrangements were made according to the plan including the official pictures of the outgoing CJ. In this picture, which was one of the most circulated snapshots of 2007, the CJ sits humbly on a sofa in front of the COAS, a faint smile of extreme nervousness runs across the CJ’s face as he maintains an attentive posture towards the general while a confident COAS in his khaki uniform and long military boots seems to be looking down at Mr Chaudhry. 
General Musharraf, in the meeting, insisted that Mr Chaudhry step down immediately amid the allegations of corruption and nepotism. To be considerate, he was willing to offer Mr Chaudhry a non-administrative senior civilian position but, strangely, the CJ did not conform to his demand that day; he denied all the charges and modestly refused to comply with the general’s request.
His unexpected dissent irked the most powerful man. In any case, even after his refusal, the CJ was suspended, a new CJ was sworn in and a formal reference from the federal government was submitted against Mr Chaudhry to the Supreme Judicial Council. Physically humiliated, Mr Chaudhry was initially locked in a room for a few hours and was later transferred to his residence under house arrest for the next four days.
In those few hours when the CJ was illegally detained, Pakistan changed forever. Its people changed, its politics changed and its judiciary changed. From that time on, it was not going to be easy prey for a wolf in sheep’s uniform again — its judges would never be subjugated, its media could not be silenced and its politicians could not be made scared of torture cells, imprisonment and financial blackmailing. Those days, when a truckload of military men would bring a revolution in the country, were gone. The party was over. 
Since then, even if we disagree with all his decisions, we can agree that two things have happened in Pakistan: military involvement in civilian matters has reduced and continues to shrink every day with civilian supremacy being established slowly. Secondly, democracy has strengthened in the last few years. Although it is not only because of the court’s efforts, the maturity of the politicians also played a role in that episode. However, we are certain that in the presence of Iftikhar Chaudhry no military general would have dared to abrogate the constitution again.
Sure, he has created a lot of controversy after his reinstatement. His National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) phobia, his anti-PPP bias and judicial activism cannot be defended but it is through his courage that the constitution has become, as it should be, the country’s most sacred document.

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