Pause, Sirs, and Ponder

This article was written by Pakistan's finest analyst, Mr. I. A. Rehman, for Dawn, published on December 24, 2009


The fact that in its response to the Supreme Court judgment of Dec 16 the nation is divided cannot be denied, and prudence demands that the causes of this division should not be brushed aside without careful scrutiny.

A large section of society believes that Pakistan has become a corruption-free entity and a judicially controlled democracy while a none-too-small section feels deeply hurt. Much can be said for and against both sides.

The hailers are largely guided by their desire to wipe off the shame of becoming one of the most corrupt states in the world. They appear full of zeal for righteousness. However, they will do their cause enormous harm if they fall for the universally repudiated view that the ends always justify the means. The people of Pakistan paid a heavy price for taking this route when they welcomed the usurpation of power by Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf.

The wailers are largely moved by the apparent setback to their group. They think the law has been used for a political purpose. They have strong memories of the Tamizuddin and Nusrat Bhutto cases and the judgment against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They could be wrong. However, they will do themselves enormous harm if they appear to be defending corrupt persons or practices.

Somewhere between the two extremes stand those who wish to make sure that good intentions do not lead to the dreaded hell. Some of them have a longer record of denouncing corrupt rulers and condemning the NRO than the born-yesterday anti-vice squad. They believe the NRO was a bad law, that it should not have been made, that no one claiming public support should have sought to benefit from it and that those who made this obnoxious law as well as its beneficiaries should pay for their lapses.

According to them the Supreme Court verdict has two parts: one dealing with the NRO, the other with broader themes. They have no quarrel with the first part. They only want to have their fears of the long-term implications of some of the assumptions underlying the court order duly and properly addressed.

The NRO was such an easy target that a single shot (Articles 4, 8 and 25 of the constitution) was enough to demolish it. A fusillade from heavy cannons (Articles 62 (f), 63 (i and p), 89, 175, and 227) has created problems.

The clauses of Articles 62 and 63 cited now constitute part of Ziaul Haq’s arbitrary amendments. They have never been debated by a representative assembly and have been consistently denounced by democratic opinion. It has often been said that the legislatures have not touched them. But this argument should be examined in the context of the circumstances in which the post-Zia assemblies have been elected and the conditions under which the democratic regimes have been allowed to function. Invoking Ziaul Haq’s interpolations in the 1973 constitution, whose revival in its original form is the battle cry of all democratic parties, is like quoting a PCO judge’s ruling before today’s independent judiciary.

Further, reference has again been made to the 'salient features of the constitution, i.e., independence of the judiciary, federalism, parliamentary form of government blended with Islamic provisions' and 'no change in the basic features of the constitution is possible through amendment'. The argument was last heard in May 2000 when 12 judges of the Supreme Court had not only upheld the Pervez Musharraf coup of October 1999 but also allowed him the power to amend the constitution.

Now, the debate over certain parts of a national constitution being outside parliament’s authority to amend them has been going on in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh for over 40 years (Indian Supreme Court verdicts of 1967, 1973 and 1975; Pakistan Supreme Court verdicts of 1963, 1997 and 2000). Professor Conrad, the German scholar who has done much to promote this principle, has succinctly put it thus: 'Any amending body organised within the statutory scheme, howsoever verbally unlimited its power, cannot by its very structure change the fundamental pillars supporting its constitutional authority.'

An essential question is: are courts the sole forum for determining the basic or fundamental or salient features of a constitution? In many countries (including Canada, Germany and India) the provisions that cannot be routinely amended by parliament are identified in the constitution itself. This is an issue that calls for a thorough debate.

In any case the issue before the Supreme Court was not an amendment to the constitution that would have attracted the basic features theory. The issue before it was an ordinary presidential ordinance. And for laws and ordinances that conflict with the constitution clear remedies are available.

By invoking Article 227 in the present case the Supreme Court seems to have put Islamic injunctions in command of the whole constitution. Quite a few lawyers argue that this amounts to overruling the court’s judgments in the Hakim Khan (1992) and Kaneez Fatima (1993) cases.

The position as far as a lay writer can understand is this: the power to strike down a law for being repugnant to Islamic injunctions lies with the Federal Shariat Court and no other court. Article 227 only allows the Council of Islamic Ideology to recommend changes in laws on the ground of repugnancy to Islam. The article does not empower any forum to strike down any law. When 17 judges of the highest court invest Article 227 with the power to nullify a law it could amount to constitution-making. It is necessary to dispel the fears that the courts could start striking down any law they consider violative of Islamic injunctions.

Besides, the matter is not one of law alone, it is essentially political. The 'salient features of the constitution' theory has no answer for conflicts between these features — between a parliamentary form of government and Islamic injunctions, for instance. And what will happen to the independence of the judiciary if one accepts the view propounded by many Islamic scholars that in an Islamic order the ameer is the head of all state organs — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary?

One cannot forget the case started by Mr Kaikaus, a former Supreme Court judge, in a Shariat appellate bench but which was dismissed by the Federal Shariat Court on a technical ground. He appealed to the bench but withdrew his plea because he did not think the judges on it were Muslims! Mr Kaikaus had branded the parliamentary form of government, the system of elections, and the existence of political parties as un-Islamic! Fears of many such cases coming up are not groundless. The people of Pakistan have every right to ask whether Ziaul Haq’s agenda has been revived.