Here’s what did not happen in Pakistan last week. The President was not overthrown. The Prime Minister spoke to the nation way past midnight, but he did not declare an emergency. Troops were assembled at major junctions, but the soldiers did not round up opposition leaders. Lawyers marching to seek justice were not sent away to jail for an indefinite period without trial.
And a former chief justice, removed from office without just cause, was reinstated to his earlier position.
Pakistan had reached the end of a road; its leaders probably stared at the abyss below, and stepped back. The obstinate President relented; the Prime Minister’s speech reassured the nation so that the folks who stayed up could sleep easily; and the nightmarish stalemate, which had no reason to exist, was over.
Pakistan did not follow the copybook of its past. This does not mean Pakistan has overnight become a full-fledged democracy. After all, there are legitimate questions about the soon-to-be-reappointed chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. In 2000, Chaudhry agreed to take oath under Pervez Musharraf’s controversial Provisional Constitutional Order, even as 18 judges of Pakistan’s high courts and the Supreme Court resigned. In 2005, he dismissed petitions challenging Musharraf’s constitutional amendments and legitimized his Legal Framework Order. It was only two years later, when Chaudhry questioned the privatization of a steel mill, and later challenged the government over the detention of hundreds of people without trial, that relations between the general and the judge truly soured, leading to his removal. Lawyers spiritedly protested then, but they were not successful. President Asif Ali Zardari had agreed with Nawaz Sharif that Chaudhry would be reinstated; backtracking on that promise threatened to derail Pakistan’s flawed democracy once again as it unravelled that unlikely alliance; and only Zardari’s capitulation ensured that the dispute did not end violently.
That sobering reality does not alter the balance of power: The military comes out looking good; the mullahs are waiting; and Sharif is plotting his next move. Was the past weekend the turning point or the tipping point?
If the denouement in Pakistan seems surprising, blame those who shape the way Indians and Pakistanis see one another. The great achievement of the securicrats and communal leaders on both sides of the border is their resounding success in keeping the people of the two countries apart. We know too little about each other. As a proportion of the population, few of us visit them, and few of them visit us. Those who do cross the border visit families or go on official business. There are unofficial visitors—smugglers, spies and terrorists being three of that kind.
As a result, most of us stumble upon our neighbours when we accidentally bump into them abroad: the news vendor in Bloomsbury, the cab driver in Manhattan, or the student in the dorm who also likes samosas on a cold night. As a consequence, the narrative of who “we” are, and what “they” are like is almost entirely controlled by those with a vested interest in keeping the people apart. When a Pakistani businessman asked general Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq why the two countries could not have stronger trade relations, the general replied: Because I don’t want a fifth column in my country.
Motivated textbooks and jingoistic television programmes have reinforced propaganda at home, perpetuating negative images, and convincing many Pakistanis that all Indians think like Varun Gandhi, and persuading many Indians that most Pakistani men are waiting to stone adulterers to death. Those caricatures are crude and don’t do justice to the two nations—or to the good people in both countries.
But this time, those sinister caricatures—venal politicians, corrupt generals and power-hungry mullahs—have lost; the good guys have won; Pakistanis are beginning to reclaim their country.
Maybe Pakistan will follow its tragic trajectory once again. To avoid that fate, Pakistanis must not pin all hopes on one individual—the chief justice. When Andrea said in Bertolt Brecht’s play, Galileo, “Unhappy is the land that has no heroes,” the scientist who challenged the pope, replied, “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that is in need of a hero.”
Pakistan’s heroes today are the marchers. It takes courage to step out in a society where bombs go off easily, where mullahs thunder and seize mosques, and where generals wait in the wings. That’s where an independent judiciary can enforce the rules by which the society has agreed to govern itself.
Pakistan may be far from its destination, but it has resumed its long march. As its civil structures reassert themselves, the winners are not only Pakistanis; their liberation brings normalcy to the entire subcontinent, and it is time for India to rejoice, too.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org