Lawyers' movement 2007: a moral chronicle
Is there a time when doing the right thing is not right? Should we all now fold our flags, end the vigils and go home? Damned be the lawyers and damned be those who continue to speak up for a voice that will not be silenced
By Salman Akram Raja
No one can love and be just who does not understand the empire of force and know how not to respect it. Simone Weil.
The lawyers' movement that has raged and sometimes simmered since 9 March of this year has been a profound expression of disrespect aimed at an empire of force that has long subjugated not only the machinery of the state but also the mind and the spirit of those who consider themselves the best and the brightest in the land. While the lawyers, and most among the ordinary folk of the country, have continued to uphold the principles that form the bedrock of individual and collective decency, the self-avowed best and the brightest continue to bemoan the lack of tactical savvy displayed by the judiciary and the lawyers: "The general should have been assured his presidency." A tension between principles and tactics is an affliction that has long plagued thinking by and about the Pakistani judiciary. While the judges upholding the Ayub martial law are accused of having committed the original sin, the now ousted judiciary is being deprecated for not having similarly deferred to expedience.
The issue is simple if one is willing to state it in terms of the underlying morality and the law. Do morality and the law matter in affairs of the state? Is politics not merely about power and the art of the possible? These questions are far sillier and a great deal more cynical than they sound. A straight answer is that the relevance of morality and the law to politics depends on the kind of state a people aspire to have. Should any person, politicians included, who considers himself morally upright have sought accommodation with a regime both responsible and unconcerned about the 12 May massacre in Karachi? Should the action of 9 March aimed at removing an uncomfortably independent-minded Chief Justice and signalling to the judiciary the limits of its independence have been condoned? Should the assault on the lawyers' rally in Lahore on March 12 and on the person of the Chief Justice on March 13 have been ignored and the man responsible facilitated in carrying on in charge of an unchanged power structure? Was the attack on the Geo offices in March simply a tactical move not worthy of societal reaction? Was the contempt accorded to the Supreme Court's orders directing that Nawaz Sharif not be impeded in his return to Pakistan a trifling incident in a fair battle for power? Was the perpetrator of the brutality of 29 September outside the offices of the Election Commission not worthy of rebuke? Should the plea of a constitutional bar against the army chief's candidature for the office of the President have been ignored in the face of a clear constitutional violation in order to 'save' the system? Is one man's belief in his indispensability, coupled with his foreign handlers' preference for continuing to deal with a flawed ally rather than risk a new tin pot, enough of a reason for all other institutions to stand by?
Even as a tactic the efficacy of suspending morality and the law is questionable. Should we go on waiting for a transition without confronting the empire of force that has continued to bear down for sixty years on every democratic facade presented to the people of this country? Do stage-managed transitions lead to deepened democracy and power to the people? Was the people's unexpected sense of ownership of the constitutional order, the judiciary in particular, not worth nurturing? For the first time since 1970 a significant portion of the people had acquired belief in their ability to make a difference. The 'best and the brightest' sought to dissuade the people by assuring them of their powerlessness in the face of the entrenched structural dominance of the army and the geo-political compulsions militating in Musharraf's favour. An entirely spurious contradiction between the people's empowerment on the one hand and stability in the face of extremism was set up. Yet, through the spring and the summer a growing number of people, led by battered lawyers and given voice by the media, continued to believe that real change was possible.
The Chief Justice's restoration on July 20 was a watershed. The people's jubilation was met with a swift closing of democratic space by the regime through the autumn. The horror of Nawaz Sharif's forced exit and the violence of September 29 were followed by the mockery called the National Reconciliation Ordinance, 2007. A selective wash out of the corruption charges against those who had refused to appear before the courts for eight years was enacted in return for tacit, but critical, support for the general's election as president. By then it was clear that it was the people who were to be rebuked by deals and subsequent fake fits. The 'best and the brightest' went into overdrive. The lawyers and others opposing back-room deals made for the 'sake of democracy' were described by the 'liberal' proteges of the regime as isolationist neo-cons, suffering from moral pretension. The violence unleashed by the regime was blamed on a barely concealed rustic rage carried onto city streets by the legal community, many of whose members were said to hail from the rural badlands of the country. The subsequent declaration of martial law on November 3 and the worst purge of nearly all judges of any ability and integrity from the country's superior judiciary was pinned on the judiciary's intransigence. "If only they had not been so finicky about the Constitution!"
Is it time now to abandon concern for what is right? Justice (retired) Nasim Hasan Shah reminds us in his remarkable memoirs that during the Bhutto appeal before the Supreme Court he had offered, on behalf of all Punjabi judges, a deal that Justice (retired) Dorab Patel had turned down. The deal was that the Punjabis would not grant Mr. Bhutto the death sentence if the non-Punjabis would agree to convict the accused and punish him with life imprisonment. Justice Patel's overly moral and legalistic rebuff was "How can I convict a man I think is innocent?" It is clear to Justice Shah that it was the failure of the deal offered by him on account of Justice Patel's obsession with the law and the morality of his position as a judge that caused Mr. Bhutto's death. Is there a time when doing the right thing is not right? Should we all now fold our flags, end the vigils and go home? Damned be the lawyers and damned be those who continue to speak up for a voice that will not be silenced.
(The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan)
In a conventional dramatic setting
The 25th RPTW festival presents a face of the country not popularly known abroad -- one that cultivates the arts, literature and higher learning
By Sarwat Ali
It was the sheer determination of the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW) that made the 25th festival possible. The fear of a break in continuity of festivals held since 1992 drove the organisation even harder this time round as it eventually succeeded in managing to put this festival together in a combination of music, dance, film, theatre and puppetry. In keeping with the format of the last three years, this time round too, the RPTW combined the various performing arts under the label of World Performing Arts Festival (WPAF) 2007 and held it at the customary venue Alhamra Cultural Complex.
Despite early fears it turned out to be not that modest a festival in comparison to nearly all the festivals which have been held under the same banner. And the reasons for the fears and apprehensions are not difficult to guess. Many of the groups could not participate after showing their initial willingness because of travel advisories, and many others could not get sponsorship on this very basis, even if they were all prepared to come to Pakistan.
Still many groups from all over the world did manage to make it to Lahore. Among the Indian groups mostly, concentrating on theatre and dance, a very good play Chekov Ki Duniya was staged by a company called The Entertainers. It comprised of six plays based on six short stories by the great Russian writer. These had been translated into Hindi from a Neil Simon English adaptation. The plays were a mixture of humour and absurdities that grew out of the peculiarities of Russia life. These were not about the haunting vacuity of life which trails segments of society for which Chekov is better known but light hearted and comic, sustained by a lively pace which the actors never let flag. There were two plays by another company Pierrot's Troupe: One based on the most famous show business personality of yesteryears in India K.L Saigal; it was the making of the artist's anguished life from the various film scenes and songs. The other 'Big B' about two English educated Hindi speaking brothers in a dramatic debate emphasised how reality was totally transformed by changing perspectives.
The Company Theatre again from India staged 'Numbers in the Dark' in which the realm of individual truth as shaped by our collective memory and the loss of identity was explored. The play based on Pinter's 'Mountain Language' where every character takes a broken piece from Italo Calvino's mirror to form a whole was too abstract and did not really have a local habitation and a name to be fully realised itself. These issues which are daunting the world appeared too airy fairy and needed a more conventional dramatic setting to be effective.
Hungary Heart Festival staged As the Sun Sets about loneliness and being left behind especially in old age and Punariyot staged Kuknoos Bhagat Singh based on the sacrifice of Bhagat Singh. The play situated in a village Narli was about the social evils of today compared to the dream of an equitable and exploitation-free India for which Bhagat Singh paid the price of his life in the struggle for freedom. The play directed by Kewal Dhaliwal like many of his other plays was based on historical figures from our past that played an important role in nation's/society's history. Dhaliwal is now recognised and appreciated in Pakistan for quite a few of his performances have been staged at this venue as well as with Ajoka. His play 'Loona', a brilliantly scripted play by Shiv Kumar Batalvi was very well directed by him. He also directed a play on the life of Dullah Bhatti and it was staged about a couple of years ago in Lahore.
Michael McEvoy has been a regular visitor with his one person theatre to the festival. He has done many plays here revolving round certain great names in history with his own take like Marlowe, Voltaire, Orwell to name just three. This year his subject was Shakespeare's Kings and Clowns. Shakespeare is quite well known in Pakistan because of our colonial past and his addition in school and university level syllabi. As McEvoy read out and enacted speeches from the various plays like Henry IV, Hamlet, Lear, As You Like it, Twelth Night and Tempest, bringing out the ridiculousness of power, the seriousness with which it is taken and the fool/clown's exposure of this very under belly, it was refreshing to hear people in the audience recalling those famous speeches, characters and situations.
The Pakistani groups that performed were Ajoka with Toba Tek Singh, Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop with Akhiyan Waleo, and Patay Khan, Grips Kabhi Al Qaeda Na Kehna, Punjab Lok Rehs Chalo Chalo Global Village Chalo, Tehrik e Niswan Jinnay Lahore Nahin Vekhya. Some of these plays had been staged earlier in Lahore while others were staged for the first time. Akiyan Waleo, with its take on the political situation on the country and Kabhi Al Qaeda Na Kehna with its parodying the threat of terrorism were both hilarious.
The function of the bodies like Alhamra is more than met if the country's image is refurbished. Through the twenty five International Festivals of puppets, music, dance and theatre RPTW has created immense good will in the cultural circuit of the world. The fact that it presents face of the country not popularly known abroad is of immense advantage as there have been no attempts to present Pakistan as a society which is keen on promoting its image that cultivates the arts, literature and higher learning. These festivals have been instrumental in bringing artists from various continents together and have broadened the artistic horizons of the listeners.
The fact that a festival of such a scale is held in one venue increases the possibility of interaction between the various delegates from all across the globe. Alhamra Cultural Complex extends this advantage as it turns out to be so much more fruitful for every one -- the artists, the connoisseurs, the organisers and the audience.
The love for calligraphy survived the death of dictatorship, and today it is evident in a number of exhibitions exclusively organised on this form of art
By Quddus Mirza
Copying holy text from the Holy Quran has been a custom in Muslim cultures -- taken up for its spiritual significance. These people range from rulers to ordinary citizens, for instance, monarchs like Aurangzeb Alamgir and Ghiasuddin Khilji and Khalifas such as Omer bin Abd al-Aziz spent their free time in scribing the sacred script. Many others considered the art of writing as a form of worship and believed in writing of Quranic verses as a means of spreading the word of God -- a practice which was its own reward.
Times have changed and so the calligraphers -- people who pride on writing the religious text in a beautiful style. With computers, handwritten manuscript became an outdated entity. Even some calligraphers -- once employed by newspapers and magazines -- switched jobs as computer composers. Yet a number of traditionally trained calligraphers kept their profession, though often facing the question of what to do with the skill they acquired after years of hard work and dedication.
Some of them found an outlet in the form of art. The facility to write beautifully surfaced into a genre called calligraphic paintings. Now the conventional practitioners of calligraphy experiment in the art of writing holy text on surfaces which are meant to be viewed inside the frames installed on walls. The change in format as well as the reception of a calligraphic text by the viewer/buyer has altered the attitude towards calligraphy.
In the exhibitions of calligraphy, one comes across two kinds of participants: traditional calligraphers and painters using calligraphy in their works. Although some painters, such as Shakir Ali, Hanif Ramay and Sadequain, explored this genre for its artistic potential and aesthetic value, several others adopted it for multiple reasons. During the Zia regime, calligraphy was the sole form of art patronised and promoted by the government (in one of the official publications of the time, all three articles on art were dedicated to calligraphy!), which led to various artists attempting this genre.
The love for calligraphy survived the death of dictatorship, and today it is evident in a number of exhibitions exclusively organised on this form of art. The most recent one was the 5th International Calligraphy & Calligraph-art Exhibition & Competition, held from November 20-30, 2007 at the Alhamra Art Gallery, Lahore.
Several examples of conventional calligraphy and calligraphic paintings were displayed. The show included works from abroad, and it was not confined to Arabic text of religious content, but some works with the Roam alphabets by participants from Italy and UK were also included.
The approach of the organisers and the way the exhibits were selected and displayed failed to generate a new dimension to the latest venture of Pakistan Calligraph-artists Guild.
Generally, the exhibition at Alhamra offered a vast range of works, installed in every possible space. There were works by well-known practitioners as well as novices.
Yet among the large number of displayed works, a few pieces appeared distinct from the rest of exhibits. These included works on paper by Arif Khan, and a painting by Ruhullah Naqshbandi in which the artist from Karachi created a scene about a painter's studio, with brushes, paint tubes lying next to palette, all against a board with paper showing a piece of calligraphy. Because of its unique approach towards the traditional form of calligraphy, the work of Naqshbandi was a refreshing addition to a show that relied by and large on usual imagery and predictable techniques.
The apparent lack of a selection criteria and the absence of a curatorial scheme in the order of display did not serve calligraphic art to rise above the level of craft and be seen as a sophisticated art practice. Abundance of all kinds of exhibits created a feeling that calligraphy did not deserve a discerning eye. The mere fact of producing pieces based on sacred content, which were easily 'understood' by the general public and bought by the public and private collectors, seemed to be its only justification.
Not entirely different was the scenario with another exhibition of calligraphic painting -- the solo show of Ejaz Malik's experimental calligraphies at Nairang Art Galleries, Lahore. Known for his figurative works, Ejaz Malik's attempt at calligraphy came as a surprise. Once inside the gallery, the works did not astonish, because these reflected an artist's effort at experimenting with a subject, without really seeking to invent anything new or exciting. His canvases appeared rudimentary exercises in filling a variety of colours within the spaces around the contours of the text. Multiple hues and variation in the brush stroke suggested tactile quality of these surfaces; but on a deeper level the work was devoid of any aesthetic challenge that the artist took upon himself. The body of work affirmed the presence -- and manipulation -- of a formula for fabricating attractive calligraphic paintings.
Both the exhibitions were a reminder of the limitation of doing calligraphy -- not of the genre in reality, but a limitation of many of its practitioners.
My daughters were recently gifted some beautiful embroidered bags, sent to them from Pakistan. I looked at the labels and got a little bit emotional. These were products of Al Falah Trust, an organisation set up by, among others, my youngest khala Shaheena Siddiqui and her surgeon husband Dr Badar Siddiqui.
Why did the sight of these beautifully made contemporary bags make me emotional? Well mainly because it made me think of my aunt who died almost four years ago. She was the youngest of twelve children -- but cruelly, she was the first to go. Muni Khala had colon cancer which she dealt with bravely for longer than anticipated. When the 'baby' of the family, the muni of them all, died her siblings felt bereft in much the same way that parents feel when their children go before them, as if there is something terribly unnatural and awful about the young dying before the old.
The sadness lingers on quietly in the family, but I must say the sight of those bags made me feel quite proud. My aunt had spent most of her life helping people in any way she could, but the bags were a tangible reflection of her efforts having been put into something that lived on after her. I remember how they began this project so many years ago, a group of doctors and other volunteers who would spend their weekend working with a group of Sindhi villages not too far from Karachi. The idea was to set up various self sustaining projects for the people of the area, and my khala set up the embroidery project aimed at transforming the lives of the women there.
Basically the women generated income for themselves and their families by using their astonishing embroidery skills under the guidance of the project. They produced reams of beautiful puttis and tassels which the trust marketed and sold privately and through exhibitions in various cities. The embroideries were used by urbanites as edgings on sleeves, collars, shawls, and cushions, whatever.
My aunt would buy all the thread and fabric ensuring that they were good quality and, most importantly, colourfast. Then she would work with the village women who were able to put their skills to use and gain from their work. The revenue changed the way local families lived and ate, and enhanced the chances of the young people of the area as well. And the good thing about it is that the project was set up with a proper structure as opposed to being dependent on one strong personality. The result is that it is still functioning, and thriving.
They now have an outlet in Karachi and the range of products they produce is impressive. The project has not just changed lives -- it has also served our heritage as it has kept alive a distinct strand of traditional Sindhi embroidery.
My aunt's project has lived on after her, and I wish we would all try to do something that could in some way leave the world a better place. Everybody who can teach somebody something in some way is contributing to doing a little bit of such good. If you can empower somebody through literacy or opportunity, it is a unique achievement. If you can set up centres of learning or hospitals or institutions like the Edhi foundation, your life would have been that much more worthwhile.
If you can help somebody by donating your blood or you kidneys or your heart, you should try to do so. It is a very self centred life we seem to be living in this consumerism-driven century and I wish we could remind ourselves that it is something of a duty to be of service to others in some way, to do good. And to do good not for fame or glory or recognition but for the sake of helping others.
Sorry to be so gloomy, but I just think it is important for us to try and transform lives and channelise our energies into something beyond the mundane and pragmatic.