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Cross-posted from Daily Times, 17 Oct 2011

Post-May 2, Nawaz Sharif was the only national leader who talked of the military’s accountability while Prime Minister Gilani’s capitulation in parliament has shamed the PPP’s anti-establishment insiders.

Not unlike many other Pakistanis, I too was shocked to learn that former Lahore High Court (LHC) Chief Justice Khawaja Muhammad Sharif will defend Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed murderer of slain Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. The inclusion of Justice (retd) Khawaja Sharif in the panel of lawyers is an important development in this high profile case, which has assumed a sensitive turn after protests by religious organisations against the judicial decision.

In the past, Justice (retd) Sharif has made similar problematic decisions, such as barring President Zardari from pardoning a blasphemy accused Christian woman, an undue judicial intervention that was protested by international human rights organisations, and statements reeking of bigotry, such as his accusation that the Hindu community is behind acts of terrorism across Pakistan.
While it is everyone’s right to be defended in a court of law, given the sensitive and high profile nature of Qadri’s case and given the special relations that Justice (retd) Sharif enjoys with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N’s) Sharif brothers, the announcement by Justice (retd) Sharif should be a matter of grave concern to the PML-N in general and its popular leader, Nawaz Sharif, in particular.

Justice (retd) Sharif was appointed by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as Advocate General Punjab in May 1997 and was elevated as a judge in the LHC in May 1998. The close relations between Justice (retd) Sharif and PML-N’s Sharif brothers have been illustrated in detail by none else than Justice (retd) Khawaja Sharif himself in his travelogue titled Shakh-e-Nazuk Kay Ashiyanay.

Khaled Ahmed provides an enjoyable summary of Khawaja Sharif’s illustration of a meeting with Shahbaz Sharif in a local English daily. He writes: “The climax is Khawaja sahib’s meetings with Mian Shahbaz Sharif living in exile in London. Khawaja sahib, who had been president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, had written to him to return and lead the campaign of struggle (Tehreek-e-Nijat) against the PPP government (p 226). On page 121, Shahbaz Sharif got him over to his apartment and, you’ve guessed it, regaled him to a lavish meal, giving him chun-chun kar botian (selected pieces of meat) with his own hands. Later they had ras-malai and ras-gulla too, with a box of sweets to accompany Khawaja sahib as he left. Shahbaz Sahib also offered him money, which he declined, but once out of the apartment he realised he had eaten too much (p 122).”

Apparently, Shahbaz Sharif was able to deliver one envelope each to two sons of Justice (retd) Sharif at a dinner in London; the ingredients of the lifafa (envelope) however remain undisclosed in Justice (retd) Khawaja sahib’s book (pp 128-9). Ironically, despite this personal relationship, Justice (retd) Khawaja Sharif as a sitting judge of the LHC did not hesitate much in taking oath on PCO after General Musharraf’s military coup in 1999.

Fast forward to 2011. According to news reports, during the hearing on October 11, 2011, Justice (retd) Sharif requested to allow ulema (Islamic scholars) in the court’s proceedings as they want to witness Qadri’s hearing. That Justice (retd) Khawaja Sharif wants to further sensitise this case by inviting mullahs in the courtroom is evident from such request. To our good fortune, the Chief Justice of Islamabad High Court refused this request saying, “We could not allow them because the general public will also ask for the same.” It is in this context that we hope Mian Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N will clarify their stance in the Taseer murder case. As a leader of Pakistan’s second largest political party, Nawaz Sharif has to take certain bold and decisive steps against religious extremism, which should start with a clear condemnation of any statements and actions that tend to justify or glorify religious extremism. Similarly, Mian sahib needs to re-evaluate his unstinting support to judicial activism, regardless of whatever indirect benefits he and the PML-N have reaped in return. The so-called lawyers’ movement stands discredited because of its rightist extremist leanings (e.g. garlanding of Mumtaz Qadri) and failure to deliver on its promises, such as provision of swift justice to ordinary people (e.g. the missing persons issue). This movement and its group of actors (the JI-PTI groups of lawyers in particular) can offer no more political mileage to the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif should take note of this.

More than anything, Mian Nawaz Sharif has strong momentum in his favour. In the last few months, he has captured the intellectual and moral high ground from Zardari-Gilani’s PPP government. Post-May 2 (the hunting down of OBL in the garrison city of Abbottabad), Nawaz Sharif was the only national leader who talked of the military’s accountability while Prime Minister Gilani’s capitulation in parliament has shamed the PPP’s anti-establishment insiders. It must be noted that it is Chaudhry Nisar and Shahbaz Sharif and not Nawaz Sharif who continue in their slavish manner towards the army.

Similarly, at the All-Parties Conference (APC), Nawaz Sharif was one of the two dissenting voices and clearly the most significant one when he asked for introspection on the strategic depth policy. His statesman-like speech at a SAFMA seminar in support of reconciliatory relations with India should have been applauded loudly at the national level.

In the face of the dwindling progressive credentials of the PPP, Nawaz Sharif has to seize the day and realise that as the prime minister-in-waiting, he can no longer afford to give space to the obscurantist voices in the PML-N. Pakistan’s conservative middle and upper classes will always vote for established parties like the PML-N as Imran Khan’s dharna (sit-in) politics and apologist stance towards the Taliban can only take him so far. However, to extend beyond his strongholds of urban north and central Punjab, Nawaz Sharif has to come out strongly against the forces of obscurantism, bigotry and sectarian intolerance. He has to squash any alleged alliances between the PML-N and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (aka Lashkar-e-Jhangvi).

Quite simply, Nawaz Sharif does not need them. By clearly distancing himself from these murderers and their apologists and defenders like Justice (retd) Khawaja Sharif, Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N stand to make huge electoral gains amongst the vastly diverse Pakistan that is uncomfortable with the forces of bigotry and dejected at the helplessness and incompetence of the (once progressive) PPP.

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