High standards for people in high office - Hindustan Times

High standards for people in high office

Mar 11, 2024 01:34 AM IST

Pakistan SC’s rethink on its ZA Bhutto verdict raises questions about the integrity of those holding public office

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has finally acknowledged that late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not receive the justice he deserved — that the seven-judge panel, responsible for sentencing him to death more than four decades ago, deviated from lawful procedures. What does this decision indicate?

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto speaking at London airport on July 23, 1973. (Getty Images) PREMIUM
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto speaking at London airport on July 23, 1973. (Getty Images)

It clearly reveals a collusion between the judiciary and the political class. Observers of Pakistani politics in the 1970s talked a lot about General Zia-ul-Haq, the country’s then-military dictator, wanting to eliminate Bhutto at all costs. He believed it was appropriate to take the legal route because if he had taken any direct action, it could have ignited a rebellion. Saanp bhi mar jaye aur laathi bhi na toote (kill the snake without breaking your own stick) is an old Hindustani proverb. This was Zia-ul-Haq’s standard policy. I want to give you a quick rundown of everything that happened in those days.

In 1977, General Zia seized power by deposing his former boss Bhutto, who was arrested, and then charged with orchestrating the murder of Nawab Mohammad Kasuri. Zia, who was exceedingly crafty in both practice and malpractice, realised that he could not carry out his intentions through democratic means. This was why he declared martial law.

As soon as martial law was declared, the trial of Bhutto gathered momentum. Within two years, a seven-member Supreme Court bench sentenced the former head of State to death. On the morning of April 4, 1979, this sentence was carried out in Rawalpindi jail. Later, an officer who carried out the capital punishment process stated that Bhutto used to say in jail that he was innocent. When he was led to be hanged, he clutched onto his bed and repeated this. He had to be forcibly taken to the gallows.

Asif Ali Zardari, the son-in-law of Bhutto, took over as president 32 years later. He filed a petition before the Supreme Court in 2011 requesting a review of the death sentence for Bhutto. According to the Constitution of Pakistan, the President can request a higher court to consider or provide an opinion on any issue pertaining to public interest. The Supreme Court’s nine-member bench delivered its verdict on the issue last Wednesday. This ruling has given rise to many questions, with the paramount concern centring around the preservation of judicial integrity. A crucial question arises: In a scenario where courts lack independence and judges are not impartial, how can the common man receive justice? The focal point of this deliberation was the most highly influential figure of his time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Throughout his tenure, Bhutto left an indelible mark on the Indian subcontinent as one of its most charismatic leaders. It is perplexing that such a prominent leader could fall victim to injustice and an unfair trial. If a leader of his stature could face such circumstances, what hope is there for justice for the common man?

Incidentally, similar questions are currently being raised in India as well. Just a day before Bhutto’s verdict, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay of the Kolkata High Court resigned and announced his intention to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is speculation that he will contest the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Previously, when Ranjan Gogoi became a member of the Rajya Sabha after retiring as the Chief Justice of India, similar objections were raised. The Indian Constitution makes no mention of what judges, high-ranking Army officers, and persons holding constitutional positions should do or not do after they retire. This implies that anyone is free to do anything they want after their tenure is completed. But any position with enormous authority is incomplete without morality. I’m not suggesting that joining politics entails being immoral. However, persons in constitutional positions should set moral standards for themselves.

The unfolding of events surrounding the death of Bhutto serves as a stark reminder that without morals, power becomes anarchic, and the Constitution becomes a tool for that anarchy. That’s dangerous.

This noble task of balancing power and responsibility can only be accomplished when society and politics collaborate. Politicians must become responsible and accountable to do this, yet they are doing the just opposite. Today, Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders who are questioning the morality of Abhijit Gangopadhyay’s action should look within. Sheikh Shahjahan, the perpetrator of the terror regime in Sandeshkhali, used to be a key regional leader for the party. Why did the party turn a blind eye to his misdeeds? Why is the TMC trying to cover up his actions, even today?

There is undoubtedly no more opportune moment than the present to ponder these questions seriously. With the general elections round the corner, why don’t voters and those seeking votes take advantage of this opportunity and reflect on these issues?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views are personal

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