By Zubeida Mustafa
THE judiciary in Pakistan has traditionally been viewed as a rubber stamp for coup-makers who intrude into politics. Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry showed the courage to defy Gen Pervez Musharraf — albeit seven years after the army chief had entrenched himself as head of state. In the words of The Economist (August 2009), “Most people do not care to remember that Mr Chaudhry and his colleagues also took their oaths after Mr Musharraf’s first coup … and owe their promotions to him”. Justice Chaudhry won popularity as a David who took on Goliath.
Today Chief Justice Saqib Nisar’s judicial activism has found some supporters too. And one can understand why. When a vacuum is created in any area of national life, it is inevitable that it will be filled by one or the other force. Matters of governance have deteriorated to such an extent in all sectors that people here are in a state of despair.
The chief justice has taken suo motu action on a variety of issues ranging from schools running on pavements and maladministration in government hospitals to water contamination in Sindh and Punjab. We do not know how many of his interventions have borne fruits, but they have made headlines. Hence there is criticism from some quarters. It is pointed out that in the area where he could make a difference — ie reforming the judiciary —similar alacrity has been missing.
At a time when this issue was occupying much space in the media, I happened to be reading the memoirs of a former chief justice of the Federal Shariat Court, Justice Haziqul Khairi. In his interesting book called Jagtay Lamhay, written in a lucid style, the author has recorded his experiences while occupying various eminent positions, namely, principal S.M. Law College, judge of the Sindh High Court, chief justice of the Federal Sharia Court, member of the Council of Islamic Ideology and as Sindh ombudsman. As was to be expected, the chapter on the ombudsman caught my immediate attention given the present context of the superior judiciary’s concern for the rights of the people of Pakistan.
Ombudsmen should play an active role in redressing public woes.
Retired Justice Haziqul Khairi was Sindh’s ombudsman from 1999 to 2003, not an easy period in the constitutional history of Pakistan. Nevertheless he could use his powers to address a number of sensitive issues and also produce results without overstepping his limits.
Khairi Sahib points out that the institution of the ombudsman is designed to ensure the smooth running of the administration and provide relief to any citizen who has been wronged by an action of the government. It is considered to be a ‘prized post’ but can also put its holder to the test. Khairi Sahib attributes his effectiveness to the fact that he could act independently of the government. That requires integrity and courage.
Among the numerous cases that he took up, two (one suo motu) merit mention to show what an ombudsman can actually do to deliver justice in the normal course of life without much brouhaha.
One was the case of a park for women and children in Bahadurabad which had been encroached upon by the police to build a thana. The ombudsman investigated it and had it demolished when he found this to be unauthorised. Another major achievement was his success in getting the land restored to its rightful owner when it was unlawfully occupied by the imam of a neighbourhood mosque “to win divine blessings for his congregation”.
On reading this, I became curious about the ombudsman’s role. A round of emailing to the federal and the four provincial ombudsmen for their latest annual reports met with success from only two — KP and Sindh. KP sent me its 2013 annual report — the last year of the ANP’s tenure in office in Peshawar.
Sindh was an interesting case. The office has certainly reached out to the people and made itself accessible. This was reflected in the large number of complaints it received in 2016 — 7,424. The highest number was unsurprisingly against the police, with the education department a close second. It is disappointing that 58 per cent of these were not admitted for one reason or another. Only a third of the complaints against the police were taken up. A decision was taken within the year only on a third of all the admitted cases with 67pc of the complainants being provided relief. The ombudsman took up only two cases suo motu.
Why are the ombudsmen not playing a more proactive and effective role in providing administrative justice to society and not to individuals alone? The excesses committed by the administration against public interest go unnoticed when the ombudsman has suo motu powers to take up such cases. Do we have to leave it to the Supreme Court chief justice, who is already overburdened with cases, to do what is fundamentally the duty of the ombudsman?