OXFORD – Last Sunday, Senator Aitzaz Ahsan was the keynote speaker at the Oxford Union. He was the guest of the Oxford University Pakistan Society (OUPS) for Pakistan Future Leaders’ Conference, 2013 (PFLC 2013). It was the fourth running year of this conference that was initiated by the OUPS in 2010. Imran Khan spoke here a day before and in previous years Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Hina Rabbani Khar had also stood at the podium. These ‘debating chambers’ have an unmistakable mystique not only for the Oxford University or Britain but also for the whole world. Key global figures of the past 150 years that have shaped history, politics and arts have stood here to make a point. And the list not only includes those who have represented political authority or imperial power, but also those who have gone the extra mile to challenge it. So, in the past few years if Paul Bremer – imperial pro-consul for Iraq after its brutal conquest by the legions of the Bush administration- spoke here, his exact opposite, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who is still in refuge from America’s imperial reach inside the Ecuador’s Embassy in London, also graced the same spot.
For Aitzaz Ahsan, who claimed during the questions-and-answers session that he can be taken out of the PPP but it cannot be taken out of him, may have been doubly sweet, for he can see and point to a beautiful portrait of his leader, Benazir Bhutto, that adorned the walls to his left. Aitzaz made the case that today Pakistan faces many serious challenges, but the continuation of democracy is a huge plus: it’s like a river flow which if continues can throw out the dirt and the garbage of politics. But it was not the Senator’s day. Though most students and professionals assembled in the debating chambers would agree with him that democracy is the only way forward for Pakistan, Aitzaz, nevertheless, became a symbol and punching bag for everything that they thought was wrong with the PPP ruling alliance of the past five years. It was perhaps patently unfair because the constitutional expert had little to do with the misgovernance of the past few years, but for most students his act of siding with President Asif Ali Zardari was in a way a betrayal of their trust and affection and the international stature he had gained as leader of the lawyers movement between 2007 and 2009.
This sour mood was undeniable in the debate that was recorded exclusively for broadcast by Waqt News, at the Oxford Union, after his keynote address. Student after student banged on this point; words, sentences and arguments kept on changing but the feeling and the focus was constant. Aitzaz was at pains to explain that he has been in the PPP from almost the beginning, and asserted his often-repeated phrase that he can be thrown out of the PPP, but it cannot be taken out of him. Upon this, an Oxford student, Maria Khalid, asked him why his loyalty to Pakistan does not supersede his loyalty to the PPP. Her question infuriated the cool tempered barrister who angrily rejected this line of reasoning against his party as a politics of national divide.
Yet others grilled him on the Supreme Court, as if he was responsible for what the honourable apex court bench has been doing or saying. Barrister Amjad Malik, from Manchester, who earlier moderated the presentations of the resolutions by the seven committees of the PFLC reminded Aitzaz Ahsan that among others he himself – as a representative of the British Pakistani Lawyers Association – had filed the petition in 2007 for the restoration of chief justice of Pakistan that was clubbed and heard along with other petitions.
His argument was that if at that point no one had objected to his ‘locus standi’ for a public interest petition in favour of chief justice of Pakistan, then how come the chief justice and the honourable judges now question Dr Tahirul Qadri’s ‘locus standi’ as a dual citizen. Aitzaz readily agreed that calling Qadri a foreign national or rejecting his ‘locus standi’ on that ground was inaccurate, though other grounds could have existed for turning down his case against the Election Commission of Pakistan.
It would have been better if the students and other professionals had questioned Aitzaz on the legal and constitutional issues or the issues he had been directly related to, but the PFLC has seven committees had deliberating on the challenges facing Pakistan related to: Education, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Health, Legal Affairs, Economy and Environment, and the chairs and co-chairs of these committees were part of the discussion and wanted to raise all those issues with Aitzaz.
So, he was forced to respond to their concerns on the issues as diverse as the situation in Balochistan, reforms about the blasphemy laws and the overabundance of suo moto notices by the Supreme Court. Aitzaz told the students that it is easy to criticise the blasphemy laws within the remits of the Oxford University, but there are many risks for legislators in Pakistan when they deal with such issues. This reasoning adopted by the eminent barrister and lawmaker or the complexities cited by him on the various issues did not go down very well with the students. One of them shot back saying, “If your government cannot solve the issues, then why don’t you leave and let others address our concerns?” On suo moto notices, Aitzaz had an unambiguous position that high frequency of such actions represents definite risks and may result in miscarriage of justice for there lies no appeal.
The committees of PFLC had many interesting suggestions. For instance, the health committee resolution not only demanded raise in health budgets, but also pointed out that the government should legislate to provide quality information on its websites; there should be a scheme to facilitate those expat health professionals who want to come as volunteers to serve in the public health sector, and that there should be a regulator like the American Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in Pakistan, but given the limitations of time in a television recording many such ideas could not become detailed during the spirited, fiery discussion that will soon be broadcast by Waqt News.
I am not sure what impressions, Aitzaz Ahsan leaves on the Pakistani students that he met with at the Pakistan Future Leaders’ Conference, 2013, but I am definitely taking home the impression that if the feelings of these students are symptomatic of the communities they come from in Pakistan, then the PPP legislators must brace for hard times in the coming elections, especially in central and northern Punjab, KPK and Karachi, for most students in Britain come from these areas and may ultimately represent the feelings of their kinship and extended families back home.
(Dr Moeed Pirzada is covering the Pakistan Future Leaders Conference, 2013, at Oxford University for Waqt News and The Nation)