History books can add another subtitle to the unfortunately volatile tale of Pakistan: the 21st amendment. The politicians insist that this is a success on their part. The lead-up to this decision has been portrayed as one. For example, it was relentlessly emphasized that the civilian and military leadership were finally on the same page against the common enemy. Politicians, friends and foes, were seen on the same table. It was a win of the country. Pakistan had woken up. Seeing that the country’s leaders are celebrating the amendment in question, it is apparent that the nation, which is unfortunately represented by them and vice versa, is still caught in the limbo of its coma of delusion and forgetfulness.

The election of 2013 was a momentous occasion. For once, in the ugly political history of the nation, power was transitioned from one government of leaders chosen by the people to another. The previous government, even with all its faults, had done good work on cleaning out the debris of the political gimmicks and misadventures adopted by the previous government of a military dictator. They had also survived the debacle which was the ‘Memogate’ and had shown to those who wanted to see that the dictating of Foreign policy by non-uniformed representatives of the people was actually a feasible option. Those were great times for the constitution of the country but its nadir, it is apparent, was to soon follow.

Amendments pursued and implemented by martial law administrators which empower the already powerful and threateningly dominant army are condemnable. But, when such amendments are made by a government of civilians who have been elected by the people, it is simply depressing.

The 21st amendment allows military courts to trial and convict civilians. In the context of Pakistan’s political history, the irony here is heart-wrenching. Both the General and the politicians insist that this is the ‘need of the hour’ and hence ‘non-debatable’. The upper and lower houses of the Parliament agree as well. Military courts, apparently, are the only solution available to Pakistan to solve its terrorism problems. Such rash decisions are trademarks of incompetent leaders who give in to pressure and are unable to handle situations which demand from them anything more than their cursory attendance in the national assembly.

Those from the civil society who have sought explanations from the decision makers have been snubbed rudely. The interior minister has categorically stated that these will not be ‘Kangaroo courts’ but he has not gone beyond that in his explanation. Important questions about the transparency of this process, the infrastructure of decision making and respect for human rights have been ignored. Terrorists alone are stated to be at the eventual receiving end of these courts but the term ‘terrorists’ is as ambiguous as the proclamation that the tried accused would be the ‘enemies’ of the state. PPP leaders have assured those who will listen to them that important clauses have been inserted in the bill which will restrict the courts from targeting nationalists or members of the civil society. They seem to be optimistic even if their optimism is shadowed by an overpowering stench of disgruntled skepticism and reluctance.

It took decision makers 20 days of lavishly served MPCs and numerous parliament sessions to reach the master conclusion of all our woes. Could the said days not be used to convince the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Nasir-ul-Mulk, to introduce reforms within the system he spearheads? It was argued that the military courts seek to unburden the judges from the tedious task of trying terrorists while facing threats from the largely unhidden support channels of the accused. There could have been better ways to solve this issue starting with enhanced security which is, simply put, the constitutional right of every individual. Moreover, the technology of today could have been used to protect the identity of the judges by admonishing the need for them to be physically present in the court rooms. There could be more solutions, the simplest one being a ruling passed behind one-way mirrors or even behind curtains. True these alternatives are modest but even they could have worked aswell. Military courts were not, are not and should not be the only solutions available to a civilian government.

Is it presumptuous to claim that the judges who study a plethora of historical cases and undergo intense training on the virtues of justice and the need to adhere to Human Rights are well versed in protecting the legal rights of those accused? Is it unfair on the part of critics to insist that upholding of human rights is a sacred pre-requisite to impartial and fair judgments and that the secretive nature of Military courts tends to blatantly undermine it? Instead of reacting like an angry child with a broken toy, couldn’t the government had done better by introducing much needed educational, social and political reforms? The 21st amendment, if anything, gives the government an opportunity to save its face behind a vehement thirst for revenge. It is important that the guilty are punished but the guilty need to be proven before they are sent to the gallows. Such is not the demand of an apologetic but of a society that seeks to evolve itself on the virtues of justice and the importance of human life. We need to evolve, all of us, from people who find comfort in the hanging of individuals to someone who finds soothing in social reform. We need to better understand the political rights bestowed to us by the constitution and become active members of a civil society which is the backbone of the process of social evolution. Most importantly, we need to understand when our vengeance is based on the symptoms rather than the root of the problem.

 The writer is working as a health economist in a think-tank based in Islamabad.