Bound by tribal pride, sorry seems to be the hardest word for Imran Khan.
Imran Khan, who probably named his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf while thinking how insaf (justice) was lacking in Pakistan, in no small part owed to a judicial system that the executive had tamed over time. One powerful plank of his party has been support for the independent judiciary that began its journey after the famous Judges’ Case of 1996.
Khan says he has evidence of rigging aimed at defeating PTI during the 2013 elections, and he has been complaining about it in his characteristic bruising style. He called the performance of two overseeing institutions—the Election Commission and the Supreme Court—“sharam-naak” (shameful) while referring to the juggling of dates for the presidential election between the two after a reference to the Supreme Court by a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader.
The Supreme Court thought that the word constituted an insult and that contempt under law may have been committed, and sent Khan a notice about it. We all know that in practice if the court feels insulted you can hardly challenge it. The best course is to apologize—the phrase this writer has often used to save his skin in courts is the generic “I throw myself at the mercy of the court”—after which the court gracefully forgives. Of course, all are equal in the eyes of the law, which is a blindfolded goddess. But in reality it is not so.
The present Supreme Court is no ordinary court. When it put the executive back in its constitutional place after its restoration in 2009, it had more muscle than its predecessors. Lawyers, not always nonviolent, were out in the streets supporting it. By the same token, Imran Khan is no Babar Awan, an ex-law minister in the previous government who abjectly apologized for alleged contempt and whose case is still pending. Reality overshadows legality. The best courts in the world have recognized this fact.
Honor is a tribal value and has caused humanity to resort to violence in history. But civilization has pushed honor back in order to achieve objectivity needed for the dispensation of justice. In the West, honor has faded over time yielding ground to municipal law which hardly recognizes honor as a value. Honor, when satisfied, has an element of excess in it, which actually replaces justice with revenge. No one fighting for honor, therefore, achieves justice acceptable to all parties involved.
Imran Khan says his word “sharam-naak” was not insulting because he had actually meant “embarrassing” by it. It is surprisingly true that if he had said “sharmindigi” instead, it wouldn’t have offended so much. What the two sides are tacitly discussing is “ghairat” (honor). Khan’s first Urdu book was titled Ghairat-mand Pathan (The Proud Tribesman) and the Supreme Court, too, has given ample proof that it cares for its amour-propre as no doubt sharpened by a series of directly challenging remarks by the likes of Pakistan Peoples Party’s Sen. Aitzaz Ahsan and a number of Awami National Party leaders. Musharraf’s lawyer, Ahmad Raza Kasuri, who has the habit of bursting into tears, often states that there can be no justice as long as the current chief justice is heading the Supreme Court.
If you set aside the dubious and subjective value expressed by honor in our parts, “sharam” means “veiled” in Persian; and “bay-sharam” means “unveiled.” Thus “sharminda” simply means “revealing.” In Urdu lexicology, it is often used in relation to “meaning” after it has become clear. Why should “sharminda” be harmless and “sharam-naak” so insulting? What if Khan had said “shameful” in English? Chances are that the court would not have taken umbrage. In our homes, what our children often say in English can’t be said in Urdu. “Shame” in English comes from the same root as “harm” or “damage,” as in the French “dommage.” “Scam” is another form of the same word.
Yet, some TV commentators say, had Khan said “embarrassing” in English, it would have passed the muster of decent speech. Intriguingly, “embarrassing” literally means “putting behind bars” in its etymology. The truth is that Imran Khan stands for ghairat and has been made more prickly by America’s perceived violation of it. The court is equally rendered thin-skinned by the daily barbs it has to suffer after its forays into governance which unfortunately conforms to the abysmal Third World norm. And that norm includes the lower courts.
Result? The court will be gracefully forgiving after Khan’s Western-trained lawyer—and relative—Hamid Khan applies the poultice of suitably conciliatory argument.