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The year — 1958. The event — Pakistan’s first ever military dictatorship.

Ayub Khan, the dashing general had decided the hallowed trifecta of national power — the executive, legislature and judiciary — held little meaning in his designs.

Ayub Khan was the first of the proverbial Four Horsemen to hitch his saddle to the free ride of power. Pestilence is an apt moniker. He was a disease, and the symptoms were fatal for Pakistan’s democratic process. A nascent constitution was struck down a mere two years after it was finished, and the General elevated himself to a position of pre-eminence. Gone was any semblance of checks and balances, of duties and jurisdictions.

Post-Ayub came War, aka Yahya Khan, whose list of accomplishments involve carrying out a brutal pogrom on East Pakistan — now Bangladesh — targeting intellectuals, politicians and any one who could lend credence to a separatist movement. Corrective rape of Bengali women was not only sanctioned but endorsed, and devastation reigned. That is, till India, seeing an excellent opportunity to neuter a common enemy, helped the Mukti Bahini, or Bangladeshi freedom fighters. Ayub Khan’s rule promptly gave up the ghost, leaving a small matter of 90,000 soldiers languishing in India’s Prisoner of War camps.

The role of Famine was adroitly played by the West’s blue-eyed Islamist, Zia-ul-Haq. Mr. Haq was lucky enough to assume power just as the Soviets moved in to assert their dominance over the status quo by invading Afghanistan. Much like the actual horseman, Zia was portly while everyone around was starving. He was the gratified benefactor of fantastic amounts of military and financial aid — from America, from Saudi Arabia, from the United Kingdom — in fact anyone with an interest in seeing the Soviets beaten back. No matter that Zia managed to turn a somewhat secular Pakistan into a theocratic nightmare where political prisoners were lashed and de jure replaced the common assertion that one was innocent until otherwise proved. And the gangs of Karachi moved up from knife crime to kidnappings under threat of rocket launchers!

The vast inflow of weaponry to fight off the Soviets had made its way onto the streets of Pakistan, complemented by decent doses of high-grade heroin that Afghan fighters were peddling to the middle classes and also exporting outwards. There were many who took up the anti- Soviet cause extolled at the time, among them a young, lanky, awkward military tactician called Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden’s future actions would highlight the basic rule of forming ad hoc militias: the trick lies not in forming them but successfully disbanding them once the job is supposedly done.

The Fourth Horseman was Death. Not to others, but more to himself and the entire dictate of military rule. More supposed savior than anathema, considering himself more sinned against than sinning, Pervez Musharraf was sent into exile by the prevailing Nawaz Sharif government in 1998 while he was 12,000 ft in the air, and the plane had sufficient fuel to reach only India, or perhaps Abu Dhabi in the UAE. His troops retaliated, and the country was firmly in Musharraf’s hand by the time he reached terra firma.

Musharraf did help stabilize a precarious economy. To his credit, his secular brand of advancement helped move the country away from Zia-like Islamism. He liberalized media to the extent it became a Hydra even he could not control, and presided over a few years of stability.

America, all this while, had once again found common ground with a dictator — the rise of Osama bin Laden and his Zia-era cohorts meant that a karmic cycle of interference, arms and money were buoying Musharraf’s moderate yet demagogic rule. International calls for the restoration of democracy were muted at best and disingenuous at worst. But he was Death to himself and other military adventurists. By the time the Fourth Horseman’s tenure was rescinded, the public, judiciary and a potent civil movement comprising entirely of lawyers had ensured that sentiment swayed irrevocably against military rulers.

The year — 2009. The month — July.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s Chief Justice Chaudry Iftikhar, asked by Musharraf to sanction his simultaneous grab on both the office of President and the post of Chief of Army Staff, had demurred in 2007. A prickly Musharraf had quickly declared aState of Emergency and introduced a Provisional Constitutional Order under which new judges were sworn in to ensure a more pliable judiciary. Chaudry Iftikhar was politely asked to step aside. His refusal to accept an enforced resignation had been the flash-point leading to a powerful movement resulting in elections and the dethroning of Musharraf.

The same Chief Justice, two years later, has ruled that Musharraf’s frivolous declaration of Emergency and deposing of the original Supreme Court judge in favour of more pliable cohorts, was illegal. Backed by a 14 strong bench, The Chief Justice has also ruled that all judges sworn in, and ordinances carried out, by Musharraf in his tenure as illegal dictator under the Provisional Constitutional Order from 2007 (a modern iteration of the Law of Necessity), were invalidated. It remains one of the finer points of irony that the same Chief Justice had previously sanctioned Musharraf’s usurping of power from Nawaz Sharif’s elected government -one with a straightforward two thirds majority in Parliment – in 1998.

Up to 60 judges, who had sworn in under military rule while the constitution was in abeyance, have been removed. In addition, the Supreme Court has asked for an additional clause in Section 209 of the Judges’ Code of Conduct, stating any future judge supporting a power grab would be charged with misconduct.

All very well. But what does this ruling mean practically? Calling a military coup illegal hardly offers a shield against the might of a well armed, well trained military should it decide to interfere again. A battle of bullets and ideals is usually woefully one-sided.

But according to Ehsan Wyne, Secretary General of the mostly secular ANP, and a stubbornly pro-democracy campaigner who was incarcerated each time one of the Four rode out, the ruling is highly symbolic. “This ruling does not give anyone weapons or tanks to resist military coups. But the weapons of pro-democracy workers have always been different. Democracy relies on crowds and agitation against unwelcome coups. This is the Supreme Court making a stand, with the people firmly behind it, which has never happened before. I am 90 percent sure this ruling will discourage future military adventurism in the political process.”

Yes, the ruling is the first of its kind in the history of Pakistan. It is a categorical rejection of military rule, and has the potential to galvanize the democratic process in the county. Times have changed. The Supreme Court has grown a spine, and the populace is tired of having its rights taken away from it. Mistreatment gets tiring after a while, and the people of Pakistan have had enough.

Nevertheless, blatant opportunism and bickering among mainstream politicians catalyzed conditions ideal for the Four to ride. They were welcomed by the polity, and given an obsequiously easy ride by a supine judiciary. The judiciary has finally asserted itself. But it is up to the politicians to ensure their squabbling does not lead to a system so ravaged that the military steps in by default.

The Four Horsemen have come and gone, but we are yet to see whether the Apocalypse is indeed neigh. It depends on how our Parliament, politicians and people take up the mantle of due democratic process. In the meanwhile, the Supreme Court has offered something of value.