Edited version of this article was published in THE STAR, a publication of DAWN group in August 2006.
Mohammad Haleem was born in Lucknow in 1925, the youngest son of Barrister Mohammad Wasim in the household of Dalibagh. His family was already well established in the legal profession by 1870s. His grandfather, Chaudhery Mohammad Nasim had started his practice in 1890 and according to Sir Francis Robinson in his book “Separatism in the Indian Muslims of UP,” he had become the leader of the Awadh Bar within the first four years of his practice. By 1917, his son Barrister Mohammad Wasim had also consolidated his position in the bar to the extent that in most Taluqqedari cases being presented before the bench the father and son were mostly represent opposing sides. The problem eventually became so severe that Chaudhery Mohammad Nasim chose to retire from the profession in favour of his son.
In the 1940s, the family had also become closely involved in the fledgling political movement for Pakistan, which was being spearheaded by the All-India Muslim League. From 1942 to 1946, Barrister Wasim held the office of Advocate General of the UP Province. During his tenure, at the request of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, he represented East Bengal in the Boundary Commission headed by Lord Radcliffe. Thereafter he resigned from his post in the UP government and on the creation of Pakistan, opted to migrate and take up the virgin office of Advocate General of Pakistan.
By 1946, Barrister Wasim’s eldest son, Barrister Shameem had already completed his Baccalaureate of Civil Laws from Oxford University and had returned to India after being called to the Bar from Lincoln’s Inn. After his return he found himself to be more inclined towards academics and took up a post at Lucknow University. In the same year Mohammad Haleem also graduated from the same university.
Mohammad Haleem initially chose not to follow his Brother and his Father in the legal profession, instead enlisting as a reservist in the Pakistan Navy along with this elder brother the Late Commander Faheem. Mohammad Haleem was posted on the HMPNS Tariq.
However, following the untimely demise of his father, at his mother’s desire he resigned from the Armed Forces and returned to his ancestral profession of law. By 1963, Mohammad Haleem was appointed Assistant Advocate General, West Pakistan, High Court Bench, Karachi. Shortly thereafter, he lost his eldest brother Barrister Shameem at the relatively young age of 56.
In the Bar and throughout his life, Mohammad Haleem was a uniquely apolitical personality. He was fond of recalling to memory the one occasion on which he had shown some flexibility in this otherwise iron-clad policy. When one of his closest friends the Late Sharaf Faridi literally dragged him by hand to cast his vote in his favour in a certain Bar Election claiming “every vote counts.”
During his legal career as an Advocate, Mohammad Haleem was known for his boundless respect for the institution of the courts. Such was his deference that he took to wearing rubber-soled shoes in the halls of the High Court so as not to disturb the silence in those hallowed halls of the Sindh High Court building, where he practiced; a convention fallowed by most of the lawyers.
However, Mohammad Haleem’s true calling was recognised by the Late Justice Hammud-ur-Rehman who in 1968, recommended him for elevation to the erstwhile Karachi Bench of the West Pakistan High Court. Such was his standing at the time, that contrary to the general rule, Field Marshal Ayub Khan declined to interview him before the appointment as he deemed it unnecessary, a rule which the Field Marshal had established himself. This friendship continued throughout their lives, and Justice Haleem drew much inspiration from his mentor Justice Rehman in fact many of his judgments bear the prints of Justice Rehman.
By 1974, the young Justice Haleem had begun to act as an ad hoc judge of the Supreme Court and within three years he was elevated to the Supreme Court by Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Butto, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, on the recomendations of Justice Yaqub Ali, the then Chief Justice of Pakistan. Shortly after his elevation, the March 1977 elections were held. Not only the political but also the judicial structure of Pakistan began to take a very heavy toll. In 1978, Justice Moulvi Mushtaq presided over the murder case against Late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, at the Lahore High Court, through such proceedings which still remain a ‘black’ exception in Pakistan’s judicial history. The political atmosphere at the time was incredibly volatile and he came under intense political pressure to vote in favour of the establishment. However, Justice Haleem was as uncompromising as always, and refused to bow down, giving a dissenting judgement along with the Late Justice Dorab Patel and the Late Justice Ghulam Safdar Shah refusing to accept the paltry evidence presented before the court. In the appeal filed by the late Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Justice Haleem concurred with judgment delivered by Justice Ghulam Safdar Shah, besides his own note of dissent.
However, his bipartisanship and integrity were so respected by the same establishment, that the very same government appointed him as the Chief Justice of Pakistan on March 25th, 1981, after the promulgation of PCO1. During his tenure, he presided over several notable judgment including, the case of the late Yahya Bakhtiyar and the case of Fauji Foundation. In 1988, under the government of Zia-ul-Haq he along with the full court, heard the case of Benazir Bhutto vs. The Federation of Pakistan. The unanimous judgment with concurring notes by all judges was delivered following the dismissal of Mohammad Khan Junejo’s government and the seizure of power by General Zia-Ul-Haq. In this it attained a unique significance in the legal and political history of Pakistan in that it upheld the right of the people to maintain a consolidated political structure as was envisioned in the Political Parties Act 1962.
His judgment read: “…The liberties if purposefully defined, will serve to guarantee genuine feeling, freedom not only from the arbitrary restraint of authority, but also freedom from want, from poverty, and destitution, and from ignorance and illiteracy…” According to Justice Haleem, this approach was in tune with the era of progress and was meant to establish that the Constitution is not merely shackled to the past but also open to the unfolding of the future. To him, the law of the land was an organic and evolutionary entity. It would thus be futile to insist on ceremonious interpretative approach which only served to limit the controversies between the State and the Individual without extending the benefits of the liberties and the principles of policy provided in the Constitution to all segments of the population.
The case, also gave a new interpretation to Article 17 of the Constitution where it was held that the political party is by nature an aggregate of the citizens composing the party, and can thus exercise any rights guaranteed under the Constitution to the individual. Furthermore, it was in this same case, the Justice Haleem laid the foundations of Public Interest Litigation for the first time in Pakistan. Under his interpretation the restrictions as otherwise placed on moving a court for the enforcement of fundamental rights were relaxed. The right to seek legal redress on the basis of fundamental rights was extended to all citizens. As observed by Justice Haleem: “Why cannot a person acting bona fide, activate a court for the enforcement of fundamental rights of a group or a class of persons who are unable to seek relief from the court for several reasons.” This is what public interest litigation or class action seeks to achieve as it goes further to relax the rule on Locus Standi. This is the original and definitive judgement on the basis of which, public interest litigation was made available to the common man, and the discriminated classes.
In his capacity as Chief Justice, Mohammad Haleem was known for his egalitarian stance towards the judiciary. He considered himself equal to any other judge; the only difference in his eyes was that he was also carrying out an administrative function. It was his conviction that every judge had an equal right to hear, deliberate, and give his opinion in every case which involved issues of public importance. Thus we find that throughout his tenure, all the major cases were heard not by a full bench, by a full court.
His term finally came to an end on the 31st of December 1989, but Justice Haleem chose to take leave ten days before his retirement and abandoned all official standards, protocols, and emblems calling himself a free man once again. Though he still held the post of Chairman of the Islamic Ideology Council, for another three years he preferred to live a modest and private life in Karachi. He dedicated the remainder of his life to his family, his religion, and his wife, Uzma Haleem, whom he had doted upon through out . In the twilight of his life, Justice Haleem shunned the public eye and once again discovered his childhood love for botany. He would draw endless joy from the smallest and most beautiful of God’s creations, the flowers he cultivated in his garden, and the birds he would skilfully attract there. He was a man of great ability and great humility. He was one of the last of a dying breed: a truly noble man.
Justice Haleem as stated earlier shunned public appearances and avoided any lime light in which he may be caught, even in retired life. One exception did take place, when Shaheed Mohtharma Benazir Bhutto and Mr. Asif Zardari invited him to Larkana on 5th April 1997, on her father’s day of shahadat. On that occasion Justice Haleem while delivering his speech, had as a judge hearng the famous appeal, almost 19 years earlier, declared through his conscience that Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was indeed a martyr.
His last public appearance was in early 2006 when he on the request of the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Chaudhry Mohammad Iftikhar and his colleague judges, went to Lahore to attend, the judicial conference celebrating the Golden Jubilee of the Supreme Court in spite of his illness which had already begun to take its toll. On the 11th of August, 2006, Justice Haleem quietly departed to his heavenly abode as gracefully as he had lived his life.