They say that to every rule there is an exception and this observation holds good in politics. When elected governments all over the world are accused by opposition parties of having lost public confidence those in power invariably dismiss these charges leveled against them by reaffirming that they continue to enjoy support of the masses. But Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan conveys the same message in a different way — he simply reiterates that his government is in no danger of falling since it has an “excellent relationship” with the army and that “the military completely stands by all the democratic government’s policies.”
However, it would be unfair to single out Imran Khan as the only prime minister who has subserved himself and his political party to the powerful military, because in Pakistan it has always been the army and not the government that’s been calling the shots. Of course, there have been some who did show some spine by standing up against the military’s gross interference in the country’s internal and external affairs, but those who dared to do so paid a very heavy price for their temerity of crossing swords with the Pakistani Generals.
In what has been widely condemned as “judicial murder,” Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was sent to the gallows by Gen Zia ul Haq since the military dictator considered him a potential threat. His daughter Benazir Bhutto Zardari was assassinated soon after her return from self-exile, and in his statement before the anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi, American journalist Mark Siegel testified that he was present when Ms. Benazir Bhutto received the threat call from Musharraf, but the General denied this allegation. Though Gen Musharraf wasn’t implicated, there are no convincing motives to suggest that Siegel had trumped-up this charge against Gen Musharraf. But even if this allegation is false, by recording in its concluding remarks “that security arrangements for Ms. Bhutto were fatally insufficient and ineffective”, the impartial three member UN commission of inquiry has left nothing to imagination!
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif enraged the army twice and is lucky to have survived. In 1999, he was ousted in a military coup and exiled after he sacked Gen Pervez Musharraf. The second time was in 2017, when he dared to convey it to the military that Rawalpindi needed to act against terrorists which it was shielding to avoid the imminent danger of Pakistan’s international isolation. As the news of this meeting and details of what was discussed were published in Dawn, Rawalpindi was severely embarrassed and it started gunning for Sharif.
Officially, Sharif met his nemesis after being found guilty of financial impropriety by the courts in what is referred to as the Panama Papers case and since his fate was decided by the judiciary, the army didn’t have any overt role in it. But Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a serving judge in Islamabad High Court has disclosed that “The ISI [Pakistan Army’s intelligence agency] had asked the Chief Justice [CJ] to make sure that Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz should not come out of jail before 25 July election. It also had asked him not to include me in the bench hearing the appeal of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter on Avenfield case.” Siddiqui even went on to say that “the CJ told ISI that he would make a bench of its choice.” Accordingly, there are good reasons to believe that the military ‘got’ Sharif through the judiciary!
So, when the army’s writ runs throughout Pakistan, where was the need for the Imran Khan government to lay The Criminal Law (amendment) Act Bill, 2020 in National Assembly for amending Pakistan Penal Code 1860, and the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 in order to protect the armed forces against being ridiculed, brought to disrepute or defamed by making such acts criminal offences? Aren’t existing laws to protect individuals and organisations against malicious slander good enough? Doesn’t this proposed amendment impinge on right to freedom of speech as stipulated in Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution? Finally, when Pakistan Army has been braving a host of wide-ranging allegations for more than seven decades, why does it NOW need crutches of the law to defend itself? Could it be that the public has now become more discerning and doesn’t respect the army and feels that it’s no more a holy cow?
However, the army does command great respect in Pakistan and this is evident from the remark that “There is in this country no dearth of admiration for our armed forces,” which appears in Dawn’s editorial (September 17). Therein it has also been logically argued that “No one would ridicule or defame them [armed forces] when they acquit themselves honourably in their duty to safeguard the nation’s territorial integrity. It is only when they stray from that path into the dirty world of politics and business that they render their institution controversial.”
So, if the people of Pakistan express their annoyance against the armed forces, then they aren’t fully to blame because Rawalpindi’s high-handedness and shady acts at times are indeed infuriating. For example, when a CIA official expressed apprehensions that the secret deal allowing US drones to fly over Pakistani territory and engage targets may get comprised, Gen Pervez Musharraf trivialised the intellect of his own countrymen by saying, “In Pakistan, things fall out of the sky all the time.” How can any full-blooded Pakistani ever overlook such a crass remark which makes Pakistanis look like a bunch of buffoons? Similarly, isn’t his claim that “Military rule has always brought the country back on track, whereas civilian governments have always derailed it,” display utter contempt for all those not in uniform as well as towards the institution of democracy?
It’s Rawalpindi’s palpable disdain for democratic values and its ‘the army can do no wrong’ attitude that galls the public. How can anyone keep silent when Director General Inter Services Public Relations (DGISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor used his official twitter handle to belittle the Office of the Prime Minister by posting that “Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. Notification is rejected”? Who is the army to accept or reject notifications issued by the PMO? Or, using a relatively junior army officer was intentional and meant to remind Sharif that it’s not Islamabad but Rawalpindi that has the final word in Pakistan?
Next, how can the army spokesperson publicly warn Pashtun Tahafuz Movement [PTM], a social movement working for Pashtun human rights by declaring that “Their time is up”? Doesn’t army generals issuing ultimatums to rights organisations convey to the world that Pakistan is a ‘banana republic”? Similarly, isn’t the former DGISPR’s snide retort- “You have a deep attachment with missing persons (but) so have we,” that was given to a very senior journalist who asked a question on enforced disappearances, uncouth? Lastly, how does the army expect not to receive flak from human rights organisations, the media and intelligentsia when the DGISPR in question makes the nauseating remark that “We don’t wish that anyone should be missing; but when its war, you have to do a lot of things- as they say, all is fair in love and war; war is very ruthless” ?
Dawn’s editorial has hit the nail on the head by noting that “This country has lived through multiple military dictatorships; and senior security forces personnel, retired and otherwise, run vast corporate concerns. Parliament must not place these areas beyond the scope of fair comment, which is made in the public interest and thereby constitutes a defence against a charge of defamation.” Corruption and wrongdoing, whether its institutionalised-like illegal construction of Pakistan Navy Sailing Club at Rawal Lake and a whopping 90 acres of agricultural land ‘grant’ to former army chief Gen Bajwa, or under-the table dealings like the alleged fortune amassed by Lt Gen Asim Bajwa (Retired) is bound to invite adverse public reactions.
However, with The Criminal Law (amendment) Act Bill, 2020 being tabled in the National Assembly, it appears that the army isn’t amenable to making amends by ending meddling in politics and cleansing itself of the filth of corruption- acts that angers the public most. So, while the Dawn editorial is bang on target in analysing this issue in detail, but its closing view that “surely the military itself would rather not be seen as so intolerant of constructive criticism,” seems to be completely off the mark!