Though Rawalpindi’s highhandedness and brazen exercise of extra-constitutional powers is a routine matter, domestic criticism of its meddling in Pakistani politics has burgeoned exponentially over the last few years. Yet, instead of reading the writing on the wall, introspecting and taking corrective measures to bridge the military-civilian chasm, Pakistan’s military leadership has been dismissing growing public resentment by portraying it as motivated attempts by vested interests and a foreign conspiracy.
While addressing a presser in June 2018, the then Director General [DG] of Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor flashed the slide of a social media account [without disclosing the account holder’s identity] to show the audience of how it was linked to several other accounts and was being extensively used for tweeting against the Pakistan’s armed forces. Then, to drive home the point, DGISPR disclosed that “We have the capability to monitor social media as to who is doing what”!
In a curious development, there was a discernable upsurge in the number of incidents of journalists being abducted, roughed up and after being warned to cease reporting against the army, released. Despite the judiciary pulling up law enforcement agencies for failing to stop the unending spate of such abductions, the perpetrators were never apprehended. And though the reasons for the same are obvious and need no elaboration, but brief details of just two incidents would be enough for the uninitiated to get the drift.
Just hours after the DGISPR’s June 2018 press conference, British-Pakistani journalist Gul Bukhari was abducted while she was travelling in car driven by her driver through Lahore cantonment. Heavily guarded to prevent any ingress or egress of terrorists and teeming with multiple mobile ‘quick reaction teams’, Lahore cantonment is a virtual fortress and hence, definitely the wrong place to waylay a car and abduct its occupant.
Hence, the chances of some undesirable elements gaining access into Lahore cantonment, abducting Bukhari and whisking her away to an undisclosed location despite an extensive network of check posts and array of CCTVs is well-nigh impossible. Moreover, undertaking the perilous task of abducting a journalist from within an army cantonment, taking her to an unknown destination just to threaten her to avoid reporting against the army’s wrongdoings and then releasing her unconditionally, doesn’t make any sense!
Being based in the UK, Bukhari had no known enemies in Pakistan. However, as she was critical of the Pakistan Army’s cavalier ways and had exposed Rawalpindi’s dubious role in politics and its efforts to manipulate elections. So logically speaking, it’s only Rawalpindi that could possibly harbour a grudge against Bukhari and orchestrate such a precarious abduction within Lahore cantonment premises and she herself firmly believes that her abduction was meant to serve as a message that “nobody is untouchable, no one is immune”!
Just two years later, another Pakistani journalist and You Tuber named Matiullah Jan was kidnapped in broad daylight from outside a school located in Islamabad’s posh G-6Sector. This brazen abduction which was captured in the school’s CCTV showed a group of at least 10 men [both in civil clothes as well as in black uniforms worn by Pakistan’s anti-terror squad] forcibly shoving Jan into a sedan and driving away. Like Bukhari, Jan too had a history of riling the establishment, particularly the military and its notorious spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI].
In 2018, he was designated “anti-state” by Rawalpindi for condemning its crackdown on media outlets as “a systematic attempt by the military and its intelligence agency to assert control with a facade of a democratically elected government.” Jan’s abduction came shortly before he was due to appear in court on contempt charges for having tweeted Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui’s controversial speech that exposed ISI’s complicity in manipulating the judicial process by ‘fixing benches’ and that “control” of judiciary by the army.
So, when a member of the PTI led government under Rawalpindi’s ‘selected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan introduced a bill in 2020 seeking an amendment in Pakistan Penal Code [PPC] to criminalise criticism of the armed forces, it became apparent that Rawalpindi’s strong arm tactics to intimidate the media into submitting to its unreasonable demands had failed and it desperately required a legal shield to muzzle dissent and thereby save its rapidly plummeting image.
This amendment (in the form of an insertion of a new section 500A in Pakistan Penal Code, Act XLV of 1860) is titled “Intentionally Ridiculing of the Armed Force’s etc.” It states “Whosoever intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the Armed Forces of Pakistan or a member thereof, he shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine which may extend to five hundred thousand rupees, or with both.”
While mischievous posts made with insidious intent need to be forcefully discouraged, a blanket ban on posts critical of the Pakistan Army is totally uncalled for. A review of posts with negative contents against the Pakistan Army reveals that a majority of them relate to Rawalpindi’s meddling in politics and this fact has been acknowledged by former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa himself. In his farewell speech, Gen Bajwa admitted that the people of Pakistan were critical of the army and accurately opined that “The main reason for this is the involvement of the army in politics for the last 70 years, which is unconstitutional.”
The recent decision to arrest Imran Khan while he was inside Islamabad High Court [IHC] in connection with the hearing of another case may not necessarily have been taken by the army. Yet, by violating protocol and using Rangers (who operate under instructions of the army) instead of the police to execute the arrest warrant, the impression that went out was that the army was behind Imran Khan’s unjustified arrest. Gen Bajwa’s ongoing post-retirement verbal spat with Khan also further strengthened the belief that Rawalpindi was baying for the PTI chief’s blood.
The widespread incidents of irate mobs targeting military installations and assets as well as the house of a three-star General in Lahore cannot be condoned. However, at the same time, Rawalpindi too needs to accept that its endless meddling in Pakistan’s politics, which has angered and alienated the masses, too played a major role in precipitating the current crisis.
On the professional front, public frustration arising out of Pakistan Army’s serious failings ranging from its inability to get the Afghan Taliban, its long time protégé, to stop patronising Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] terrorist group to its failure in evicting TTP from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has naturally found vent on social media. Similarly, enforced disappearances during the course of Pakistan Army’s counter-terrorist operations are a matter of serious concern for activists and civil society, making it an issue of intense debate on social media.
So, while the PPC may have criminalised criticism of Pakistan’s armed forces, it has done precious little to assuage the unprecedented public resentment against the army. Therefore, instead of trying to blame all and sundry for the unprecedented public outrage against the Pakistan Army, it would do Rawalpindi a lot of good to first clean up its own house.
And here, living-up Gen Bajwa’s assertion that the Pakistan Army had “after great deliberation, decided that it would never interfere in any political matter,” and honouring his reassurance that “I assure you we are strictly adamant on this and will remain so,” could well serve as the most effective ‘mantra’ for redeeming Rawalpindi’s sullied image!