Hanging by a thread

THE recent contentious exchanges witnessed in influential political and military circles call for serious introspection.

Has there been a breach in the blatantly enforced code of silence? The events of the last few weeks and months have blown the lid off. No cows are treated as sacred anymore. A bonfire of vanities and turbulent ‘resistance’ may well upset the ‘democratic’ apple cart. Are we as a nation doomed to suffer the fate of authoritarianism? Are we, in the words of Margaret Atwood, to be “double-plus unfree, having handed the keys to those who promised to be our defenders but who have become, perforce, our jailers”?

Envy and lust for power can generate results that can be unsavoury; spite and malice being so obvious in the current scenario.

PTI chairman Imran Khan’s recent outbursts have ruffled many feathers.

While stating that the new army chief should be chosen on merit, he uttered words that were harsh and inappropriate: the PML-N and PPP leaderships should not be trusted as “they want to bring their own army chief … they are afraid that if a strong and patriotic army chief is appointed then he would ask them about the looted wealth”.

There are many contradictions in such utterances. The following remark he made in the same public rally would have sufficed: the army chief should be “appointed on merit” and “whoever is on the top of the merit [seniority] list should be appointed” to head the institution. He should have cited the examples of Z.A. Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who went down the seniority list by selecting relatively junior generals; the desire for ‘loyalty’ trumped merit and seniority. The rest is history.

By alleging that the PDM coalition are “sitting in the government because they want to bring in an army chief of their choice through joint efforts”, he revealed his desire to select an army chief under his watch as chief executive, hence the need for elections before November this year.

What made him ‘insinuate’ that the present government may not select a “strong and patriotic army chief”, who may not be keen to recover the “looted wealth”?

A chief is as strong as the institution, and our military establishment is perceived to have immense ‘strength’ vis-à-vis other state institutions. A ‘strong’ army chief is expected to focus on professional military matters as a soldier and deliberately move out of the role of ‘political engineering’ that successive army chiefs since Gen Musharraf have unfortunately indulged in.

A ‘strong’ army chief will declare that no extensions in service will be resorted to, and the law passed with undue haste, with overt and zealous support of parties like the PTI and PML-N, as well as the PPP (unwillingly), will be amended accordingly.

As regards patriotism, there’s no doubt about a soldier’s patriotic fervour — except that sometimes ‘patriotism’ becomes the refuge of a general who considers the Constitution a mere piece of paper that can be trampled upon. We don’t want such ‘patriotic’ chiefs; let army chiefs abide by their oath of office and stay away from Machiavellian statecraft.

Envy and lust for power can generate results that could prove unsavory.

Another intriguing observation relates to the role of the army chief in pursuit of ill-gotten wealth of politicians. Does it show that as the prime minister for almost four years, Imran Khan personally knows what role the military and intelligence leaderships play in steering the process of accountability? Is NAB an instrument of the agencies, serving the interests of power players involved in ‘political engineering’?

The way the accountability watchdog was established in 1999 leaves no doubt of the controversial conduct of successive chairmen of this institution. It is interesting to note that those who are dubbed as ‘looters’ have currently appointed a very clean and professional chairman NAB. Will he turn the notorious bureau around so that it becomes a relatively clean, non-partisan and professionally sound organisation?

I think that he can, given his impeccable credentials and his courage to say ‘no’ to illegal or inappropriate interference in his professional domain.

Let us look at the issue of enforced silence, which is much like the festering wound of enforced disappearances. Again, Atwood is spot on when she says: “There is nothing that repressive governments desire more than imposed silence. The inability to speak encourages the unspeakable and secrecy is an important tool not only of power but of atrocity.”

It’s time to be a little more candid. Politics over the anti-terror law is insane. Both the federal and Punjab governments resorted to tit-for-tat criminalization of political wrangling by getting cases registered under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997.

The definition of terror under a landmark Supreme Court judgement in 2019 is restrictive. These cases should have been thrown out by the courts of law. But no such action has been taken. We are making a mockery of severe offences meant for hard-core terrorists. Who is behind the heavy-handed anti-terror counter cases?

Who is responsible for cases against and the arrest of certain activists and mediapersons when such critics cross the ‘red lines’ that key state institutions themselves draw? Will we heed the sane advice of respected PPP secretary general Farhatullah Babar, who said “A man may be imprisoned but not an idea”? At whose behest does the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority — using deep packet inspection technology that allows websites to be blocked directly — make YouTube inaccessible for most internet service providers when a prominent political leader addresses rallies?

This paper correctly cautioned “the PDM government should stop playing judge, jury and executioner”, and sadly concluded that “it is only the country’s fragile democracy that is suffering as a result”. Indeed, the democratic façade is hanging by a thread in the present grim situation.

If you are ‘naïve’ or bold enough to point fingers, down you go as bitter grudges result in peevish accusations. “No one is quite what they say they are, they reveal themselves in what they do,” says Atwood in Burning Questions (2022).

Without any malice towards quite a few, F.S. Aijazuddin’s advice rendered in this paper rings true, that “prudence tempered with humility might not be a bad medicine to swallow”. Otherwise, we may slide into perilous dictatorship where power is arbitrary.

The future of democracy must be prudently decided in Islamabad, not in Rawalpindi.

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