Winds of Change or Status Quo in Pakistan
It was the promise of creating a ‘Naya [new] Pakistan’ on the lines of ‘Riyasat-e-Madina’ [a model Islamic welfare state] plus a discreet ‘push’ from Pakistan’s powerful army that saw Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf [PTI] chief Imran Khan becoming the ‘selected’ prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018.
Unfortunately, despite Khan’s grandiose assurance of ushering-in winds of change by bringing about all-around prosperity, what actually came Pakistan’s way was an unprecedented financial crisis of gargantuan proportions. And once Khan lost the army’s confidence, he was promptly ousted through a no confidence motion orchestrated by Rawalpindi.
However Khan wasn’t the only one to have promised a change for the better in Pakistan. During his farewell speech in November last year, former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa too gave a similar assurance to the people sick and tired of Rawalpindi’s unsolicited interference in the country’s governance, foreign policy and even judicial matters.
Accepting the fact that Rawalpindi had earned public ire due to “the military’s interference in politics for the past 70 years, which is unconstitutional,” Gen Bajwa promised that the Pakistan army “would never again interfere in any political matter in future” and pledged that the army is “strictly committed to it.” A year has gone by but there are no indications to suggest that the Pakistan army has in any way [to use Gen Bajwa’s words] gone into a “political quarantine” mode!
Au contraire, current army chief Gen Syed Asim Munir has adroitly manipulated events to further strengthen the army’s role in national politics. On May 9, the contentious arrest of former Prime Minister Khan by Rangers from Islamabad High Court premises triggered riots in which incensed mobs targeted military installations and assets and Gen Munir seized this opportunity to reassert the army’s extra-constitutional writ within Pakistan.
Even though these rioters are civilians, Rawalpindi still decreed their trial by military courts, even though the legality and desirability of this decision drew widespread criticism from legal experts and reputed rights organisations both within Pakistan and overseas. Nevertheless, Rawalpindi prevailed and its diktat got ex post facto validation/approval from National Security Committee [NSC] and cabinet respectively, leaving no room for doubt that the army continues to call the shots in Pakistan. And besides Gen Munir’s frequent comments on issues concerning governance and economy, Rawalpindi’s continuing role in running Pakistan has been revealed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif himself.
In April, Sharif revealed that “Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir has contributed to the government’s efforts to secure funds from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” While this acknowledgement is indeed appreciable, it conveyed an impression that Islamabad’s diplomatic abilities are wanting, and hence was unnecessary. Furthermore, a recent news report [‘Could not run govt without military’s support, says PM’, August 11, 2023] published in Dawn mentions that “Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has admitted that even his government could not run without support from the military” and that “Mr [Imran] Khan also received military support during his tenure.” [Emphasis added].
Despite his elder brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being ousted twice by the army, Shehbaz Sharif’s bending backwards in order to keep Gen Munir in good humour clearly indicates that Pakistan’s legislature accepts subservience to Rawalpindi as hitherto fore. However, there was an exception-Nawaz Sharif blamed continued accusing former chief justices Saqib Nisar and Asif Saeed Khosa of ousting him at the behest of ex-army chief Gen Bajwa and his notorious spymaster Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, and vowed to hold them accountable.
However, in what was not a very surprising development, PPP leader Khursheed Ahmed Shah put an end to Nawaz Sharif’s politically suicidal decision by citing Gen Pervez Musharraf’s case, wherein despite being charged for “high treason” under Article 6 of Pakistan’s constitution the then army chief Gen Raheel Sharif facilitated his departure to Dubai. By indicating that it was futile to cross swords with Rawalpindi, Shah gave Nawaz Sharif a face-saving exit route. However, in doing so, he acknowledged that the Pakistan army was supreme! And by jumping in to defend the army’s interference in the country’s politics, Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar’s has further bolstered this undeniable truth.
In a news report [‘Kakar says military’s role in politics will continue,’ September 26, 2023] that appeared in The Express Tribune, he is quoted mentioning that “the role of the military in the country’s politics would continue, at least for the foreseeable future.” [Emphasis added]. He justified this weird arrangement by saying that in order “to ensure functional governance, the civilian institutions had been relying on the military due to its organisational capabilities and to deal with day-to-day challenges in areas including health, education, disaster management and tax revenue collection.” [Emphasis added].
So, despite its chequered history, the last bastion that could possibly clip Rawalpindi’s extra-constitutional powers is the judiciary. While on the one hand it has invited brickbats for upholding martial law and military coups by invoking the antiquated ‘doctrine of necessity’, Pakistan’s judiciary has also earned kudos for being brutally frank in exposing the army’s highhandedness. An example is the Chief Justice of Pakistan [CJP] Gulzar Ahmed bluntly reminding Rawalpindi of its constitutional responsibilities in 2021 by saying that “The uniform of the army is for service and not to rule as a king.” [Emphasis added].
With Qazi Faez Isa taking over as CJP, there’s a ray of hope. Despite omnipresent danger of inviting Rawalpindi’s wrath, he has never shirked away from plain speaking even it required admonishing the all-powerful Pakistan army for its serious lapses. While investigating the 2016 Quetta hospital bombing in the capacity of a one-man judicial commission, Justice Isa uncovered several serious lapses by security forces and despite the likelihood of antagonising the army, he concealed nothing.
Commenting on Justice Isa’s report, Dawn in its Editorial of December 17, 2016 lamented that “… Balochistan has had a militarised security policy for more than a decade, military campaigns have been waged in every one of the seven agencies of Fata and counterterrorism operations have been conducted for years from Karachi to Peshawar. By now, the stunning failures laid bare by Justice Isa should have been addressed to a great extent.” [Emphasis added].
Justice Isa was part of a two member bench hearing the 2017 Faizabad sit-in by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan [TLP] case. In its verdict, this bench admonished Rawalpindi by pointing out that “The involvement of ISI and of the members of the armed forces in politics, media and other ‘unlawful activities’ should have stopped,” but “instead, when participants [protesters] received cash handouts from men in uniform, the perception of their [Pakistan army’s] involvement gained traction.”
It also directed Rawalpindi to ensure that “All intelligence agencies [including Pakistan army’s spy agencies Inter Services Intelligence or ISI and Military Intelligence or MI as well as Intelligence Bureau or IB] and the ISPR [Inter Services Public Relations, the media wing of Pakistan army] must not exceed their respective mandates.”
In a 2020 judgment, Justice Isa noted with concern that even though there are no legal provisions for allotting free land to members of Pakistan’s defence forces, “Nevertheless, senior members of the armed forces get plots and agricultural lands and continue to be given additional plots and agricultural lands as they rise up the ranks.” This observation is particularly hard hitting as it questions the prevalent ‘culture of entitlement’ that abounds within the top brass of the Pakistan army.
Both the army and judiciary in Pakistan are currently headed by strong personalities. On the one hand we have the reticent but extremely calculative former spy master Gen Munir who by reviving military courts to try civilians has demonstrated his willing to go to any extent for preserving the Pakistan army’s exclusive turf. On the other hand there’s CJP Isa, a highly principled individual who passionately believes in supremacy of the legislature, is determined to uphold sanctity of the constitution irrespective of the consequences, and delivers justice without any fear or favour.
Due to the divergent outlook of the Pakistan army chief and CJP the upcoming situation remains unpredictable and hence it’s difficult to foretell whether pleasant winds of change will blow across Pakistan, or will the unending spell of status quo’s heat wave continue!