Can They Hear The Pakistani People

Indian Express, May 9, 2007

The tumultuous rallies across Pakistan supporting Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and calling for the resignation of General Pervez Musharraf reflect a new phase in the country’s politics. Those marching in the streets to honour a chief justice they barely knew much about until a few days ago are calling for the rule of law. For most of its history, Pakistan has been subject to the law of rulers.

The fundamental division in Pakistan now appears to be between the people and ‘the establishment’ comprising top generals, the intelligence services, and collaborating civilians. The best thing for Pakistan right now would be for the establishment to step back and recognise that a free and democratic political system would be in Pakistan’s long-term interest. Judging by history and recent statements by those in power, such voluntary stepping back is not expected.

The biggest losers in a return to a constitutional democratic arrangement would be unrepresentative civilians such as Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and leaders of the king’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League Q (PML-Q).

Aziz is already hinting at the possibility of imposing emergency rule while the president of PML-Q, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain has gone to the extent of publicly declaring that “those criticising the army should be gunned down” — a reference to slogans shouted at public rallies against the military’s domination of Pakistani life.

The truth is, General Musharraf’s 1999 military coup already represented an emergency measure and Aziz’s talk of emergency rule is nothing but a threat to violently clamp down against mass protests. As for Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s comments, hardly anyone in Pakistan opposes the country’s army. Pakistan, like all nations, needs a professional army to defend its frontiers. What Hussain is falsely describing as criticism of the army is only criticism of army rule, which many proud Pakistani soldiers from the past have valiantly joined.

The army as an institution needs to revisit the fundamental assumptions that have repeatedly dragged it into Pakistan’s politics. On March 24 1969, Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan wrote a letter to the then chief of the army, General Yahya Khan, formally seeking martial law. Pakistan had a weak political system before Ayub Khan that might have evolved into something better over time if it had been allowed to continue. At the end of Ayub Khan’s regime, there was no political system left.

In his letter to Yahya Khan, Ayub Khan spoke of the military’s “legal and constitutional responsibility to defend the country, not only against external aggression, but also to save it from internal disorder and chaos.” He had carefully omitted to mention that in war as well as in peace the army is duty-bound to act under civilian authority.

This time, the popular campaign against the Musharraf regime should not result in the prevalence of a similar attitude.

Pakistan has suffered immense harm from the “Good Soldier saves Nation” thesis that has crept into Pakistan’s body politic since the day Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan plotted Pakistan’s first military coup in 1958.

The running of the country is a job for politicians enjoying the people’s support. Most politicians are flawed but, as we have learnt over the last five decades, so are generals. The military does not have the right to intervene politically under any circumstances. The way to get rid of bad politicians is to give the people a chance to vote them out or to have them convicted by an independent judiciary for crimes they might have committed.

Austrian-born British philosopher Sir Karl Popper explained in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies that modern democracy is not about ‘who’ rules but it is about ‘how’ a state must govern. A constitutional mechanism of checks and balances separates a modern democracy from a dictatorship. “No system is capable of doing everything right, so no system should have too much power,” is how one scholar summarised the philosopher’s views.

If Pakistan’s tragic political history of military interventions and the obsession of the drawing room class with finding “a clean government of technocrats and patriotic generals” are to be avoided, we must turn to the idea of constitutional checks and balances.

The current people’s movement should not result in a re-run of the Ayub-Yahya dynamic, with one general being replaced with another openly or covertly. This time the question of “how Pakistan is to be governed” must be firmly and finally decided and the army should go back to doing what it has been constituted to do — defend the country in case of external aggression.