Rape Remark is no humor in Uniform

Gulf News, September 21, 2005

Controversy is currently raging about Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf’s remarks to the Washington Post suggesting that rape had become a “moneymaking concern” in Pakistan and that many Pakistanis felt it was an easy way to make money and get a Canadian visa. The general, through his media managers, is denying that he ever made the insensitive remarks attributed to him. He is, after all, the advocate of “enlightened moderation” and cannot afford a furore over a remark to deprive him of his image as a reformer.

The Washington Post, of course, has Musharraf’s interview on tape. That newspaper’s standards of probity are far superior to the ethical standards of Pakistan’s coup makers. After all, those who think nothing of repeatedly doing away with their country’s constitution and describe it as an action to save the country live with rules quite different to those practised by the rest of civilisation.

Good intentions

For his part, Musharraf invoked his sincerity and good intentions to deny what was clearly an unguarded comment. “Let me say with total sincerity that I never said that and it has been misquoted,” Musharraf told a women’s group.

“These are not my words and I would go to the extent of saying I am not so silly and stupid to make comments of this sort.”

In an interview with CNN, Musharraf tried to get off the hook by claiming that the objectionable remarks were made by someone else in his presence and not by him. The unanswered question, in that case, is why he said nothing to correct that someone else if he disagreed with him?

Musharraf’s comments, as cited by the Washington Post, are not very different from the normal discourse in Pakistan’s cantonments, where the views of Pakistan’s generals, including Musharraf’s, are shaped. Delve into Pakistani history and parallel comments by Musharraf’s predecessors can easily be unearthed.

The Pakistan army’s first indigenous commander-in-chief, General Ayub Khan (who, as president, got his cabinet to promote him to field marshal) once declared that he intensely disliked “goats and journalists”. He also spoke in disparaging terms of more than half of Pakistan’s then population, the Bengalis. Ayub Khan’s successor Yahya Khan made light of allegations that Pakistani troops had raped Bengali women.

Some of Yahya Khan’s associates insinuated that the alleged rapes were nothing but illicit romantic liaisons between Bengali women and “handsome” West Pakistani soldiers. Throughout the Bangladesh civil war, Pakistani military officers referred to the Bengalis as “miscreants” and disparaged any civilian expressing concern for human rights in the eastern wing of the country.

Harsh language

Pakistan’s third military ruler, General Zia ul Haq, cultivated the image of a humble and religious man but that gave way to the harsh language of a president in uniform. When the Movement for Restoration of Democracy threatened his iron grip on power, Zia ul Haq described support for the movement in Sindh as coming from “dacoits” and, of course “Indian agents”. Women’s protests around the same time were dismissed as the protestations of “Westernised” and promiscuous women pursuing decadence rather than freedom.

Notwithstanding the Pakistan army’s current claims to a special status, the origins of its officers’ corps lie in the native units of the British East India Company.

Recruited to serve the company’s interests from among what the British believed to be India’s martial races, the native officers were trained to be macho men, suspicious of all natives except those wearing a uniform. Military officers justified their service for the British by believing in the superiority of their institution. They lived in well maintained cantonments, were part of a lot of pomp and ceremony and were well rewarded for their services.

The Pakistan army has maintained that colonial tradition, including the one that assumes that the only motive for the native civilian’s action must be money or other personal gain while the military officer is looking out for the state.

In Pakistan’s case, the army’s colonial ethos has contributed to the failure in evolving a viable political system while the absence of a continuous political process has accentuated the military officers’ superiority complex.

Despite the many changes that the world around them has undergone, the mindset generated within Pakistan’s cantonments still remains the same: “The Pakistan army is the country’s saviour”; “The privileges of its generals are just a small reward for their contribution to the country”; “All those who speak about rule of law and human rights violations are distracting from the real task of building the country under the command of the army’s top generals”; “People who criticise alleged wrongdoings under military rule do so only to advance their careers or improve opportunities for themselves”; “Everyone should project a positive image of the country and its generals and victims hold their tongues about their grievances for the sake of the country”.