Rule Above Law

Indian Express , November 16, 2007

Between them, Pakistan’s four military rulers since 1958 have virtually created a new concept in political science that can best be termed ‘the divine right of army chiefs’. It is patterned on the ‘divine right of kings,’ the absolutist doctrine that asserted that a monarch derived his right to rule from the will of God.

According to the doctrine of divine right, a king’s authority could not be restricted by the will of his subjects, the aristocracy, the judiciary or a Constitution. Any attempt to depose the king or to restrict his powers was deemed as rebellion against the will of God. A similar philosophy appears to be at work in Pakistan. Only a belief in the divine right of army chiefs can explain some of the assertions made by General Pervez Musharraf in his press conference over the weekend. Quite clearly, he sees his decisions as the law of the land.

His statements also indicate his belief that the army chiefs, and not judges, have the ultimate authority to interpret the law. But he is not the first military chief to consider himself above the law. Field Marshal Ayub Khan abrogated the 1956 Constitution and then introduced a Constitution in 1962, which began with words to the effect, “I, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, do hereby give the Islamic Republic of Pakistan the following Constitution.”

That language was unusually similar to the one used by King John of England in the preface of the Magna Carta in 1215! In 1969, Ayub Khan abrogated the 1962 Constitution and handed power over to the next army chief in a move akin to abdication in a monarchy.

And after elections in 1970 created a split mandate, Major General Yahya Khan came to believe that he had been assigned a mission by the Almighty to save Pakistan from politicians he believed to be corrupt. That led to civil war, Indian intervention and ultimately the division of Pakistan in 1971.

The lesson should have been to acknowledge that the complex problems of a nation such as Pakistan cannot be solved by the simple though straightforward approach of a soldier with a sense of God-given mission. But that did not prevent General Zia ul Haq from assuming power in 1977 and ruling with an iron hand. Zia ul Haq added enforcement of Islam and promotion of violent jihadism to the list of his God-given tasks, creating many lasting problems in Pakistan.

General Musharraf, too, has repeatedly demonstrated that his status as army chief somehow places him above the rest of the citizenry in understanding and solving Pakistan’s problems.

Musharraf has, however, never shown much awareness of matters political and constitutional. His ignorance of history was revealed when, while visiting the Gandhi memorial during the course of the Agra summit in 2001, he asked his Indian hosts, “so how did Gandhi die?” Even now, he has expelled three reporters from Britain’s Daily Telegraph because of an editorial in the paper that used “foul and abusive language” to allude to General Musharraf. The Telegraph editorial referred to language reportedly used by former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt in expressing Washington’s grudging support for Nicaragua’s then dictator Anastasio Somoza. Anyone well versed in political history and debates over US support for strongmen would have known the reference and taken it in its political context.

In 1999, General Musharraf explained his military takeover by blaming Pakistan’s politicians and insisted that he needed to correct the country’s course by changing its politics. Now he maintains that he alone knows how to correct the course of Pakistan’s judiciary. Musharraf must recognise, sooner rather than later, that he and the rulers of Myanmar will be the only ones left in the world who believe that a coup-making general can successfully lead a country forever. The rest of the world left behind ideas about the divine right of rulers, whether kings or generals, a long time ago.