State of Disenchantment

Indian Express, June 6, 2007

Facing massive popular disapproval at home and abroad, General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime is trying to find comfort in support from the Bush administration and Pakistan’s top military commanders. But Musharraf’s problems do not stem from lack of US government support or the absence of backing from the Pakistani military. They are the result of disenchantment of the Pakistani people with the authoritarian order.

Just to prove that they were unlikely to be swayed by assurances of loyalty by senior military commanders, tens of thousands of demonstrators continued with their protests in support of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry even after the imposition of new restrictions on the media and the much-publicised statement issued after the 101st Corps Commanders Conference.

As several Pakistani commentators have pointed out, it is expected that military commanders express loyalty to their chief. If the army chief asks them to tell the press that they stand for the “security of their country under the leadership and guidance of the president and the chief of army staff,” they will. How does a statement showing support for the army chief by officers under his command resolve the issue of Musharraf’s political legitimacy?

The generals’ statement took “serious note of the malicious campaign against institutions of the state launched by vested interests…” This is a clear reference to the increasing questioning by Pakistani civilians of the military’s dominance over Pakistani public life and its alleged privileges. Musharraf’s civilian minions, such as Citibanker and prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, have been saying for a while that statements against the armed forces would “not be allowed or tolerated,” with ruling party president, Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, going so far as to demand that those criticising the army be shot to death.

There is no doubt that civilised, modern governance requires respect for institutions of state. But it is wrong, as is common in Pakistan, to think of the armed forces and the security services as the only institutions worth protecting. A state comprises an executive, a legislature and a judiciary. Political parties and the media are other institutions that support the contemporary state.

A cursory glance at Pakistan’s history would reveal that Pakistan’s judicial and legislative institutions of state have been under relentless attack since 1951 — when General Ayub Khan became the country’s first indigenous army chief. History was significantly rewritten by Ayub Khan and the various new offshoots of the executive branch he created (such as the ministry of information and broadcasting) to make it seem that he was gradually sucked into politics by the incompetence of civilian politicians.

The fact remains, however, that as early as 1953 he had written out a plan for restructuring the Pakistani state, and the erosion of the country’s legislative branch and the political parties that supported it began at his behest.

The first frontal attack on a state institution came in 1954 when Governor General Ghulam Mohammed dissolved the Constituent Assembly just because it would not give him viceregal powers. Since then, no elected assembly in Pakistan’s history has been allowed to function normally.

Over the years, Pakistan has become a state that stands only on one pillar — of one part of the executive branch of government represented by the military and the intelligence services.

The judiciary’s standing was diminished by making it repeatedly endorse extra-constitutional interventions and pledging oaths to military coup-makers. Only now, with Justice Chaudhry’s stance against General Musharraf, is the judiciary recovering some of its prestige.

The military sub-branch of the executive also constantly circumscribes the legislature in its functions, if and when the legislature is allowed to exist at all. Political parties operate in the shadow of larger than life figures, slandered, jailed or exiled with alarming frequency. And then there are the ubiquitous intelligence agencies, hidden from public view but frequently seen pulling the strings in Pakistan’s complex political drama.

Claims by the military regime that criticism of one sub-branch of the state is a malicious campaign against state institutions, without recognising the constant battering of other institutions, will not resolve Pakistan’s crisis.