The General’s Dillusion

Gulf News , November 17, 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.

A similar philosophy appears to be at work in the political thinking of Pakistan’s military rulers.

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. He claimed that “I did not violate the Constitution and law of this land”, even after suspending the constitution. Quite clearly, he sees his decisions as the law of the land.

Similarly his statement that the Supreme Court judges who refused to accept his Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) were not “above the law” indicates Musharraf’s belief that the army chiefs, and not judges, have the ultimate authority to interpret the law. In normal jurisprudence and political science the law is what the judges say it is.

Musharraf is not the first Pakistani military chief to consider himself above the law and constitution and yet insist that he was not violating the law.

Field Marshal Ayoub Khan abrogated the 1956 constitution and then introduced a constitution in 1962, which began with words to the effect, “I, Field Marshal Ayoub 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 wherein he said he had “granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below” to the people. In 1969, Ayoub Khan abrogated even the 1962 constitution and handed power over to the next army chief in a move akin to abdication in a monarchy.

Yahya Khan held elections in the hope of securing a fragmented and pliant parliament and was surprised by the emergence of two strong civilian leaders, one in each wing of a Pakistan which then included today’s Bangladesh.

After the elections had determined whom the people supported, Yahya Khan believed that he had been assigned a mission by the Almighty to save Pakistan from politicians he believed to be corrupt and unsuited to lead the nation. That led to civil war, Indian intervention and military defeat as well as 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 of the problems Pakistan is today trying to tackle.


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 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, 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 are the only ones left in the world who believes 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.