South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Dawn on Aug. 20 ::

It was quite an extraordinary way of celebrating the 67th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence last week. Believing that they could usher in freedom/revolution by bringing their supporters out on the street, Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri succeeded only in creating polarisation and instability in a crisis-ridden country.

The two marches organised by these leaders have evoked strong reactions from political observers. A large segment of pro-democracy opinion views this show of force as an extra-parliamentary move by the opposition that could derail the democratic process and open the door for military intervention. There have also been allegations of collusion between the agitators and elements in the military. Others have defended the people’s right to protest against government excesses. The speculation of regime change has been intertwined with an ongoing discourse on the military-civilian role in politics.

Against this backdrop, comes a new book by a political science lecturer at Princeton, Dr Aqil Shah, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan which attempts to sort out the chicken or the egg conundrum. Aqil Shah throws his weight unequivocally against the military. He holds the army’s belief system to be responsible for the crisis in Pakistan.

Military intervention has not been the only obstacle blocking democracy

According to him, the military perceives its role to be that of a state institution with the capacity to reconstruct the country through a controlled democracy by “officers trained and socialised in an organisation with strong pressures for conformity and assimilation”. They believe that the military’s disciplinary and despotic solutions can be applied to sociopolitical and economic problems while politicians are rabble rousers lacking this ability.

As a result, the army considers it to be its responsibility to seize power every time it feels the country is at the brink. It is, therefore, the army mindset that needs to be reformed, the writer proposes.

This, no doubt, has been a major obstacle to democracy in Pakistan. But not the only one. Have politicians behaved as guardians of constitutional government? So strong has been the aversion to army rule that political scientists generally blame the army for our failures.

But we need to look at the issue with an open mind. A glance at Pakistan’s history shows that civil society and non-military state actors have also let down the country by acting brashly and creating mayhem that gave the army an open invitation to intervene.

There were occasions when the judiciary, the media (including individual journalists), and politicians who were hand in glove with the men in uniform too paved the way for the latter to the corridors of power. If civilian rulers have been forced time and again to call out the army to assist with security duties, as at present in Islamabad, they themselves are to blame. They have never tried to build up the police as a professional law enforcement force, in fact have corrupted it by interfering politically in its working.

The occasions when the army was given security duties to help the civilian governments are too many. Even symbolically, politicians have sometimes presented the military as ‘legitimate’ rulers. Didn’t Z.A. Bhutto, the first elected leader in Pakistan, agree to become a ‘civilian martial law administrator’ in 1971 after the fall of Dhaka? He went on to appoint Gen Tikka Khan, known as the ‘butcher of Bengal’, as his army chief.

The precedence of a civilian government handing the initiative to the military was set in 1947 within a few weeks of the birth of Pakistan. Aqil Shah notes it though its full significance must be emphasised. It was Liaquat Ali Khan’s cabinet that set the trend. Its decision to organise a “covert mission” to exploit the Muslim revolt in Poonch (Kashmir) in 1947 led it to co-opt Col Akbar Khan, the director of weapons and equipment at the army headquarters, to implement the strategy. The idea was to circumvent the military chain of command (that was British at the time). Apparently, it was this need for secrecy that gave Akbar Khan a free hand to plan and execute the Kashmir infiltration, as he himself admitted.

This point in history appears to be when the ‘rules of the game’ between the civilian government and the army were drawn up. They have not changed. The army has had the upper hand in consolidating these rules in its favour as it has been a unified and cohesive force. The politicians, on the other hand, have been locked in a struggle for the fruits of office. They have never acted as statesmen but as parochial frontrunners whose forte is expediency. Democracy cannot survive in conditions of political apathy and the absence of a democratic culture. On the other hand, military rule thrives in such a scenario which gives the one with armed might the upper hand.