ARMY chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s interaction at GHQ with the House committees on defence was a welcome development and more so his commitment that he was happy to appear before parliament or any of its committees.
At a detailed session last week where parliamentarians were briefed on the army’s current operational commitments and preparedness, according to published media reports, the army chief said of the country’s budget that only 18 per cent was allocated for defence.
The army chief also made a pitch for more resources as some “overdue” acquisitions had to be made. The public statement did not list these but one can be certain that the parliamentarians were taken into confidence.
This represented a departure from the past when parliamentarians were more or less asked to approve the military’s budgetary demands with their eyes shut, whereas now the army chief is seen to be making a case before them for resources.
This initiative by Gen Bajwa, in all likelihood, followed last month’s verbal consent by the Senate to Chairman Raza Rabbani’s proposal for starting a discussion between parliament, the executive, the judiciary and the military.
Why is it considered unpatriotic to argue that mainstreaming militants may be detrimental to Pakistan?
Presenting his proposal, Mr Rabbani argued that parliament had been weakened as many decisions were taken outside it by political parties, and that major decisions pertaining to and dealing with foreign policy, internal security, international treaties and many other matters had never been brought before parliament.
He also talked about the alarming trend of taking political questions to the judiciary for a resolution, while stressing the need for all institutions to remain within their limits as laid down by the Constitution.
Mr Rabbani’s suggestion received a positive response from several quarters though he was clear that it was beyond the scope of his office to organise or host such a meeting and the prime minister was best suited to do this.
One can only term the Senate chairman’s views as practical because despite the fact that the Constitution isn’t ambiguous in assigning various roles and responsibilities to the different institutions, problems persist in their interactions.
Now we await the formation of the Committee of the Whole, as it was described, to move matters forward enabling the proposal to take a concrete shape. For their part, the critics are already saying nothing will come of the idea. They support their argument by saying that if it isn’t enough that the Constitution and the law lay down with clarity the dos and don’ts for each institution of the state, how could a sit-down achieve different results. They may have a point but my belief in face-to-face contacts in achieving the seemingly impossible fills me with hope. Frankly, I also have a stake in such a forum succeeding beyond what the Senate chairman has visualised.
One earnestly hopes that another issue of import can be raised which relates to state-level intolerance of criticism. The day after the heartbreaking news of the martyrdom of 22-year-old Lt Arsalan Alam, who fell to sniper fire reportedly from across the border in Khyber Agency last Saturday, the army chief made another statement.
To my ears, his statement held out a warning to those sitting abroad and apparently calling for a break-up of the country, that they would soon face the law. But some friends on social media expressed the view that the army chief’s words were also directed at the army’s critics. They also said that following the enforced disappearance of some dissenting bloggers (who, barring one, were later released after being roughed up and warned to mend their ways) in Pakistan earlier this year, the army chief was trying to warn dissenters everywhere that they will also be dealt with in a similar manner if they don’t desist.
Whether I agree with the take of those on social media or not, their perception is rooted in factual, recorded incidents. Not unlike the pro-army commentators/social media accounts that always demand assurances from the dissenters that they are not externally-funded and motivated, the latter too need to hear that dissent does not equal treachery.
Very few try and see both sides of the argument. For the military leadership, at a time when officers and soldiers alike are offering sacrifices including laying down their lives for the country, critics potentially create a morale problem in the rank and file and therefore need to be robustly tackled.
As one will find it difficult to fault the military leadership for its position, it would be equally difficult to find flaws in the argument advanced by critics that without being open about history and the policies that have brought us to this pass, how can a way forward be found and sanity restored.
That the state needs a massive deradicalisation effort with all hands on deck was evidenced again in the recently held by-election in Lahore where a condemned, executed murderer was openly eulogised as part of a religious group’s election campaign. Videos have emerged where ‘religious leaders’ belonging to this group have energised near-hysterical crowds using similar slogans and are openly saying that next year’s election is about this issue alone.
Similarly, another group that has hailed Osama Bin Laden as a hero and still remains committed to jihad that transcends national boundaries also had a free hand in the September by-election in Lahore.
Against such a backdrop, aren’t questions about the (un-debated) mainstreaming policy — that a retired lieutenant- general has attributed to the military — in the national interest? And if I argue that such mainstreaming may be detrimental to Pakistan, why am I considered everything but a patriot?
Why am I compelled to restate over and over again that I feel the pain of losing a young Lt Arsalan Alam and seeing his mother’s grief on her stoic face, as much as anyone else? Why?
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2017