Surveillance state

Published March 22, 2021

THERE is a long record of ‘known unknowns’ in Pakistan keeping tabs on individuals for purposes not consistent with fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. On Friday, the PML-N blasted the Intelligence Bureau, the premier civilian spy agency, for “targeting it at the behest of Prime Minister Imran Khan”. The party’s secretary general Ahsan Iqbal accused the IB, which reports directly to the premier, of being instrumental in harassing and concocting false cases against the PML-N leadership. He reminded the agency that it was the PML-N that had strengthened the IB’s capabilities for fighting terrorism and urged it “not to pursue the political agenda of the PTI government as they are not bound by the Constitution to accept any such unlawful orders”.

Such accusations are not new. Successive governments in the past arbitrarily expanded the role of the agencies into domestic politics to keep the opposition in check. The task was made simpler by the fact that there is no law defining the jurisdiction of the three key agencies. Meanwhile, unelected forces have used some of these organisations to maintain an upper hand over politicians across the spectrum. In 2011, then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani referred to one particular agency as a “state within a state”. Ironically, it was a civilian premier, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who created the political cell in the ISI. The purpose of the cell was a departure from the agency’s focus on monitoring threats to the country’s territorial integrity and the security of its people. It took the premature end of several elected governments through the 1990s for politicians to realise that using intelligence agencies against each other is a double-edged sword that renders the democratic process perennially unstable. By 2006, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had agreed in the Charter of Democracy to curb these organisations’ influence and powers. During the PTI government’s tenure, however, the opposition has repeatedly denounced intelligence agencies as being part of a witch-hunt against them by NAB and other law-enforcement agencies. PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz has also held the IB responsible for electoral malpractices in the recent Daska by-election. In his judgement on the Faizabad dharna in 2017, Justice Qazi Faez Isa wrote: “To best ensure transparency and the rule of law, it would be appropriate to enact laws which clearly stipulate the respective mandates of the intelligence agencies.” There is certainly some merit to that. But who will bell the cat?

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2021

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