The question of neutrality

Published May 26, 2022
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

NEVER has the English language assumed such significance in Pakistani politics as it has now. Three words lie at the heart of the current political dispensation: ‘neutrality’, ‘conspiracy’, and ‘interference’. Ironically, if the PTI and its leaders are to be believed, the era of ‘neutrality’ is what began the untimely slide that spelt the end of their regime, and the words ‘interference’ and ‘conspiracy’ were just the means to an end.

Of late, former prime minister Imran Khan and his party have trained their guns on the ‘neutrals’ and how they stood by as the regime was ousted through a ‘conspiracy’. This is part of an apparently concerted campaign of thinly veiled jibes aimed squarely at the neutrality of the knights — i.e. the military establishment. While the PTI continues to call ‘neutrality’ into question, the current government, i.e. the establishment’s former detractors, continue to hail ‘neutrality’.

All this begs the question: just what role (if any) do the knights have to play in such times of polarisation? The Constitution of Pakistan, which seems to be the flavour of the day, may hold the answer.

Chapter 2 of Part XII of the Constitution, titled ‘Armed Forces’, deals with the responsibilities of the military and its command. Article 244, read with the Third Schedule to the Constitution, provides the ‘oath’ that members of the military swear to abide by. This ‘oath’, often alluded to in political debates around the country, and with good reason, clearly prohibits members of the armed forces from engaging in political activities. This is what ‘neutrality’ entails — staying clear of political quarrels, controversies and mudslinging, and letting the politicians create and mop up their own mess.

What does the word ‘interference’ signify? And would such ‘interference’ merit a break with neutrality?

To this end, it appears that the knights have made a conscious decision to stay away from the ‘dirt’ of politics. This attempt at ‘neutrality’ was visible when the DG ISPR, on being asked about the demand for early polls, referred the matter wholly to the ‘politicians’.

Conversely, sympathisers of the PTI argue that such ‘neutrality’, ie the need to stay out of politics, should not be seen in a vacuum. The armed forces, much like all other state institutions, have a role to play in safeguarding the interests of Pakistan. In continuing with their rhetoric of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘interference’, they refer to Article 245 of the Constitution, which primarily lays out two broad functions of the military. The first is to defend Pakistan against external aggression or threat of war, and the second is to act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so. Interestingly, both functions are to be taken up under the directions of the federal government, ie the federal cabinet including the prime minister.

They argue that the blatant ‘interference’ in the affairs of Pakistan, as confirmed by the National Security Committee (NSC), presented an external aggression, which all state institutions including the armed forces were duty-bound to foil and act against. This ‘interference’, they believe, was to topple the regime led by Imran Khan, something which did eventually transpire when Imran Khan became the first prime minister in history to be ousted through a no-confidence vote. It is this inaction of the military being ‘neutrals’ which the PTI laments.

Interestingly enough, the NSC, under the premiership of Imran Khan and now under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, has refused to term this ‘interference’ a ‘conspiracy’. In the context of ‘neutrality’, this has far-reaching repercussions. To the military establishment, the current government and a number of former Foreign Office personnel, the undiplomatic conduct of a US state official was nothing but that. There existed no deliberate scheming by foreign powers with or without the help of local handlers — ie, no ‘conspiracy’ to oust the PTI government.

What, then, does the word ‘interference’ signify? And would such ‘interference’ merit a break with neutrality? The answer may lie in the various press releases and press briefings of the Foreign Office of Pakistan over the years.

One such example cited is the statement by the Foreign Office on Feb 15, 2018, when then president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, was accused of “interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan” because of his tweets in support of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement. At a more global level, when the then British foreign secretary Dominic Raab spoke in parliament against the passing of a new security law for Hong Kong in June 2020, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson condemned the UK’s “blatant interference” in China’s internal affairs.

A bird’s-eye view of diplomatic press releases around the world makes clear that the word ‘interference’, despite appearing to be one of immense value, in effect is a word used rather sparingly to condemn ‘uncalled for’ uses of undiplomatic language, and nothing but that. This, then, perhaps explains why, despite the continued and ferocious clamour for their support, the knights have opted to remain ‘neutral’ — ie, apolitical — even if it meant that a government was sent packing, because to them this no-confidence was nothing more than legitimate political activity.

On the flip side, however, unlike the above examples, the classification of ‘interference’ was done not by the Foreign Office but by a high-powered NSC. This lends credence to the gravity of the accusations being levelled by Imran Khan, who continues to enjoy mass support. The last thing that should be done is for these accusations to be swept under the carpet. The accusations should be thoroughly investigated by a high-powered judicial commission. Anything less than that would turn these accusations into an undeniable perception, which would ultimately call into question the legitimacy of the democratic process.

All said and done, whether the PTI is true in its narrative or not, one hopes that this ‘neutrality’ continues, not just because it would honour the dictates of the Constitution, but also because it would allow the existing political system to flourish, albeit with hiccups and showdowns along the way.

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @sheheryarzaidi

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2022

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