WHILE the sceptics were still unsure about taking at face value the reiteration by the army chief in Washington, D.C., as he told compatriots at the Pakistan Embassy that he would retire in seven weeks’ time, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa threw down the gauntlet for anyone trying to destabilise the country on his return home.
Addressing the passing-out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, a day after flying home from the US, with only a two-hour refuelling stop at a UK airport and another at Dubai, he advised the cadets, soon to be newly minted officers, not to be distracted by “fake news and political wrangling in the country”. (A mere two-hour refuelling stop at Luton airport meant all the ‘news’ of his ‘planned’ meeting with some Pakistani politicians en route home was merely speculative at best.)
“Respect the democratic institution[s] and be always ready to defend the territorial integrity, sovereignty and Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan with your life [and] always remain alert and prepared to respond to and defeat all intrigues and conspiracies hatched against our country with [an] iron first.”
Then came the most significant part of the speech. Without naming anybody, he said, “The message is clear: the armed forces with the support of our citizens will never allow any country, group or force to politically or economically destabilise Pakistan.”
Khan’s stand-off poses a huge dilemma to those opposed to the establishment’s interference in politics.
The rest of his speech is reported in detail in the media, but this was seen as the most significant element as the army chief’s statement came after weeks and weeks of facing an onslaught of severe criticism by the PTI leader who is currently threatening to bring millions of supporters to the capital to force the government to call early elections.
Where PTI leader Imran Khan’s constant and strongly worded, and even shrilly, questioning of the patriotism of the military leadership is aimed at winning back the backing he admits to have in running his government, parliament and keeping his majority intact, the tone and tenor of the party’s army of trolls has gone overboard as is often reflected in the vile, abusive language used.
Imran Khan’s apparent current stand-off is aimed at galvanising his support base and, one could argue, he is achieving his goal. At the same time, it poses a huge dilemma to those in the country who oppose the military’s role or interference in politics.
For example, when the security establishment started to destabilise former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government and moves to orchestrate his ouster from high office and then his party’s exit from government proved successful, the opponents of the military meddling in politics were up in arms.
The general perception is that at the same time as silencing the media, and using the willing parts of it to toe the line, it was also ensured that the electoral process as well as the government formation after that reflected the will of the GHQ high command. It is also believed that most current members of the PTI troll brigade were trained by/take their inspiration from 5GW experts and such professionals are generally not found among the civilian population.
This was obviously to the chagrin of not just the party that felt cheated out of power but a wider group that represented advocates of civilian supremacy. So, where do such advocates stand now? Imran Khan’s stance has forced them onto the horns of a dilemma.
He clearly keeps repeating his message, driving home his narrative, that he has an issue with the military not playing politics in his favour and shouldering his cause like in the past. He has lashed out at their avowed neutrality and finds that condemnable because they are not openly supporting him, the man leading this fight between ‘good and evil’.
This then means that if the establishment were to revert to its past role, oust the incumbent government and support him in winning the elections, in herding together members, if need be, to form a government and ensuring enough members are shepherded into approving the budget and different pieces of legislation he would welcome that.
I understand that even some individuals charged with interpreting and enforcing the document have often seemed to have disregarded it; the Constitution does lay down with clarity every single institution’s and entity’s domain and authority, besides their parameters/boundaries.
So, how can anyone who is relatively unbiased (I doubt anyone can live up to the definition of the word in its entirety) in Pakistan disregard that and approve of political engineering, media management, months-long incarceration without trial, let alone sentencing, and other horrible transgressions allegedly by the defenders of our borders and security regardless of the beneficiary?
Equally, at a time when the country’s economy remains on the verge of collapse and the climate calamity has meant some of the nation’s poorest 35 million people have very faint hope of rebuilding their lives, of being able to continue to feed their children and remain steeped in want and disease, an impatient quest for power at all costs seems a warped course to take.
But even as I say that, I concede that the right to peaceful protest in civilised societies is inalienable. There can be no two opinions on that. However, any protest that isn’t peaceful, or is accompanied by threats of violence, does not constitute a part of that inalienable right.
We have the example of the last such march on Islamabad where the wishes of the Supreme Court were disregarded to restrict the protest to a specified, pre-agreed venue. This, when the judiciary was seen by some as displaying extraordinary understanding towards belligerent protest organisers.
The heavens will not fall if the elections are not held till, say, the summer or autumn of next year as scheduled. Driving home a narrative, even in a post-truth era, is a political party’s right. One hopes and prays the transition at the head of the military and whatever democracy we have is not jeopardised by violence.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2022