“So, that the people of Pakistan may prosper and attain their rightful and honoured place amongst the nations of the World” — Preamble to the Constitution, 1973
IN my own short life of 50 years so far, I have sadly witnessed this country being labelled, first as a less developed country, then as a failed state, and now as a humiliated state in the eyes of the world. This state of humiliation is undeniable when the government of Afghanistan lectures the Pakistani state and its people on political stability, as they recently did through an official statement.
One of the central ideological basis for the rise of modern China has been their national determination never to repeat the ‘century of humiliation’ between 1839 and 1949, when they were subjugated by foreign powers due to their own national weakness and internal conflicts. Primarily, our humiliation is an elite failure because the military, political, judicial, bureaucratic, capitalistic, religious and media elites of this country determine our destiny by controlling the structures of power, money and the ideological/cultural narrative.
However, every country has an elite which wants power to be concentrated in their hands alone, but they still don’t want to be perceived globally as a humiliated elite. The problem with our elite is that while they display short-term tactical brilliance in still being able to sustain their rule, they have no strategic sense or greater ambition to sustain and increase their elite power through the necessary national reforms that could lead them to being perceived globally as a respectable ruling elite.
To achieve national rejuvenation, the conflict in the country must be understood.
One of the key steps on any path to national rejuvenation is to understand the primary contemporary conflict in Pakistan: This is the battle between the people through politicians, the sword/coercive power through the military establishment and the pen/constitutional power through the judges.
People: The anger of May 9 was a culmination of a historical process and Imran Khan is a mere conduit of this expression. The democratic revolution which started in 1970 through the brave struggles of both the people of East Pakistan and West Pakistan is reaching a critical moment. The long-term effect and expression of this democratic revolution can be seen in three developments.
Firstly, unlike Generals Ayub and Yahya, Generals Zia and Musharraf were not able to abrogate/repeal the Constitution, which is the ultimate aspirational expression of the people. They merely suspended the Constitution. Thus, even the establishment, paradoxically, fears and understands the importance of the Constitution.
Secondly, despite murders, disqualifications, exiles and state repression, the political elite and workers remain alive and kicking, fighting as well as collaborating with the establishment.
Thirdly, as Aasim Sajjad in his book The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan prophetically explained: the “experience of PTI can be extrapolated to many parallel post-colonial contexts where a youthful and digitally connected demographic imbued with middles-class aspiration forms the vocal voice base of a reactionary coalition that claims to break the monopoly of ‘dominant elites’”.
Pakistan is experiencing a second middle-class mobilisation — first, as part of the lawyer’s movement in 2007 and now as a part of Imran Khan’s mobilisation. The genie of the ‘people’ can no longer be ignored or silenced by the shut-up call given by military courts or a return to family/dynastic politics.
Sword: Despite desires to the contrary, there has been no martial law or direct military rule in this country for the last 16 years — our longest period of formal constitutional rule. The days of the establishment’s monopoly over power (not domination) are over. Direct military takeovers can be tried again, but as in East Pakistan, this might spell the end of establishment domination.
On the other hand, the sustained mass mobilisation and revolutionary politics needed to fulfil the liberal dream of civilian supremacy and deep constitutional democracy is not in sight; thus, what we will continue to have is a strong military imprint on our constitutional democracy for some years but without the establishment’s monopoly, ie, various shades of hybrid governance.
But the role of the military establishment and its intelligence agencies is also critical for the future of this country for three reasons. Firstly, no force except the military can ensure monopoly over violence of the Pakistani state. Civil war and chaos are the result of a weak military.
Secondly, no substantive reforms are possible without the backing of the establishment.
Thirdly, only a strong and professional armed forces can safeguard us against the two threats on our borders — the export of Islamist extremism from Afghanistan and the rising domination of a Hindutva India in this region. We need the sword but without it trying to subjugate the people or the Constitution.
Pen: Whether judges desire it or not or whether they consider themselves up to the task or not, it is the superior judiciary which will play a critical role in checking the abuse by both the people and the sword. The superior judiciary stands as the constitutional guarantor against both majoritarian ‘peoples’ politics by protecting the weak religious, social and economic groups as well as oppositional political forces. Also, it stands as a constitutional wall against the constant threat of the militarisation of constitutional democracy and the subversion of human rights.
However, their role is crucial in a more fundamental way: to protect and spread the liberating values of the Constitution and it is this very modern Constitution with its core values of a modernised welfare state, which will help us shed our present humiliation. Therefore, we need the pen but without it trying to judicialise our democracy or ‘over-constitutionalise’ the military. In other words, the judiciary should regulate but not control democracy nor straitjacket the security forces’ fight against threats to the state.
The destiny of this nation lies in the balance between the people, the sword and the pen. As a first step towards such balance, three things are required: immediate free and fair elections, removal of the corrosive deadlock among Supreme Court judges and the removal of the insecurity of the military leadership of any future political reprisals.
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2023