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Role of security establishment

February 22, 2012

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WHAT is a human life worth in Pakistan? Guessing from the impunity with which the intelligence agencies engage in the alleged torture and extrajudicial murder of its own people, apparently not much.

The gruesome deaths of four terror suspects in ISI custody, and the visibly brutal treatment of seven others, has belatedly caught the attention of the Supreme Court, which otherwise seemed to many observers to be obsessed with serving instant ‘justice’ to the ruling PPP leadership.

How far the SC is willing to pursue this and other missing persons’ cases will be a litmus test for the rule of law in Pakistan which is under constant attack from a security establishment hiding behind the armour of national security.

The renowned sociologist Charles Tilly once compared modern states to organised crime rackets. For Tilly, states essentially function as protection rackets because they foment danger and then offer protection against it, usually for a high price.

Of course, unlike a crime syndicate, the rule of law restrains the state and its agents from violating certain rights, norms and procedures when dealing with their citizens. And more importantly, when the state does violate these rights, citizens usually have recourse to justice and fair procedure.

Call it what you like, ‘the establishment’, ‘state within state’, or the ‘parallel state’, Pakistan’s ‘national’ security apparatus functions more like a racket than a subordinate arm of the government.

One prime example of this is the security establishment’s support for ‘good’ militants. Islamists militancy constitutes one of the most violent and dangerous threats to the safety and security of the people of Pakistan, the world at large, and to some extent, even the state itself. But the generals are seen as patronising selected militant groups for their supposed utility in balancing the inflated threat from India.

Anyone questioning the price, legitimacy or efficacy of this racket is branded a traitor or subversive, who must be silenced at all costs. Whether they are Baloch nationalists, suspected ‘bad’ militants, or even errant journalists, the security racket is an indiscriminate offender.

But having disgraced itself and lost half the country in 1971, and still not being able to properly defend its own headquarters, how does the security establishment sustain this racket?

No less important than its coercive power is the ideological ‘hegemony’ it seeks to establish through an ‘anti-political’ narrative, fomented and reproduced through several mechanisms of social control (such as education, popular culture and the news media).

This narrative systematically demonises elected officials as venal, inept and, above all, unpatriotic. This causes the public’s (or at least, the urban middle class) imagination to be infused with a typical image of politicians as feudal demagogues, busy hoarding the spoils of office while ordinary Pakistanis suffer and starve.

With these ‘opportunists’ out to sell everything for their parochial ends, we are constantly reminded, national salvation rests in the hands of the patriotic, disciplined, and selfless ‘national’ army.

So the sham goes on, no real questions asked.

Never mind that a majority of Pakistanis are poor, the country’s hospitals are short of life-saving medications, or that public schools have no teachers, the military is entitled to First World privileges: a lion’s share of the national budget, a cradle-to-grave welfare system, exclusive education facilities, subsidised housing and messes, lush golf clubs, prized residential and commercial real estate, and cushy post-retirement (and even in-service) civilian jobs.

How long will this go on? As long as there are real or imagined threats to national security, and/or democratic institutions remain fragile, reversing its material and normative bases will be difficult.

While political society is the primary arena for contesting the security establishment’s political and economic encroachments, alternate centres of civilian power, like the Supreme Court, have a crucial role in preserving democratic institutions, norms and practices.

But despite the moral and legal authority it acquired on the back of a pro-democratic movement, the court appears more concerned about chastising the democratically elected government (and other assorted civilians) rather than holding the security establishment to account for its anti-democratic actions.

For instance, observers have noted that the court showed undue haste in forming a commission to hear the ‘memogate’ petitions to inquire into the authenticity and origins of a dubious ‘memo’, which according to the equally dubious Mansoor Ijaz, was allegedly written on the behest of President Zardari last May. Yet it turned a blind eye to Mr Ijaz’s claim that that the ISI chief solicited the support of some Gulf countries for a military putsch around the same time.

Whether this apparent bias is real or not, the onus of proving its impartially rests with the court. At least in the case of the 11 terror suspects, it has begun to chip away at the sense of impunity with which the national security racket is run. But it must do more, and must be seen doing more. The court’s loud talk about laying down the law without exception will remain hollow if it does not demonstrate that everyone, elected or non-elected and uniformed, is subject to the law.

If the honourable judges can readily indict the country’s highest elected official for failing to implement its NRO decision, they should also directly summon the army chief (rather than the hapless defence minister or secretary) to account for the serious offence of alleged extrajudicial torture and murders in the custody of military intelligence agencies.

At the very least, the justices owe it to the desperate families of the disappeared persons to provide them with closure and justice. Justice is supposed to be blind, but need it be deaf?

The writer is a research fellow, Society of Fellows, Harvard University.