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Jumping the gun

October 25, 2012

THE ‘historic’ decision of the Supreme Court in the Asghar Khan case has provoked a great deal of comment within political circles and outside about the reconfiguration of civil-military relations in Pakistan.

I do not want to understate the significance of the judgment, no matter how long it has taken. For the record, the names of a great many generals have been sullied before as well.

Yet the military institution has always emerged relatively unscathed. In short, much still needs to change in this land of the pure for the military’s hegemony to be conclusively challenged.

At the heart of the matter, I think, is the sociology of military power. By this I mean that the military’s hegemonic position in the country needs to be conceived not only in terms of its influence, direct or otherwise, in the realm of formal politics, but also economically and socially.

In effect, these forms of domination are closely related.

The story of the military’s ascendancy to a position of political primacy in Pakistani politics starts with the unique social contract established in Punjab under colonial rule.

There is now consensus amongst historians of the Raj that Punjab occupied a distinct place in the late colonial pecking order, both as the granary of the subcontinent and the heartland of the British Indian army. The Potohar plateau was the army’s major recruiting ground whilst the cantonments littering the entire countryside transformed the social and economic landscape of the region.

Crucially, the vast majority of agriculturalists — at least those who owned land — were also happily co-opted into this ‘militarised’ development model.

Indeed, many farming households either sent recruits to the military, or military retirees themselves were given agricultural plots in various parts of the province (as well as the irrigated plains of upper Sindh).

What is now recognised as the Seraiki belt of Punjab was distinct both in political economy and cultural terms, even if the spillover effects of cantonments and land allotments continue to be felt.

In the post-colonial period the symbiotic relationship between a wide cross-section of Punjabi society and the military has remained more or less intact.

Of course, class, caste and other social conflicts persisted throughout the colonial period, and capitalist development following the departure of the British has exacerbated many of these conflicts, while bringing many more latent ones to the fore.

It is easy to forget in the contemporary environment, for instance, that the popular movement that brought the PPP to power in 1970 was concentrated in these very same regions of Punjab.

Economic opportunities and political representation were demanded by subordinate and emergent intermediate classes alike. Yet the ‘militarised’ mindset of Punjab was able to coexist with a relatively radical politics of class.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hyper-nationalist anti-India sloganeering was not just sheer force of habit; most of the men who have aspired to rule Pakistan over the years — Bhutto included — have clearly believed that the goal cannot be achieved without the consent of a ‘militarised’ Punjab.

The upper and central parts of the province are still today the heartland of military power. Even while tremendous change has taken place, the military continues to enjoy primacy in all realms of life.

It can be argued that counter-hegemonic trends are no longer as easy to suppress as in a bygone era. This is true insofar as objective facts about military excess are available to a much wider cross-section of Punjabi society than ever before.

But there is still a healthy constituency that has no gripe with the flagrant profiteering of the institution and nominally private military-run companies.

The real material interests of apolitical middle-class folk lapping up plots in Bahria Town and Askari Housing Scheme translate relatively seamlessly into a belief that the military delivers services more efficiently than politicians can ever do. And so the long-standing narrative that underlies the military’s power is reinforced. Some commentators suggested that the lawyer-led movement against the Musharraf dictatorship marked a sea change in the political attitudes of the Punjabi middle class.

Just as many on the other side of the political fence, however, insisted that the movement neither challenged the historical dominance of upper and central Punjab within Pakistan nor represented a shift away from the anti-politics posture of the ‘militarised’ belt.

More than four years down the line, it has become sufficiently clear that the deep sociological links between some segments of Punjabi society and the ‘establishment’ — which is not comprised only of the military — remain unsevered.

There is, for example, still no mass movement in the Punjabi heartland demanding an end to state repression against the Baloch people. The populist impulse that has afflicted the superior judiciary appears to be catered specifically to Punjab. And so on and so forth.

All this is simply to say that while the prevailing structure of power in Pakistan continues to fragment due to contradictions within, the battle for hegemony is yet to be won. And such battles always take place in the realm of society rather than that of the state (insofar as a clear dividing line exists between the two).

Of course, the very fact that there are rumblings within the state can be explained by the long and thankless efforts of countless thinkers, writers, political workers, artists, trade unionists, teachers and the like who have, since the creation of this country and before, struggled to debunk the myths of ‘militarised’ development.

These progressives have in the past espoused a vision of Pakistan and its development that is inclusive, just and sustainable, and continue to do so today.

It is this vision and the struggle for it that provides the makings of a new consensus on the role of the military in a healthy, democratic society.

Yet there are still mutilated bodies being thrown into drains in Balochistan; media persons still tow the same old line about the defence of Islam and conspiracies to undermine the sovereignty of Pakistan; and there are still too many civilians that continue to be happy beneficiaries of the military’s corporate empire.

The struggle to change the face of Pakistan continues. We ought not to jump the gun and instead recognise that there is still much to do. Judges — or any other state functionary — will not do our job for us.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.