MQM’s supremo Altaf Hussain’s statement on 22nd of August that his Party would openly support the patriotic Generals if they took any martial law type action against the corrupt politicians and feudal lords, created a sensation across the country. The epicentre of the statement was London residence of the MQM Chief, where the earthquake was recorded at 8.5 on the political Richter scale and its aftershocks are still being felt.
It was noteworthy that the nation through its reaction showed maturity and that is what I have been saying in my columns in this newspaper and in discussions on TV channels that the nation had learnt lessons after sixty years, and though the statement sprang a surprise yet the masses were not supportive of the idea. Though there is a unanimity of views that the factors referred to by the MQM Quaid, Altaf Hussain, do exist and that the public at large want freedom from the shackles of feudalism as private jails still exist in Sindh where people of various ages are kept in illegal detention in chains yet the entire political leadership and the people oppose any undemocratic adventure. If these statements of a cross-section of the masses are deciphered, they appear to be very supportive of Altaf Hussain’s views about the situation on the ground but the only difference is that of approach to overcome the problems.
The Government circles were totally shaken by the thunderous statement and the high ups got the impression that it was inspired by Rawalpindi. Incidentally, Mr Imran Khan, an emerging popular leader, also came out with somewhat similar statement. Therefore, from Karachi to Khyber, there was a feeling that Martial Law was in the offing because it was construed as an open invitation to the Army for intervention. The statement acquired more importance in the wake of a meeting with Altaf Hussain by the former Consulate General of the US in Lahore and currently a Political Liaison Officer at the US Embassy in Islamabad, Brian D Hunt, in London on 21st August which lasted for more than 3 hours. It was thought in Pakistan that something ominous was cooking up and the statement had the tacit approval of Washington.
The Government though panicky yet handled the situation well. The President’s statement (made during an interaction with foreign media on August 24) was firm as he ruled out the possibility of imposition of Martial Law saying the problems the country faces are too great to inspire a usurper. Later, the Prime Minister too followed the presidential line and held a meeting with Dr Farooq Sattar asking for a clarification from the MQM leader.
The Opposition Parties too displayed almost the same kind of reaction to the earth-shaking statement for understandable reasons. Mian Nawaz Sharif and his associates condemned the statement of Altaf Hussain because the PML-N Quaid cannot wait for another ten years if there is yet another Army intervention. He has been stating from day one after his return from exile in Saudi Arabia that his Party would oppose any future military intervention. In close door meetings and selective gatherings, the PML-N Quaid discussed the developing situation with his Party’s leaders and brains. Some reports in the media and those of the PML-N leaders who are privy to the in-house consultations say that while Mian Sahib would oppose imposition of Martial Law or a Bangladesh-style intervention, he has not closed the option of mid-term polls. According to Mian Sahib’s own analysis, supported by his close confidants, he will win 2/3 NA seats in the next national elections, even if there are mid-term elections.
Judiciary too spoke its mind albeit in a subtle manner. Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, during a hearing of the petitions on 18th Amendment on 24th August, remarked that parliamentary democracy and judiciary were the future of the country. Analyzing the signals from its Pakistan antenna, Washington too got a clear message that the Pakistani public opinion was opposed to such a move and, therefore, thought it appropriate to pronounce that civilian Government was the best option for Pakistan.
Later the MQM Quaid, who is a seasoned and shrewd politician, in an interview with a private TV channel, though apparently gave the impression of retrieval of his statement yet if one analyses it between the lines it becomes clear that Altaf Hussain had blown hot and cold. While he explained that he did not invite Martial Law as such but the retrieval statement could be interpreted in many ways with several meanings. It is in this perspective, I say that aftershocks of the Altaf Bhai’s August 22 statement are still being felt.
In my opinion what the Government has to understand are the circumstances which prompted Altaf Hussain and now, to an extent, Mian Nawaz Sharif to distance themselves from the Government and should also see what were the compelling factors which led to the imposition of Martial Laws in the past. Mere grant of three-year extension to the COAS and Prime Minister’s optimism that since tenure of all the stakeholders i.e. President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice and COAS is secured till 2013 therefore, there is no possibility of Martial Law, would not prevent the ultimate from happening. The three-year extension to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was considered as a shrewd move by the Government and the ruling PPP but that is an over-simplistic view of the ground realities. If and when it is decided by Rawalpindi to intervene, it will not be General Kayani but collective thinking and a unanimous decision of Pakistan Army to do so.
I remember that General Ziaul Haq was with late Z.A. Bhutto on the evening of 4 July 1977 and just a few hours later, i.e. in the wee hours of July 5, the General took over. Mr Bhutto was shocked when the Army Jawans entered the Prime Minster House. The shivering Bhutto rang up General Ziaul Haq: “General, what is happening?” “Sir, we have taken over”, the General said. As simple as that. “What about me?” the totally shaken Bhutto asked after a pause. “Sir, we are taking you to Murree for your safe custody”, the General informed the former Prime Minister. And there was dead silence.
Similarly General Pervez Musharraf was first out of the country and then in the air when began the high-tension operation, which is described by some as a counter coup. The Army command could bear no more insult from the civilian leadership after General Jehangir Karamat was forced to resign on October 7, 1998. General Karamat, in a statement, had suggested the formation of a National Security Council in the country which according to him could resolve the instability crisis faced by the country regularly. Lt General Tariq Pervez, Corps Commander Quetta, who was invited by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for a secret meeting at the PM House, obviously without the knowledge of the GHQ, was sacked on October 9, 1999 for ill discipline by the Army Chief. It was a clear and loud message to the civilian Government in Islamabad that the Army will not allow itself to be bypassed so far as the discipline of the Army is concerned. There were some other provocations from Islamabad. So the decision to replace General Musharraf created a situation where the collective Army decision led to the removal of a civilian Government on 12th October 1999. What I am trying to point out is that good day-to-day working relationship or periodic high-level meetings are no barometer or a guarantee that the Army will not intervene. It all depends on the overall situation in the country. An intervention becomes imminent when the situation goes out of control of the civilian leadership.
However, as stated in the beginning, there is maturity and democratic moorings have strengthened but I feel constrained to point out that corruption is rampant in the country and there is a total absence of the rule of law. In fact we are passing through a phase which may lead to anarchy, a further jolt to the economy and, maybe, separatists declare UDI. Shoes are being thrown by lawyers on honourable Judges in the lower judiciary, innocent people are being publicly lynched by unruly groups, police have become ineffective and helpless, and target killings are rampant in Karachi and “settlers” are being forced to leave Balochistan. The floods have created more uncertainty and frustration among the people. If the country continues to be in a shambles, the enemy has a field day in troubled areas, sectarian harmony is crumbling down, divisive forces are on the rise, the Army is further sucked in and it is further pitted against the people, the borders become porous, then who can stop Army’s, rather must, intervention?
In my view, the only guarantee to avert the Martial Law is the good governance, an environment where fruits of democracy start trickling down to the masses and their grievances including unbearable inflation, acute sense of insecurity and unbearable unemployment are fully addressed. All these must requirements are totally lacking today. The argument being shamelessly floated by the ruling PPP spokespersons that the incumbent Government will be answerable to people after the completion of the five-year tenure is fast losing its weight. People are no more going to accept this ridiculous argument. Democracy is not only elections after five years. Such a notion is very simplistic and myopic interpretation of the democratic system. I may be excused, if I say that such an absurd plea reflects mental bankruptcy of these spokesmen. All of us should duly acknowledge that the people, on the whole, are fast losing patience and they may ultimately revert to mobocracy. It will be in such a dark and grim scenario that Army may intervene but it will be in fact incumbent on the leadership of the Army to come forward and make an attempt to save the crumbling Pakistan. Let us admit that the politicians are losing fast and the Army is gaining more respectability.
Anyhow, we have been left with three options: (i) the incumbent Government, at least, makes an attempt to be seen by the public, willing to address the crucial issues facing the country and thus saves the system, (ii) the Government continues to display its ineffectiveness, rather incompetence, to bring normalcy in the country and thus anarchy, civil war or revolution which is staring into our eyes sweeps the elements of whom people are fed up and (iii) the Army intervenes for a brief period or Army-backed Government brings normalcy and sanity in the country.
My dear readers, which option would you prefer, I leave it to you. Change, in any case, is rather overdue.