By Aqil Shah
THESE are strangely exciting times. Democracy is in, dictatorship is out. Black coats are in, khakis are out.
No wonder yesterday’s praetorian generals and brigadiers have become principled democrats overnight. They want Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf to vacate the army house. They want him to resign. They are not wrong. For almost nine years, Musharraf had his way and must be made to pay. But that is a no-brainer. The problem is that Musharraf never operated alone in any of the stellar acts for which his former colleagues are holding him almost solely responsible: the Kargil War, the Oct 12, 1999 coup, the decision to side with the US in the war on terror and the Nov 3, 2007 ‘emergency’. Musharraf could pull them off because he was then the army chief. Not because he was Musharraf.
By targeting Musharraf, these ex-soldiers seem to be conveniently washing their hands of their own culpability in his actions. Of course, they would like us to believe that they were always conscientious objectors against his disastrous policies. It is just that as serving soldiers their hands were tied. They had to stand united with their chief, no matter what. The best they could do was to express their differences on policy matters and when overruled by their chief, their only option was to obey. Put simply, they were just doing their job. And we just did not know about it because of soldiers’ honour.
But it is not easy to ignore an inconvenient truth: consent can be as incriminating as direct involvement. There are no higher crimes than following unlawful commands to subvert the public will by rigging elections or by hatching criminal conspiracies against elected governments for which our generals are universally notorious. Need they be reminded that they all took an oath of service affirming their loyalty to the country and the constitution, not the chief of army staff?
Of course, the disclosure of truth by public officials on matters of national importance is not inherently a bad thing. Neither is their public support for the sanctity of the constitution. Curiously though, next to none of these soldiers found it in them to stick their necks out when it mattered. In Pakistan’s sixty-year history, how many generals and brigadiers have refused to partake in the anti-democratic actions of their superiors?
For instance, on Oct 12, 1999, when the army high command was committing ‘high treason’ by overthrowing the elected government of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, how many army officers openly supported his rightful decision to sack Musharraf and appoint an army chief of his choice? None that we know of.
The generals obviously do not stand alone in the hall of shame. Civil servants have been their willing partners in crime. Many have been proud accomplices to a variety of dictators, actively conspired against democratic governments and faithfully executed the unlawful commands of unlawful regimes. They are now in a sulk about the sad state of Pakistan. Yet they conveniently fail to acknowledge that the country went down the tube on their watch.
And surprise, surprise, their defence is usually nauseatingly identical to that given by the soldiers: they were just doing their job. One would like to believe that these armed and unarmed former bureaucrats are well-meaning individuals. That their writing an article here, issuing a statement there is more than just a cathartic purging of the guilt they might have accumulated over their career spans. But claiming the moral high ground after the fact obviously raises legitimate questions about motive, even if we suspend disbelief and take their word for it.
While we are at it, let’s not forget the politicians. They too have to varying degrees aided and abetted military authoritarianism in the not-so-distant past. It is rather ironic that the Jamaat-i-Islami, legitimator in chief to dictators Zia and Musharraf, is marching alongside the lawyers for the restoration of the judiciary. While the PPP, the quintessential left of centre pro-democratic party, has painted itself into a corner by privileging political expediency over its public commitment on the issue.
Of course, the main catalysts for our drastically changed political environment are the judges. It is they who have probably shamed many civil and military bureaucrats into belated action. Of course, the higher judiciary has committed more than its fair share of heinous errors. It has legitimated virtually every coup d’etat by invoking the notorious law of necessity. Moreover, its ‘judicial murder’ of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, has left an indelible stain on the cause of justice in Pakistan. But that was then, this is now.
The judges have finally vindicated their institution. Whether he intended it or not but when Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry openly defied the generals on March 9, 2007, he radically altered the course of state-society relations in Pakistan. He and the other judges who refused to take oath under Musharraf’s second PCO of Nov 3, 2007 had to pay a heavy personal and professional price for upholding the constitution in the face of brute coercion. But then history is rarely made by men (or women) stalled in their professional adolescence by a perpetual obsequiousness toward authority legal or not. Here is a lesson we can all take to heart.
The writer, a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University, is conducting doctoral research in Pakistan.
Source: Daily Dawn, 14/6/2008