Why I miss Musharraf- Part I

Salman K Chima

When General Musharraf seized power, I was not among those who welcomed him – although with Justice Tarrar as the President and Shariat Amendment Bill to the Constitution awaiting approval by the Senate, Pakistan was on the verge of being a theocratic state. Why did I oppose Musharraf? Because, his rule was undemocratic and unconstitutional.

Yet, today I willingly acknowledge Musharraf. The choice of his successor in the Presidency is reason enough to remember him. But I praise him for the freedom Pakistan breathed under him; for the fact that he did not feel entitled to extra reward for his services. Even his worst detractors do not accuse him of personal corruption. This in a country where rulers have chosen to place their hard earned money in Swiss accounts.

Despite my initial opposition, I would have set the following agenda for the general: 1 . Cleanse the army of the jihadi elements inducted by General Zia. 2. Free the media. 3. Initiate meaningful steps to emancipate women. 4. Bring the minorities into the mainstream of politics. 5. Implement balanced and across the board accountability.

Before we address whether the general delivered, there is an important preliminary matter that needs to be sorted out.

My initial opposition to Musharraf was based on his takeover being unconstitutional and undemocratic. These are of course compelling arguments to oppose a regime, but one must not forget that even Adolph Hitler was popularly elected and had a constitution of sorts. So there is surely a higher principle by which to judge a government – constitution and democracy cannot be the decisive benchmarks.

The decisive benchmark to me is the freedom a regime is prepared to extend to its subjects. Constitutions and democracies represent good forms of government only insofar as they are able to preserve the inherent right of all citizens to be free.

It is against this yardstick that 19th century America fails; as does Hitler’s Third Reich – despite being blessed with constitutional and democratic rule. Paradoxically, it is against this higher principle that Musharraf wins.

Reverting to his performance, my first agenda point was the cleansing of the Pakistan Army of jihadi elements. While the ‘war on terror’ was not visible in 1999, however Pakistanis were acutely aware of the growing Talibanisation around them. The Taliban were ruling Afghanistan and one could predict that a war would have to be fought with their way of thinking within Pakistan.

This war against Talibanisation could scarcely be fought without Pakistan Army. It is also axiomatic that the Pakistan Army inherited from General Zia and his successors was ill equipped to fight this war. So, the first agenda item: to rinse out the Taliban elements from the institution. This may sound an easy task, but remember that the generals who brought Musharraf to power were differently inclined.

Was the task accomplished? Consider: From the first day of Musharraf’s rule, General Hameed Gul has been his most vocal critic. Could this be attributed to Gul’s love for democracy and constitution or simply resentment at the restructuring of Pakistan Army — contrary to Gul’s desire? Could the present fighting in Bajaur and elsewhere have been possible without deep structural changes in the army? Do not the terrorist attacks afflicting Pakistan indicate the Taliban elements are no longer reacting to Musharraf but to the restructuring put in place by him? The profile of the Pakistan Army’s top leadership has been reformed in the last nine years but, the restructuring has virtually gone unappreciated since it took shape away from public eye.

Moving on to freedom of media, one should not have to recount evidence to establish how truly free media was under Musharraf. So let me address some unfair commentaries offered by the General’s critics. First, that he did not have a choice; with the advent of satellite TV (which can be beamed from outside the jurisdiction) Musharraf could not have shielded himself from media scrutiny. True, but why is the same freedom not witnessed in Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Iran etc. The government has many ways of curbing media freedom, for instance, not only is the government an important client of all the media houses in terms of advertisement but also runs its own TV channels which can make lucrative offers to the more vocal critics.

Second, the aftermath of Nov 3, 2007: Critics allege if Musharraf believed in media freedom, he would not have curbed it after Nov 3. The argument is fair, but needs to be put in perspective. The period between November 3 and 13, 2007 is admittedly the ‘darkest period’ of Musharraf’s regime from the media freedom perspective. It would perhaps be unfair to judge Musharraf by reference to this period alone.

But how bad was this period really? Let us do a litmus test. Pick a day and newspaper of our choice during this period. Go through this newspaper and select one article which we feel is most critical of Musharraf. Now go through every publication in Pakistan between August 14, 1947 and October 12, 1999 to ascertain how many articles in this period match up to the one we just identified. What are the odds we will find even one?! Does that tell us something about Musharraf’s ‘darkest period’?

Coming next to emancipation of women, unlike media freedom it must be acknowledged that this did not witness any giant leaps during Musharraf’s time. But this task is going to require many generations – such being the state of affairs. Yet, one was entitled to ask for some acts (even if symbolic) to set the direction right. It is in this perspective that the following steps may be recounted.

There was a substantial increase in women’s representation in the assemblies. Women not only add value in the assemblies but also their representation gradually changes the society’s mindset. The ‘Sword of Honor’ was awarded by the Pakistan Air Force Academy to a lady cadet. The Women’s Protection Act – a long overdue amendment to soften a retrogressive law legislated by Zia- was passed as well.

One does regret the General’s statement before the American press regarding Mukhtar Mai case. But even here one must not be cruel in judging him.

A detailed study of the LHC judgement reveals that there is indeed another side to the story: Mukhtar Mai may have willingly married the main accused. She at least admitted before the court that she would have been prepared to marry him, in exchange for the main accused’s sister marrying her own brother. According to the defense version, this is exactly what happened and she only recorded the FIR once the main accused’s sister (contrary to the agreement) was married to someone else. The record also shows that no visible injuries (except a relatively minor abrasion) were seen on Mukhtar Mai during medical examination – which took place about eight days after the alleged incident. Mukhtar Mai also admitted that the accused were financially weaker than her own family. Fortunately the matter is before the Supreme Court, and they will put this controversy to rest.

Was not Musharraf advised that the defence version was not entirely baseless? As the country’s president, he may have felt agitated by the adverse publicity this case was getting outside Pakistan.

The next agenda point, the minorities: They have been relegated to second class citizenship, particularly since the times of General Zia. Musharraf introduced joint and yet separate electorates for minorities – giving them two votes, one in the general election and one for their own reserved seats. However, after the 17th Amendment, the minorities now only vote in the general election, and their reserved seats are filled by political parties according to their representation in the assembly.

Minorities are also particularly hard done by the Blasphemy Law. A person convicted of blasphemy must suffer (often the death penalty) because he has hurt the deepest feelings of the Muslim majority. But how can people’s feelings take priority over a man’s right to life or liberty. Musharraf only considered amending the procedural aspects of the law. He backtracked but only a person with the right orientation would even begin to conceive such a move. The other mentionable change (though subsequently reversed) was the removal of the religious column on the passport. He backtracked on this – but who else even made an effort.

(To be continued)

The writer is a Lahore-based lawyer.

Source: The News International, 6th January 2009

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