On honour and democracy

In South Asia on 26. April 2014 at 22:09

Given Pakistan’s history with democracy, there should be no surprise that the democratic institution is weak at present. It takes decades to make institutions transparent and auditable, which are closed and non-controllable. Check the list of rulers and you will find non-elected Governor-Generals and Presidents tossing Governments. While bureaucrats introduced this menace of throwing Governments, Army introduced the routine of toppling these, to grab power by themselves.

The period after Zia-ul-Haq’s regime and until Musharraf assumed the reigns is characterised as a democratic period. Indeed it was, as the Governments were elected by popular will (though not always by fair gameplay) but period also marked the clashes of institutions, be it President, Chief of Army or Chief Justice.

After Musharraf’s departure, something has changed. President Zardari put an end to presidents power to dissolve assemblies, and Supreme Court took a responsible stance on not to legitimise Army takeover as it had done so many times before. Free media challenged official narratives and social media extended the range for activists. Power has devolved among institutions and country more democratic than before – though some self-designed messiahs would design it sham democracy, it was a step in the right direction. These same messiahs were oddly silent when Taliban targeted candidates from some political parties during elections in 2013.

Asghar Khan-case, Memogate scandal and the recent brawl between GEO TV channel and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has put to question where civilian’s sovereignty ends and where Army’s duties extend. In the same breath, certain politicians (actually a whole lot of them), have come out to give their full support of ‘any attempt to dishonour the army or the ISI’.

We are witnessing two things. Army and ISI tries to win its past monopoly of power, while in reality it has reduced its power to be that of veto, and secondly, politicians still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding democratic principles, especially those advocating change and those who have not felt the ruthlessness of Army takeovers.

Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto escorted by police to court after General Zia-ul-Haq took power

Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto escorted by police to court after General Zia-ul-Haq took power

These new realities

Army had monopoly on power until Musharraf was dethroned. Either by direct rule, or indirectly by meddling in civilian affairs. Be it on its budget allocations, funding to political parties of interest or controlling foreign and defence policies. It could do so because it had propagated its virtue, stability and professionalism into the society. That it was the sole institution that was clean of corruption and had the means to tackle the tasks.

People, the ones suffering from maladministration and lack of necessities, surely would accept such a rule if promises were right. The promises came – without the necessary output of fulfilling them. The first dictator neglected half the population, the second had a self-designed divine agenda and the third the ability to speak for then to do the opposite. All of them empowered army budgets at the cost of healthcare and education, this in order to acquire Army hardware to level up with arch nemesis in east.

As Army rule has proven that it cannot deliver to people, and as established politicians has comprehended that they are better off without army meddling, the foundations to democracy has strengthened, ironically by politicians who on day to day basis are hated by common man. Zardari can be criticised for many things, but in his tenure, there was a smooth transition from dictatorship to civilian rule. A manifestation of strengthened institutions that could check and balance power.

Pakistan Army and ISI has much to answer for. Not because it is evil in itself, it is a necessity, as is defence necessary for every state. There is not a big deal that army personnel are well trained and ready to fight for their country, every army does that. It is their job. That is what it is. Army is no holy cow, it is accountable to people through Parliament, just as Government is accountable to people. Wisdom of many, gives better quality, in long term, than wisdom of the few. Such wisdom is gained by democracy, and puts civilian authority highest above them all.

Army had to adjust to these new realities where civilians and judiciary also tries to find its limits and roles. To a great degree Army has managed to do so, it has realised it is in no good company if it acquires power by force. This is no guarantee that a coup will not occur, only that opposition will be much louder and army rule impossible with the many added critical voices. The fight between civilians and Army at current is the definition of what national interest is. As situation in Baluchistan is handled by upmost brutality by Army, Rangers and intelligence agencies, it is of interest for them that such issues are not talked about that loudly. Neither is the former and current links between designed terror networks and Pakistani intelligence agencies.

In comes honour

Army knows of battlefield, it knows how to mobilise, where to provide reinforcements and where to hit a target. That is their domain and that is their job. Civilian leaders use Generals advice when they give a go to any Army operation. Normal procedure, without any complications.

However, when Army or its agencies intrudes civilian domain, it is the civilian leader’s duty to react. Saleem Shahzad was killed because of his report on links between Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Pakistani intelligence. Hamid Mir accuse intelligence agencies for the assassination attempt due to his reports on grave violation of human rights in Baluchistan.

Politicians given his full-fledged support to ISI against what they categorises defamation allegations. These are not merely words, these are reflections of how a society priorities democracy in front of what challenges it. Honour is set to institutions as Army or to ideas as ideology of Pakistan or to faith as Islam in order to prevent critical voices from hindering those who benefit from it.

As mentioned before, wisdom from many is better than wisdom from few, but quality in wisdom comes from critical voices. That’s why humankind developed councils, be it panchayat, majlis, daira or shoora – in modern sense a Parliament is an arena open for debate, criticism and reflection in order to put as much wisdom and quality as possible in the legislation.

That is why political leaders instead of giving supporting patriotic statements, or setting foot cadres in support of Director General of ISI, rather should speak up in unison, with other political leaders, and give a clear statement what democratic principles demand.

Allegations as is custom in Pakistan can be put by anyone, on anyone. For some these have dire consequences, as is the case with blasphemy law. Some give popularity due to media attention. Others are mere routines. In this process, it is important for media to be unbiased, not picking favourites and not using the well-known weapon of ‘honour’. Being pressured by establishment is one thing, fawning upon them is quite another.

Come along, path is ahead

That is why democracy has a long way to go. Even though power is devolved more than before, the essence of democracy is to be understood by all actors. Army is bound to be a top-down system with a clear chain of command. However, even soldiers can refuse orders, if they go against moral values. Moreover, Army itself has to answer to civilians, just as police, bureaucrats or elected has to do.

Politicians themselves have to find their role and their responsibility. The wellbeing of their people does not only come from allocation development funds, but also to safeguard and strengthen their rights. Limits on access to media channels as YouTube with the excuse of blasphemy should not be accepted blindly, these are tools which widens the information base. In addition, more information is good to make up one mind. This is for freedom of speech and information, and then we have the lack of enthusiasm on freedom of belief. Civilians cannot be ranked into graded citizens as it hinders the basic pillar of democracy, it being equality.

When politicians will value these issues as if they were infested with honour, only then can democracy truly be strengthened, and by time deliver what is promised to people. No revolutions, coups or holy wars can do so. In the end, being critical is not a sign of defamation or dishonouring, rather to have enough care for a country in order for its institutions to operate optimally.

Thoughts as shared above are even limited to be published on paper, and if published, brandished traitorous. Traitorous indeed, to one set of thoughts, but always in allegiance to the principles of democracy and the universal truths of equality and justice.

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