Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

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Sovereignty puzzle in Pakistan, Daily Times, 16 July, 2016

Last year millions of Pakistanis saw on their TV screens merciless beating of a police officer, and ransacking of PTV building in broad daylight. The two most conspicuous icons of the state were publicly humiliated. More deplorable was the fact that the miscreants got away with their display of mocking the state.

And one year later, the open challenge is out on the roads again. This time banners making seditious calls to army appeared mysteriously all over the country in a highly organised manner. To add insult to injury, the perpetrators have begun doing press conferences as well. The Constitution of the country prescribes death penalty for any tampering with the Constitution, and Section 131 of the Pakistan Penal Code says: “Whoever abets the committing of mutiny by an officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force of Pakistan, or attempts to seduce any such officer, soldier, sailor, or airman from his allegiance of his duty, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.” Despite these clear provisions of the law of the country it is shocking to see how some miscreants can so easily get away with mockery of the law.

The situation therefore gives rise to a very fundamental question. Who is the sovereign in Pakistan? A state is defined as a territory with three further constituents: people, government and sovereignty. When Pakistan came into being in 1947 the question of sovereignty became a thorny issue. Religion and greater powers for the provinces were the two main demands of the founders of Pakistan. Once Pakistan came into being the two became the source of all problems for our early lawmakers as well as they struggled to find an amicable solution to the competing demands of dividing powers between the central and provincial legislatures, and to find the right place for religion in the scheme of things. At that time, army, commanded by British generals, was in its teething age. It was in mid-1950s that army with the first native chief Ayub Khan also entered the fray, thus further complicating the sovereignty puzzle. The 1973 Constitution to a varying degree was successful in resolving the competing demands of the two original sets of problems. While sovereignty was declared to belong to Allah, its exercise was entrusted to the people of Pakistan through their chosen representatives. The thorny issue of federation was also amicably settled by federal and concurrent lists. The 18th amendment addressed the issue again and assuaged the concerns of smaller provinces.

While the challenges of sovereignty at the constitutional level have been settled the issue of civil-military relations has proved to be like throwing a spanner in the works of constitutional governance. Let us examine two occurrences of public importance in the recent past. The ISPR spokesperson in a televised PowerPoint presentation on the achievements of the Zarb-e-Azb said that army and government are on same page on the Afghan issue. We can easily identify two underlying norms and beliefs in this statement. One, army is something separate and distinct from the government and second, army is in the leadership role and government follows it. If we look at the Constitutional arrangement, army is a department of the ministry of defence (MOD), and all uniformed forces including their chiefs are subordinate officers of secretary, MOD. Either the ISPR spokesperson should avoid public presentations, or he needs proper tutoring in choice of words so that disregard for Constitution of the country is not seen to be floating on the surface.

The second example is the namaz-e-janaza (funeral prayer) of the great humanist Abdul Sattar Edhi. While president of the country, chairman of Senate, and chief ministers of various provinces stood on sidelines, the army chief who is a subordinate officer of one of the ministries of the government, stood in the middle. If in the real world that is the situation, it should better remain hidden from the public eye as the veneer of constitutionalism should not be so brazenly peeled off.

When the British parliament through its government decided to use army in Ireland the army generals acted accordingly, and when the government settled for an Irish solution army did not cry foul. Similarly, when the British government held a referendum in Scotland on the independence question, no one asked the army chief about his opinion. Recently, when the British people voted in favour of leaving the EU by a thin majority, again no press release from the British Army was released. No doubt, input of the security establishment on strategic and security issues is always obtained and considered important, but the final say is always of the political masters in democratic countries. One can clearly ascertain this in Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars with regard to development of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.

It seems that Pakistan is passing through a crisis of multiple dimensions. Externally, it is at daggers drawn with its neighbours. Internally, it is fighting a war with the militants that it once itself created. And now the corpse of sovereignty of the state is being dragged in the streets of major cities of Pakistan, while the government helplessly watches the gory scene. Today the state in Pakistan is as much threatened by sycophants and ambitious messiahs as by militant extremists.