Pakistan’s best-known poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in the middle of one of the many crippling crises his country faced, was asked by a youngster, “Faiz sahib, kya Pakistan toot jayega?” (Will Pakistan break up?) Faiz, the story goes, thought for a moment and replied, “Barkhordar, kuch aisa hee chalta rahega.” (I fear we will continue to muddle along.) As a reporter based in Islamabad from 1997 to 2000, this story, told to me by a number of friends, sums up the State of Pakistan.
A country perennially poised between hope and despair, a nation suspended between democracy and authoritarianism, a polity unable to break free of the shackles of military rule and radical Islam and a people told by every new general that he ruled them in the name of ‘true democracy’. That’s been the story of Pakistan. An army that successfully lost half the country to its Bengali-speaking citizens because of overbearing policies, an army that has always believed itself to be the ‘saviour’ of Pakistan is an army much like a eucalyptus tree: no other institution can take root around it.
November 3, 2007, crept up just like any other day for Pakistan, with President Pervez Musharraf still wearing his General’s uniform. A meeting of the country’s top military brass was being held and, by late afternoon, television channels began reporting that the General would be imposing a state of Emergency. It wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue. After all, hadn’t Musharraf’s Attorney-General been crying himself hoarse before the Supreme Court that the government had no intention of imposing an Emergency? The denials, in themselves, pointed to the thinking within the government.
The people of Pakistan are now living in the era of General Pervez Musharraf Mark II, where the only thing certain is uncertainty. Musharraf Mark I began on October 12, 1999, announcing to the nation on Pakistan Television in his military fatigues that Nawaz Sharif was no more prime minister and he had taken power.
The whole thing might be a little puzzling. After all, wasn’t he the army chief and the real power in government since 1999? And doesn’t he have a personally-picked PM (remember Shaukat Aziz?) who continues in office? So, why suspend the Constitution and issue a provisional constitution order again? Actually, it’s not all that difficult to explain. If Musharraf Mark I acted to depose an elected prime minister, Musharraf Mark II acted to neuter an increasingly assertive Supreme Court under an activist Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it was going to resume hearings in petitions that challenged the legitimacy of Musharraf seeking a second term as President. In Islamabad’s intelligence-heavy environment, it’s quite possible the General was told that his re-election was about to be delegitimised by the court. So, basically, he couldn’t risk leaving his fate in the hands of the Supreme Court. That’s why, after 1999, he had to suspend the Constitution again and take all executive power in his hands — including the right to rewrite the Constitution.
In his address to the nation late Saturday night, Musharraf, of course, took the familiar line that he acted to save the nation. “Kindly understand the criticality of the situation in Pakistan and around Pakistan. Pakistan is on the verge of destabilisation,” he said on State television. “Inaction at this moment is suicide for Pakistan and I cannot allow this country to commit suicide,” Musharraf stressed. “Extremists are roaming around freely in the country, and they are not scared of law-enforcement agencies,” he said.
Let’s rewind to what Musharraf said in October 1999. “The choice before us on 12th October was between saving the body [the nation] at the cost of losing a limb [the Constitution] or saving the limb and losing the whole body. The Constitution is but a part of the nation. Therefore, I chose to save the nation and yet took care not to sacrifice the Constitution… This is not martial law, only another path towards democracy.” Musharraf is cleverly using the very real threat from Islamist terrorists to justify the perpetuation of his rule in the name of combating extremist violence. The General did not need any Emergency powers to use helicopter gunships in Waziristan while targeting entrenched al-Qaeda/Taliban elements in north-west Pakistan.
Instead of making excuses and citing ‘interference’ from the judiciary in the fight against terrorism, he would have done well to purge from within his intelligence establishment those with links to the ‘jehadis’, who they had once promoted as their own. Also, the military establishment failed to make a political case for fighting extremist violence and reduced themselves to a regime that took money from the US to occasionally arrest a top al-Qaeda operative here and there. Like in most things, Shaukat Aziz and the ruling Muslim League faction remained bystanders.
Rhetoric apart, the latest Emergency proclamation links a meddlesome judiciary with the executive’s failure to stem the daily suicide and terror attacks in Pakistan. “...Constant interference in executive functions, including but not limited to the control of terrorist activity, economic policy, price controls, downsizing of corporations and urban planning, has weakened the writ of the government; the police force has been completely demoralised and is fast losing its efficacy to fight terrorism and intelligence agencies have been thwarted in their activities and prevented from pursuing terrorists,” it states.
Here it is then, in black and white: a chargesheet against an assertive judiciary, one which acted to restore the Chief Justice in July, after he was suspended by the General in March this year. Musharraf is only completing a job he tried to do earlier in the year, only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court. This time, he’s gone the whole hog. An army chief in Pakistan cannot brook any limits to power. He can’t tolerate the fact that any other institution of the State can question the wisdom of the actions taken by Pakistan’s khaki-clad.
Benazir Bhutto and the US are two elements that could prove critical to the longevity of Musharraf’s decision to usurp all powers. Significantly, the former PM was allowed to land in Karachi on Saturday night by the General. She may have been given a heads-up about what the military was planning. She has a stark choice: go along with Musharraf (who might use his all-powerful position to amend the Constitution and allow her a third term in office) or lead a democratic movement against his rule. Lawyers in Pakistan have already called for a countrywide strike against the Emergency/martial law.
As far as the US goes, there’s been gentle criticism of Musharraf’s actions. A Pentagon spokesman, however, said: “At this point, the declaration does not impact on our military support for Pakistan’s efforts in the war on terror.” That’s precisely what Musharraf must have calculated. His next steps will also depend on the domestic reaction and foreign pressure. Now that all impediments to tackling terror have been removed, let’s see if Musharraf can cleanse Pakistan of its jehadis.
In the end, Musharraf’s actions have been triggered by the dictates of regime perpetuation. No grand national interests are at work here.
(Amit Baruah is the author of Dateline Islamabad)