A press release issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) a few days ago increased the political temperature of the country. Not surprisingly, the ensuing debate in the media did not help in bringing the mercury back to the desired level.
Living with dignity is the natural born desire of every individual but there is no licence for ‘waqar’ (dignity). We have to work hard to earn waqar and then work even harder to retain it. I hold in high esteem the sacrifices of policemen in the war against extremist militancy but this does not mean that when I see a nine-month-old baby appearing in court as an accused in an attempted murder case, I will not criticise the police for this disgraceful display of unbridled power. Similarly, I have the deepest regard for the progressive views of many PPP leaders like Raza Rabbani, Taj Haider and Farhatullah Babar but this does not mean that we will not ask questions about poor governance when the party is in government. The PML-N also has many capable personalities within its fold but it does not mean that we cannot criticise its negotiations policy. Yes, the case of the army and judiciary is a bit different as even the constitution forbids bringing disrepute to the two organisations. However, every ‘right’ has a corresponding ‘obligation’. As long as the army adheres to the obligation of not dealing with the public, its right of immunity from insulting remarks also remains inviolable.
The US army is highly respected in the US and many of its generals have been elected as presidents or have served as secretaries of state. However, when the story of Abu Ghraib prison was published in The New Yorker magazine, the US army did not issue press releases about waqar but instead carried out criminal proceedings against the culprits. Similarly, General McArthur was fired by President Truman and General McCrystal was dismissed by Obama on charges of insubordination. No press releases were issued for the preservation of the waqar of the US army. War is a dirty business and soldiers resort to ruthless behaviour in the heat of action, but when the video footage of the execution of a wounded Taliban militant by a British soldier was made public by the media, the young soldier was tried and awarded a life sentence. The British army did not plead for special treatment. Perhaps the Pakistan army can learn a lot from its mother institution.
Once the British monarchs would banish their opponents to the Tower of London. The author of Utopia, Sir Thomas Moore, when he refused to accept King Henry VIII as the spiritual head over the queen’s divorce issue, was tried for treason and his severed head was fixed upon a pike over London Bridge for a month. Today the British monarch is merely a symbolic head of the state. Pakistan is no exception and is exposed to the agents of change as well. Political parties, which used to adopt no holds barred wrestling style manoeuvres against each other, have learnt how to respect the living space of all political organisations. The judiciary has disconnected from the past and the media has also learnt how to perform its watchdog role more effectively. We assumed that, like everybody else, the army as an institution had also embraced the much-needed change and was evolving into a responsible and respectful security institution. The press release by the ISPR, unfortunately, blew all this up.
I cringe with discomfort when I listen to PPP leaders citing shahadat (martyrdom) slogans even when the issue under discussion is governance. This distastefulness is no less when I find retired servicemen turned defence analysts state that the army should not be criticised because of its sacrifices for the country. The armies of all countries render such commendable sacrifices, whether India or the UK, but they do not ask for immunity when Tehelka exposes corruption or the British government reduces the size of the military. A country and its army have a reciprocal relationship of sacrifices. We provide rewarding careers to young men and women in search of jobs by sacrificing one fourth of our national income. In return, military institutions are required to ensure our security and help in any emergency situation. This relationship should not be cited to justify immunity from accountability. When generals take off their uniforms and begin serving the public then they should also be ready to face public accountability.
Biologists tell us that only the fittest survive in the world but, more importantly, it is not the strongest that are the fittest but rather those who can adapt quickly and successfully when the external environment has changed. Dinosaurs were the strongest and ruled the earth but when the climate changed they were made extinct as they were unable to adapt. This is a necessary topic, which the Pakistan army should include in the core syllabus of its training institutions. Like all other institutions, it has to learn that there is no divine right to respect. If retired generals serving in the business sector are rescued from the accountability process by taking the ludicrous step of re-employing them then it is very naïve to expect that no one will laugh. Similarly, when an accused general becomes a fugitive inside a military hospital and his lawyers are instructed to hurl abuses in a court of law then respect can hardly be ensured through the issuance of press releases.
The Pakistani people are keen to respect their security institutions but the right is not a divine one. It has to be earned.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org