In Pakistan: Elite Inaction
In Emergency Times
By Mahnoor Khan
16 November, 2007
Note: It has been frequently
asserted in national and international media that the imposition of
emergency by General Musharraf has been unanimously opposed in Pakistan.
While there have been unprecedented protests from diverse groups, the
outrage is by no means as widespread as one would expect. Here are just
some of the arguments that protestors hear from their friends and colleagues:
1) Why are you supporting
corrupt judges? All the lawyers are politicized and doing this for their
own publicity and power.
2) What are you trying
to achieve? Do you want corrupt politicians like Benazir or Nawaz Sharif?
3) The media was overstepping
its boundaries, and the judiciary also became too interventionist. So
both were asking for a clampdown.
4) Musharraf has been
a great leader. Yes, he is making mistakes, but he is still our best
and only option.
5) Protests will just
cause more instability.
6) Things will return
to normal, so we should just wait and pray for the best.
These are overt and subtle
ways in which the emergency is effectively legitimized by the Pakistani
elite. In the following piece, I have attempted to articulate my own
stance on the issue, and address some of these arguments.
February of this year, my ride home from work one evening was interrupted
by a sizeable demonstration on Shahra-e-Faisal. The protest –
as a radio channel informed me – was against the unlawful abduction
and detention of "missing people" by our notorious agencies,
and was being staged by hundreds of family members and activists who
had traveled to Karachi from distant areas of Sindh. As I waited in
my car for the demonstration to pass, I wondered: why is the tragedy
of forced disappearances not sparking the outrage that it should? Why
wasn't this protest widely publicized, and supported by the so-called
civil society? And what was I doing about this? But of course this line
of questioning never continues for long. I brushed off my guilt by resorting
to the classic "what can I possibly do" and "there is
no hope" cynicism, unconsciously told myself that I am working
for important (and more convenient) causes like education and health
so I do have some sense of social responsibility, put on some music,
and eventually drove off.
I kept following the issue
though. I had already been reading about disappearances regularly in
Dawn and Herald since 2003. Even Amnesty International, The New York
Times, and the Guardian had established how more than 500 Pakistanis
had simply been abducted by our intelligence outfits with no case and
no trace. That under the garb of the "war on terror", there
was a systematic campaign to capture critics – not militants –
but politics activists, students, poets, journalists, social workers,
and academics belonging in particular to Sindh and Baluchistan. That
instead of recognizing and addressing the exacerbated grievances of
people under a neoliberal military-intelligence alliance, the state
had decided to crush any expression of grievance with sheer inhuman
violence. Some released detainees had harrowing tales of torture to
tell. Even those who protested for the sake of their missing ones were
humiliated and intimidated – recall the picture of the 17-year
old son of a detainee whose shalwar was lowered by the police during
a public protest in January this year, before being arrested.
One becomes conditioned to
overlook the entire picture when reading about such atrocities on an
everyday basis. And so I read about all this with a sense of real but
remote "oh, it's just so sad" concern. Over the course of
this year, however, I became more interested in the issue of missing
people. This, unfortunately, was not due to any change in my own conscience,
but because the issue itself had become more visible – thanks
to the legal petitions that the tormented families as well as the HRCP
had filed. And the judiciary was responding.
Our state institutions have
become so inept, exploitative, and unjust that when an institution finally
does its job, we think it has become too "independent" and
"active." We conveniently forget that defending the constitution
and fundamental rights is the core purpose of the judiciary around the
world. And we fail to even acknowledge – let alone celebrate –
the courage with which the expelled judges were withstanding the coercive
pressures and bribes from various corners, in order to question long-standing
injustices such as political persecution, shady privatizations, and
illegal building practices. Which state institution has had the courage
to tackle these issues? Most importantly, the judiciary was questioning
the unconstitutional and outrageously criminal activities of our intelligence
agencies, of which the plight of missing people is but one manifestation.
I will say it clearly: the
renewed democratic spirit of the judiciary had been a source of relief
for me. I, as a human being and as a citizen, did not have the time,
interest, and decency to actually stand up for the sake of social and
economic justice. But it was heartening to see that at least one state
institution was working towards progressive change in this country.
As the law of indifference goes, though, I only observed this process
from a distance. And again, from a distance, I witnessed the lawyers'
struggle to contest the high-handed manner in which the Chief Justice
was removed. I, surely, did not have the time or the courage. Plus,
with all the pomp of the Chief Justice's rallies, it was convenient
not to take a stance. Indeed, why ever take a stance? It is so much
easier to sit back, criticize, and be cynical. And to ease your conscience,
tell yourself that your business is helping the poor, or that you do
not-so-political charity work.
But now, with the emergency
– with the wholesale slaughter of the judicial process and the
violent suppression of civil society – I think it is simply imperative
for me to take a stance. An informed stance.
Yes, of course, like all
state institutions, the legal institutions are also ridden with misconduct
and corruption. At many critical junctures, the judiciary itself has
contributed to the undermining of the Constitution. But in recent years,
it is only the judiciary that has had the courage to show that it has
at least some sense of social and political responsibility. If it was
so corrupt and power-hungry, why would it take up cases that challenge
the elite and military-dominated status quo in the country? Following
its own history, it would succumb to bribes and threats, and play along.
But it didn't. And the missing people's case is the prime testimony
to this courage.
The missing people's case
also underlines something that is often ignored in analyses of the emergency:
the suppression of activists, journalists, students, and academics is
not something new and sudden. Yes, the scale is large, and for the first
time, elite human rights activists and professors have also been arrested.
But we must not forget that this has been a long-term trend, and that
a systematic campaign to capture critics has been an appalling state
policy for at least four years now. Newsline, Herald, HRCP, national
newspapers as well as international media have repeatedly covered the
brutalities of this policy. While media channels may have exploded in
Pakistan, let's not forget that the South Asian Free Media Association
named Pakistan the worst country in terms of the harassment of journalists
in 2006. Hence, the current suppression of the media is also a stark
manifestation of a continuing tendency.
Why are we so keen to assert
that the media and judiciary have overstepped their bounds, but not
recognize the extremism and interventionism of the military and the
intelligence agencies? I will readily acknowledge that the media and
judiciary have severe failings that need to be addressed. But how can
we ignore that there is a fundamental asymmetry of power between a military-intelligence
establishment on one hand and the media or the judiciary on the other?
The Supreme Court and media can be massively irresponsible and corrupt,
but they will never have the capacity to amass wealth and power, and
terrorize citizens like the military-intelligence alliance that currently
rules the country. Who will hold the latter accountable?
The military has become the
biggest corporate entity and interest group in the country, and inserted
itself in literally every economic, social and political institution
including textbook boards, universities and highway authorities. All
this has not been achieved "cleanly," but involved massive
corruption, intimidation, and back-door deals. It is different from
regular "fill up the bank account" looting since it involves
the setting up and expansion of a huge empire that grabs land, monopolizes
markets, and dominates political and social institutions. This extent
of political and economic dominance will live on regardless of the fate
of today's dictatorship. Amongst other devastating consequences, it
has also severely affected the professionalism of the army – as
argued by several analysts and retired military officers.
Repeated military rule in
our country has not only stifled the process of democratization but
also helped to promote religious extremism. Yes, Musharraf is no Zia,
and as a person, may indeed be a secular guy believing in "enlightened
moderation". But this is no justification for overlooking the critical
role that both the military and intelligence agencies have played in
creating and supporting Islamist militancy. Have we forgotten that it
was in Musharraf's regime that a religious alliance was brought into
power for the first time in Pakistan's history – and allowed to
form a government in NWFP – while all secular-nationalist parties
had been suppressed and even banned from rallying? And this was not
a coincidence. The military-mullah alliance is not a myth – it
is a long-standing relationship that became particularly strengthened
in the Afghan War (1978-1989) when the ISI, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.
government directly trained and equipped thousands of Pakistanis (not
just Afghanis) to become militant jihadis. The Pajero-driven, gun-toting
mullah emerged during this period, and has continued to be patronized
by agencies to fight our dirty wars in Afghanistan, Kashmir, as well
as within Pakistan.
Since 2002, the formal establishment
of a religious alliance in NWFP has paved the way for legitimizing a
conservative and repressive Islam. NWFP may not have had a very liberal
society, but the intimidation of barbers, tailors, X-ray assistants,
CD sellers, female health workers, NGO activists, and administrators
of girls' schools is a recent phenomenon that is directly linked to
the support of religious elements by our military-intelligence establishment.
JUI was never even on the political map till it got political legitimacy
by the army. And it is the ISI's support of the Taliban and religious
parties that has emboldened the likes of Sufi Muhammad and Fazlullah.
We must ask: why is it that reporters associated with KTN, Sindh TV,
and Intikhab have been abducted and tortured, while Fazlullah's FM radio
was allowed to operate freely?
The biggest travesty is that
Musharraf is using the self-perpetuated threat of religious militancy
to justify his rule, claiming that he will be the force of stability.
This is simply a contradiction in terms. Musharraf's rule has made us
second only to Iraq in terms of bombing operations and suicide attacks;
hence, he is not even able to hold his ground in his own terrain which
is national security and defence. What more has to happen for us to
recognize that Pakistan has been destabilized for a long time now, and
that the unquestioned and unaccounted practices of the military and
intelligence are hugely responsible? Some people say: ok, so the army
and agencies created the Pakistani Taliban, and now that the fundamentalists
are on the offensive, only the army can reign them in. Such an approach
is even more misguided, as it will only worsen the oppressions of military
rule. Further, years and years of breeding religious militancy and encouraging
Islamist politics will not go away with bombing Waziristan and Swat.
We need a long-term strategy involving rehabilitation, economic incentives,
and political negotiation. Just like we are still struggling with Zia's
Islamization, we will be fighting Musharraf's Islamization for a long
time to come.
Because of the repressive
tactics that the army routinely employs, military extremism and absolutism
has remained publicly invisible to a large extent. Does this mean we
ignore it? Supporters of Musharraf's regime argue that he gave us economic
growth. Does this justify the militarization of state, economy, and
society? Does this validate systematic oppression and violence? I couldn't
bear the television coverage of the Lal Masjid episode, does this make
the silencing of critique under PEMRA acceptable? I have personally
experienced the gender biases and callousness of our courts, does this
mean that the entire Supreme Court should be disposed off?
This is the time to make
distinctions. We need to recognize that the current struggle is about
protecting the Constitution, and about resisting the wholesale annihilation
of the rule of law. It is not a personality contest between Musharraf,
Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Protestors are not impulsive fools
who love Benazir or Nawaz Sharif – they are as disillusioned with
"democratic" regimes as anyone else. Does this mean that we
should now give up all hope and respect for political process? Do we
simply accept the kingdom of a military dictator? We want a ready-made,
perfect leader to lead us, but are unwilling to allow her or him to
emerge because we keep accepting rampant abuses of the political process.
The lesser-of-the-two evils argument just does not work: a military
dictator is not accountable to anyone, will entrench the interests of
the army, and will eventually show his true colors. And political history
around the world has shown that a military dictator claiming to bring
in "democracy" is a contradiction in terms. A political party
still needs to get re-elected, and a rule that says no leader can be
Prime Minister twice will ensure that new leaders will come up. The
political spectrum is not even as limited as we think it is. There are
several regional parties, the Labor Party, and the Tehrik-e-Istaqlal
which can promise to play a strong role in the future. But parties like
the JUI and PML (Q) will only strengthen the forces of religious and
Let's assume that all parties
are corrupt. Let's think about how India had an emergency under Congress
in the 70s, and a systematic genocide against Muslims under BJP. Let's
remember how the U.S. under Bush is continuing to devastate Afghanistan
and Iraq. Does this mean that the militaries in the two countries should
take over for the sake of "stability?" Democracies do not
work perfectly anywhere, yet they are the most common form of governance
because they come the closest to ensuring both accountability and stability.
Ultimately, democracy is
not about procedural elections, but about the substantive principles
of liberation, egalitarianism, and justice. The democracies of the world
have gotten to where they are because of citizens' engagement. Self-determination
and democracy was not given on a platter by monarchs and colonizers
– every victory was a result of protests, struggles, and social
movements. Let's not simplistically equate any political party's reinstatement
with a "transition to democracy." In our country, the transition
was already happening thanks to the renewed strength of our Supreme
Court. It is the continuing struggle to resist the emergency, restore
the Constitution, and reinstate the Supreme Court that is the actual
stuff of democracy – it's democracy in the making –and we
need to support it in every way that we can. And if and when we succeed,
the struggle by no means is over. Military dominance, political corruption,
religious extremism, media sensationalism, and judicial negligence will
not magically disappear. We, as citizens, need to constantly play our
part in reforming the status quo and striving towards a better future
for our country. That is everyone's responsibility, not just of judges,
military officials and politicians.
As elites, consumed by our
work and social lives, we have been too depoliticized and disconnected
to care. We don't even follow the news regularly, and may not know how
the judiciary was upholding several causes of social and economic justice.
There have been hundreds of petitions of aggrieved citizens who requested
the Supreme Court to hear their voices, or take suo moto action, because
they had no other recourse. And the judiciary was listening. It might
have been corrupt, brash and naïve, but it showed concern. And
unlike the shameless legislature, executive, and most of the citizenry,
the lawyers and judges who have been hounded for months are still bravely
refusing to accept an elitist and military-dominated status quo. What
power are they getting by risking their lives and the security of their
families? Why, for once, can we not think about their struggle with
the seriousness that it demands?
It's all too easy to disparage
protesting students as well by saying that they are immature, trying
to act cool and pseudo-revolutionary, or just joining the bandwagon.
Why are we so bent on dismissing them instead of giving them credit?
If students are protesting at an unprecedented scale, surely there must
be something about the situation that is sparking this agitation? They
are not protesting for party politics, nor simply because their own
professors have been arrested. They are genuinely frustrated, and refuse
to watch tyranny take root. Life and politics is messy and confusing,
so they obviously do not have all the answers and are also uncertain
about what the future will bring. Yet, despite tremendous fears in these
times of repression, they have the integrity and courage to take a stance.
And like them, we all must
take a stance. This is not the time to dilly-dally and say: "I
don't support the emergency but the protests are not worthy enough a
cause" and "I think the repression is inhuman but we have
to see what choices we have as a nation." As Howard Zinn said in
the People's History of the United States, it's where you put the "but"
that makes unjust use of power and violence possible. One can instead
say, "Musharraf did many good things for the country but a violently
enforced military-mullah-intelligence alliance with no respect for rule
of law and civil liberties is simply unacceptable."
One can criticize any stance.
It is always convenient to sit back, observe, and be critical and cynical
as if that makes us all intellectual. This is the surest way to escape
ever standing up for anything, and masking one's own ignorance, and
unwillingness to engage. But silence is a form of political action,
and it has strong consequences especially in these severe times. By
not standing up and vocalizing our discontent with this kind of draconian
action, we are implicitly telling the regime (and all subsequent regimes)
that it is ok for them to do whatever they please, and we will sit idle
like innocent bystanders. Our fatalistic ("whatever will be will
be"), over-critical ("I don't agree with anything"),
and cynical ("this is such a crazy farce") postures are not
only unfair to those who are willing to struggle and sacrifice, but
they in effect help to sustain the status quo.
If we are scared of instability
due to protests, and Musharraf's departure, we must ask ourselves: what
is our definition of stability? Is rising military and religious extremism
not enough? Is the decimation of the highest judicial institution not
enough? Are over 5,000 indiscriminate and unlawful arrests not enough?
What about the anti-terrorism and sedition cases against innocent people?
Are the laws for court-marshalling citizens also acceptable, so the
army-intelligence regime can simply press "delete" on citizens
like it did on the Supreme Court? Is the "Musharraf is necessary"
theory so unfalsifiable that no amount of violence and human rights
abuse will move us into action? Do we believe in any values, and have
we ever stood up for anything? Does it really have to be the intimidation
or arrest of a loved one that shakes us out of our apathy?
If we don't have the courage
to protest ourselves, we should at least not trivialize and ridicule
the efforts of those who do. Better still, we should express our solidarity,
lend support, and actively shape this defining historic moment. We always
have a choice.
Mahnoor Khan is a Karachi-based educationist. She can
be contacted at email@example.com
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