Pakistan’s constitutional democracy and the Pakistan Army

April 6, 2010

zulfikar“The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.” – Field Marshall Sir Philip Chetwode at the inauguration of the Indian Military Academy in 1932

For the first time in the history of Pakistan a civilian government is pushing a comprehensive constitutional reform package through parliament to undo provisions introduced by dictators to tighten their grip on power.  President Asif Ali Zardari urged parliament this week to approve constitutional amendments which will turn him into a titular head of state – and, crucially, remove his right to sack prime ministers which had been used by previous military dictators.

The move is potentially good news for Pakistan, restoring a system of parliamentary democracy that was overturned by the late military ruler President Zia ul-Haq. The amendments also include a change of name for the North West Frontier Province to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, meant to recognise the aspirations of the Pashtun people who live there to have their ethnic identities acknowledged in the same way as those in Punjab, Sind and Baluchistan.

 Juan Cole at Informed Comment describes the constitutional reform package as “an enormous advance toward democratization in the country”.

“During the past 3 years, the Pakistani public has demonstrated repeatedly and on a large scale in favor of the rule of law and the reinstatement of the Supreme Court justices dismissed by dictator Gen. (Pervez) Musharraf,” he writes. ”Mind you, they are making a case for civil law and the civil supreme court, not for sharia or Islamic law. They voted in the center-left Pakistan People’s Party in February 2008, and the return to parliamentary rule ultimately, in August 2008, allowed the political parties to unite to toss out of office Gen. Musharraf, who had had himself declared a civilian ‘president’ and was in danger of being impeached for alleged corruption.”

“That is, the Pakistani public has conducted a ‘color revolution’ of its own, in the teeth of opposition or skittishness in Washington, and managed to overturn a military dictatorship that had been backed to the hilt by Bush-Cheney, restoring parliamentary governance,” he says.

The problem, however, is that this great surge in democracy has been accompanied by the growing role of the Pakistan Army, whose chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, was feted in Washington last month as the real wielder of power in Pakistan.

While no one is talking of a military coup, nor does anyone seriously believe that the civilian government has any real control over foreign and security policy, which has long been set by the army.  And this does not just affect Pakistan’s external relations. It has an impact on how it deals with militant groups based in Pakistan who some argue are radicalising the youth and turning society more conservative.  It may even have an impact on how the different provinces of Pakistan relate to each other, given that the India-centric views of the army are traditionally associated with the Punjab, its traditional recruiting ground.

“The people of Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP fail to understand why the hate-and-get-India campaign should be central to our Afghan policy,” writes Raza Rumi on his website.  “Whatever happened to the declarations made by President Zardari in 2008 about a radical departure on our India policy? We have to be realistic and cognizant of the fact that there is no alternative for a country like Pakistan except to pursue peaceful coexistence with its neighbours and solve problems through means other than strategic machinations.”

B. Raman, formerly from Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), provides a detailed history of military interventions in Pakistan and concludes:

“All lovers of democracy should welcome the Constitutional Amendment despite its imperfections. It would definitely strengthen the chances of the revival of democracy in Pakistan provided the political parties and the Army play the game according to the new rules. Even if one assumes that the political leaders have learnt their lessons and will now play the game according to the amended Constitution, will the Army do so? The Army thinks that it knows better than the political class what is good for the country. For the last 60 years or so, the Army has convinced itself that it has a legitimate political role to play – direct or indirect – and is determined to play it should circumstances warrant it -Constitution or no Constitution.

“Look at Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the COAS (Chief of Army Staff). When he took over as the COAS, he said the Army’s place was in the barracks and withdrew all army officers exercising non-military functions. He has again come out of the barracks and has been playing an increasingly active and assertive role in decision-making – whether it be in respect of national security or foreign policy or relations with India. So long as the Army’s mindset that it is not only the defender of national security from external and internal threats, but also the guardian of the interests of the people persists, democracy in Pakistan will continue to be on the sufferance of the Army. The US cannot escape its share of the responsibility for the persistence of this mindset and for the repeated failures of democratic experiments in Pakistan. Kayani would not have acquired the kind of image that he has acquired without the blessings of the U.S.”

The Pakistan Army is very much the inheritor of the notion of a noble cause first inculcated by the British (for their own reasons) in their Indian recruits, and particularly among the officer class in the 20th century British empire. “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time,” in the words at the inauguration of the Indian Military Academy in 1932 which went on to train officers who would form the backbone of both the Indian and Pakistani armies after independence in 1947.

At its best, this notion created two armies whose officers led from the front and were ready to die to defend the two countries carved out of British India in 1947. At its worst, it created two armies which would go on to fight three full-scale wars and many smaller battles so that — in an expression I have heard often — “not one inch of land” would be ceded to the other side. And as far as the Pakistan Army was concerned, it left it convinced that it was the most reliable and sometimes only guardian of the best interests of the country.

In the case of  the Indian Army, the role of the military was contained within a fairly stable parliamentary democracy. In Pakistan, the military stepped in — or was dragged in – to  maintain stability.

And then you get this. Do watch, courtesy of All Things Pakistan this video of General Zia defending the death sentence on the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

(File photo of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto)





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