Human face painted with flag of Pakistan. Photo: iStock

The director-general of the ISPR‘s latest presser can be taken as a warning to critics and dissident voices who are not ready to accept the hegemony of the military establishment in state affairs.

Asif Ghafoor showed pictures of journalists and social media activists that he characterized as anti-state. He also said the army is closely monitoring its critics and that no criticism of the state will be tolerated. This raises a serious question: When did the institution of the army become the state? The army is part of the state and criticising its unconstitutional influence on politics, its shaping of foreign policy and its control of state affairs from behind the curtains can never be legitimately called anti-state or treasonous in nature.

Ghafoor conveyed the message that journalists and activists who use social media as a tool will also not be spared, which clearly shows that the military establishment is not ready to accept that more and more people are dissenting and objecting to its role as a deep-state actor.

As per the Constitution of Pakistan Article 245, the armed forces are supposed to work under the direction of the civilian government and are bound by oath to stay out of politics. However, we have seen over the past 70 years that the military establishment has not only intervened in politics but actually controls the state from behind the curtains.

From imposing martial law to engineering elections and manipulating puppet politicians to shape national and foreign political narratives, the military establishment has been a dominant force in the country’s affairs

From imposing martial law to engineering elections and manipulating puppet politicians to shape national and foreign political narratives, the military establishment has been a dominant force in the country’s affairs.

Ghafoor also said at the presser that the military never forgives anyone found guilty, be it a soldier or a general. If this statement is correct, why were Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and General Zia ul Haq not put on trial for abrogating the constitution and imposing martial law? Far from being chastised, they were granted full state funerals and buried under the national flag.

Pervez Musharaf, who dragged Pakistan into the Kargil War and then into a US-sponsored “war on terror,” was also guilty of imposing martial law, but was released by the military establishment after it pressured the elected government of Nawaz Sharif at the behest of the puppet politician Imran Khan. The list of the military’s misdeeds is long; many generals accused of corruption are living abroad and no one is trying to bring them to justice.

When Ghafoor mischaracterized the journalists and activists at the presser, he put their lives at risk, as there was a very real possibility that fanatical people could be inspired to declare them traitors and kill them. Ghafoor’s “hit list” puts all journalists, including this author, in serious danger. Only one day after the presser, the famous analyst and columnist Gul Bukhari was kidnapped on the way to her office but was returned after a few hours.

The presser can be termed as a direct threat to dissenting journalists and activists. The message is that they are being watched and that crossing the red line drawn by the military could have dire consequences.  This raises another question:  Why is the military establishment curbing freedom of expression on the pretext of serving the vested national interest? The term “vested national interest,” which has been in use since the creation of Pakistan, has been wheeled out whenever martial law has been imposed, or to justify sponsoring Afghan jihad, or to wage America’s “war on terror.” So one has to wonder what Pakistan’s national interest really is, as it keeps changing all the time, and why only the establishment can define it. Is not the right of parliament to decide what the national interest is? The other worrisome thing is the inability of the establishment to understand the realities on the ground.

Pakistan has been evolving; gone are the days when the national songs and sentimental clips of wars were enough to convince the masses to obey the establishment in the name of patriotism. In the age of information, in which access to knowledge is widespread, the military’s  “holy cow” status can no longer be maintained merely through sloganeering. If an institution intervenes in politics, shapes the narratives of the state and influences government policy, it cannot expect to remain above criticism. It needs to understand the difference between a state and a state institution. Criticising an institution for its unconstitutional role in political engineering, or in shaping false narratives, is by no means treason and by no means is it a criticism of the state itself. The state of Pakistan is its millions of citizens, not its institutions. Those citizens do not need a certificate of patriotism from the military establishment to prove their love for the motherland.

It is this mindset that is the problem and the establishment seems unwilling to change it. A successful state is run on trust and love, not on fear. We saw the consequences of suppressing dissenting voices when East Pakistan was lost. Bangalis were accused of being traitors and unpatriotic and were consequently separated from us with the help of Indian troops. This should be enough to teach us that it is only the constitution and democracy (government of the people) that can guarantee the peaceful coexistence of different mindsets in a state, and prevent it from collapsing.

Instead of threatening or silencing journalists and activists, the media wing of the military establishment should start a conversation with them. Instead of only inviting the pro-establishment journalists and intellectuals, it should embrace its critics and listen to them. This kind of dialogue will not only eliminate misunderstandings but also give the military establishment some valuable critical insights into their policies.

There is currently an atmosphere of fear in Pakistan, an undeclared state of martial law in which the mainstream media has been silenced so effectively that the role of social media is greatly expanding. The war on dissent will only worsen the situation, further damaging the already rotten establishment narrative. One can only hope that sanity will prevail and that the campaign against perceived traitors will end. No institution has the right to declare anyone a traitor or anti-state without proving it in a court of law, nor does any single institution have a right to act like a state and assert control over the country’s affairs.

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Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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