For the first time in the history of Pakistan, the military establishment is finding it very tough to keep its hegemony over state affairs intact. On Tuesday a special court comprising a three-member bench held former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf guilty of treason according to Article 6 of the Constitution of Pakistan and sentenced him to death. This decision came just a day after the Supreme Court (SC) issued its detailed verdict on the extension of the tenure of General Qamar Javed Bajwa as Chief of Army Staff (COAS).
The treason case against Musharraf was filed in December 2013 by Nawaz Sharif after coming to power as prime minister for the third time. This is the very first time that a military general in Pakistan has been convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, the COAS extension case has sparked another debate. The SC in its detailed judgment has thrown the ball into the court of parliament, decreeing that elected representatives must decide on the extension of the tenure of the current and future army chiefs. The SC in its verdict has written that there are no rules in the constitution as far as generals’ retirement age and extensions of tenure are concerned.
Meanwhile, the decision to sentence Musharraf to death has finally opened a fresh chapter in Pakistani politics. In a country like Pakistan where political proceedings are controlled by the mighty military establishment and even powerful elected prime ministers are swiftly ousted, the courts all of a sudden giving verdict after verdict against past and future military leads hints at a deepening divide within the ranks of the establishment.
This all started with Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman when he allegedly was given the nod by a few bigwigs in the establishment to stage a protest against the current government at the same time that General Bajwa’s service tenure was ending and he needed an extension. From Fazal’s long march to the courts raising objections on the COAS extension to the verdict against Musharraf, it seems that the establishment is not only divided but is also on the receiving end of harsh judicial rulings.
A high-level meeting after the court verdict against Musharraf was held in the military’s General Headquarters (GHQ), and a press release was issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations Department (ISPR) stating, “The decision given by the special court about General Pervez Musharraf has been received with a lot of pain and anguish by the ranks and files of the armed forces.” The press release also claimed that due course was not followed and Musharraf was not given the fundamental right to defend his case.
This clearly shows the mindset of the establishment, which since the era of General Ayub Khan has ruled the country directly or indirectly. It wants to engineer the political discourse but neither does it accept criticism for its unconstitutional role of intervening in politics nor is it ready to acknowledge the crimes of former military dictators who imposed martial law in the country time and again by abrogating the constitution of the country.
Then there is another angle, that by criticizing the court verdict about Musharraf the establishment has become a party to the case. However, it never became a party openly in the court during the hearings on the case against Musharraf. So now by criticizing the decision, the establishment is only proving the critics right, that it has no respect for the law when it comes to holding its own generals accountable.
The responsibility for the East Pakistan debacle has still not being put on then-dictator General Yahya Khan, nor has Ayub Khan ever been given a symbolic punishment by the courts for laying down the foundation of a corrupt political system after imposing martial law in 1958. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq too was not held accountable for abrogating the constitution and throwing the country into the never-ending agony of extremism and jihadism. The judicial commission report on the Abbottabad operation where the terrorist Osama bin Laden was found and shot dead by US troops still has not been made public, while no one has been held accountable for the security lapses that resulted in the Army Public School massacre and the attack on GHQ by jihadist outfits.
There is a long list of crimes by generals who always remained above the law while elected prime ministers like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were convicted on very weak charges. Bhutto was hanged and Sharif was ousted first and then sent to prison through a verdict that lost its credibility after the judge who convicted him confessed in a leaked video that he had been pressured by the invisible forces to convict Sharif at any cost.
The question arises, then, as to how Musharraf’s conviction can be termed unfair when despite being asked to face the court in person he chose to remain an absconder and was represented by his team of lawyers. This also reveals another point, that only elected leaders like Bhutto, Sharif, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Asif Zardari, and Rana Sanaullah have the courage to face trial instead of fleeing the country, while dictators like Musharraf don’t have the courage to face the courts.
The reaction of the establishment to the court’s decision also raises the question of whether the constitution of Pakistan has supremacy over any individual. If the armed forces consider the indictment of Musharraf a disgrace to the entire institution of the Army , then why should parliament not consider the conviction of elected leaders a disgrace for the entire parliament and start criticizing the judiciary?
The Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, of course, is a product of the engineered political discourse, so it will back the establishment in both cases. However, the other main political parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) should not only oppose any legislation in parliament to extend the tenure of the army chief, but they should also tell their vote bank about the positive impact of the conviction of Musharraf on democratic supremacy.
The establishment is under immense pressure and gradually it is suffering major setbacks. First, a defiant Sharif put it on the back foot, and now higher-court decisions have finally put establishment hegemony at stake. Even if Bajwa survives and gets his extension from parliament, and even if Musharraf gets relief if he files an appeal against this decision, the writing is clearly on the wall that there is no more smooth sailing for the establishment. Once perceived as an invincible force, it is losing its reputation of controlling everything.
The verdicts on Bajwa’s extension case and Musharraf’s death penalty on treason charges have surely ended the direct involvement of the military establishment in the political discourse of the country. This invisible rule needs to be brought to an end now by the political parties by refusing to become pawns of the establishment on the power chessboard.
If the establishment can return to its constitutional role of only protecting the geographical borders of the country, there is still hope that Pakistan can emerge as a strong democratic country with progressive narratives instead of defense-oriented narratives. The question is, will the establishment retreat on its own or will it wait to be ousted from the power chessboard by the other players with the backing of the masses?