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Army is the master in Pakistan, not civilian government

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Pakistan once again witnesses the army’s overlordship over the civilian government

The agreement under which three extremist Islamist organizations lifted on Monday their three-week blockade of the Faizabad flyover linking Rawalpindi and Islamabad, has important implications for Pakistan as well as several other countries, particularly India. It underlined two important things. First, the Army continues to call the shots in the country and the civilian government exists at its mercy. Second, the Islamist organisations-Tehrik-i-Labaik Ya Rasool (TLY), Sunni Tehrik Pakistan and Tehrik-e-Khatme-Nabuwwat-which have so far not had succeeded in making a significant breakthrough electorally, can bring the elected civilian Government to its knees-of course, with the army obligingly not acting against them.

The civilian government, acting under an Islamabad High Court order calling for the eviction of the protestors, had deployed the police, the Punjab Constabulary and the Frontier Constabulary, to disperse the squatters. They tried but failed, despite clashes in which seven persons had reportedly died and nearly 200 injured. The civilian government then asked the army to scatter the demonstrators. It refused and called upon the government to negotiate with the latter.

The Pakistan Army mediated the negotiations. The main demand of the three extremist organisations was the removal of the law minister, Zahid Hamid. They also demanded the nullification of a provision of the Election Act, 2017, changing — from “I swear” to “I declare” — the wording of the expression of absolute and unqualified faith in Mohammad being the final and last prophet, and another which, they felt, diluted the anti-Ahmadiyya provision of the People’s Representation Act that the present law  had replaced.

Significantly, the three organisations began their blockade despite the Government having attributed the changes to a “clerical error” and repealed them. The remaining demand was the resignation of the law minister. Their objective clearly was not only to secure his resignation but to show that they were above the Government and could bend it to their will. They succeeded in this to the extent that the agreement arrived at conceded most of their demands including the removal of the law minister, Zahid Hamid, who resigned on the night of Sunday, November 26, saying that he did so “to take the country out of a crisis-like situation.”

The main gainer was, of course, the army and its chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was clearly seen to have been the final arbiter. The agreement ending the stand-off showered lavish praise on him and ended by thanking him for having “saved the nation from a big catastrophe.”

This, of course, makes no difference to the basic fact that, in the ultimate analysis, the army is the master in Pakistan. If there is any additional warrant for concern, it is over the fact that the post-Musharraf phase of democracy, that began in 2008 amid expectations of things being henceforth different, seems set to go the way of all its predecessors. It is one reason for the expression of outrage in the media and civil society over the army’s action. The other is the boost that the incident is bound to give to the prestige of the three extremist organisations which can now project themselves as being more powerful than the elected government which, in turn, is likely to increase their prestige and attract more people to their respective folds. In the long run, this is bound to have an impact on Pakistan’s electoral politics, which the TLY has entered, albeit without setting things on fire, but where its salience will grow particularly if it continues to have the army’s support.

This raises the question of the extent to which the nexus between Pakistan’s army and extremist Islamist organisations has grown. The army, particularly the Directorate-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has always used these and the terrorist bands like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Afghan Taliban, and, earlier, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, for staging cross-border terror attacks in India and Afghanistan. With an increase in the rate of the accretion of these organisations’ respective strengths, the Pakistani army will now be in a position to increase the frequency and magnitude of such strikes. On the other hand, with a very significant increase in their following, these organisations may be tempted to establish their sway over the country through violent direct action and, thereafter, bring the army under control with the help of their armed cadres. A Pandora’s box has been opened with what results one does not know.

By Hiranmay Karlekar

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

Courtesy: Daily Pioneer