Saturday December 09, 2023

News Analysis: Walking the talk

General Bajwa’s last speech has been termed by many as historic as he publicly admitted to the army’s political role in the last 70 years

November 26, 2022

General Qamar Javed Bajwa addressing as the army chief during the Defence and Martyrs Day ceremony at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on November 23, 2022. Screengrab of a Twitter video
General Qamar Javed Bajwa addressing as the army chief during the Defence and Martyrs' Day ceremony at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on November 23, 2022. Screengrab of a Twitter video

KARACHI: General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s speech on Wednesday has been termed by many as historic as he publicly admitted to the army’s political role in the last 70 years. Pakistan has faced three direct military interventions at regular intervals besides continuous indirect interference in politics and other affairs of the country, which clearly doesn’t fall within the military’s domain as per the Constitution.

General Bajwa had no qualms in admitting that such interference fell outside the ambit of the military’s responsibilities, terming it not just a major mistake of the army but calling it unconstitutional as well. He affirmed however that his institution had now decided to stay out of politics.

Some even termed this as a Gorbachev moment: an army chief accepting responsibility for the major mess created in the last several decades and promising that the institution would not do so in the future. General Bajwa was also critical of the recent ‘slander’ by some political leaders, accusing them of crafting a ‘fake’ narrative against the military.

There is no doubt that the army cannot be held solely responsible for the mistakes of the past; political parties must also accept their fair share of the blame. But since the army has ruled and dominated a major part of our chequered history, it has to take the lion’s share of the blame for shredding the nation’s social, political and economic fabric. The question is whether the promise held out by the outgoing chief heralds a genuine effort to bring the whole truth forward, completely changing the vision and correcting course to the needed extent and going for genuine reform and reconciliation, or will it be little more than lip service and mere patchwork?

Gen Bajwa lamented that in India the army is not criticized despite the atrocities and human rights violations in Held Kashmir, while the Pakistan military faces criticism despite the much good that it does; on reflection, he himself concluded that this is mainly due to the military’s involvement in political affairs.

If truth be told, the military’s larger than life footprints fall not just on politics. The Pakistan military’s involvement straddles almost every sphere of society, making it even more vulnerable to criticism. Arguably, the most prominent intrusion of the military is its desire to control the national narrative and the political and social discourse of the country.

In most countries, including India - barring the few years of Modi’s rule -- one can find diversity of views, open debate on national issues, encouraging these countries’ intelligentsia to give free and fair opinion to form national policies. In Pakistan, however, the continuous persecution of independent minded intellectuals has curtailed the space available for open debate on crucial national issues. A regimented, straightjacket approach forwarded -- rather, enforced -- by the military has had a negative impact on the country as well as the enforcers. Not only did Pakistan see major policy flaws at the diplomatic and economic fronts, what was ostensibly done in the name of national security also had major shortcomings and a huge negative impact on the country. All these policies and decisions, even if slightly flawed, might have fared better and received less criticism had there been ownership by the country’s political leadership, thus seen as representing the will of the people. The absence of political backing further isolated the armed forces from the people and their aspirations. And hence the greater criticism.

General Bajwa rightly pointed out that the PDM and its allies termed the PTI as a ‘selected government’ after the 2018 elections. Imran Khan in turn has accused the current government of being ‘imported’ and installed through a US-led conspiracy. The outgoing chief asked the political parties to shun these petty differences and work for Pakistan. But he cannot completely absolve himself from the aftermath of what happened in 2018 and even early this year.

A genuine course correction is only possible if one acknowledges the wrongdoings of the past. The last decade, especially the last five years, have seen the worst type of persecution of independent voices. Political parties’ allegations of rigging aside, the way the media was coerced and persecuted before and during the 2018 elections is evidence enough of the blatant involvement of the establishment in the manipulation of the electoral process.

It got even worse after the elections, as the so-called hybrid model that the establishment designed was failing miserably. The idea of controlling things from behind has never worked. So the main emphasis was not on deliverance but on managing perception.

While huge favours were given to some to toe the line and become part of the massive propaganda campaign, independent voices were crushed -- sometimes by invoking the age-old slogan of the ‘national interest’, and at times on the plea of ‘countering’ 4th and 5th generation warfare. Being ‘neutral’ also means correcting the wrongs of the past, including withdrawing those undue favours and at the same time ending all restrictions put in place to control the media.

Love and respect don’t come through coercion and persecution. They are earned by acknowledging and respecting a plurality of views. Encouraging diverse – even disagreeable -- views in a society develops the respect that is now so desired. If all pillars of the state work within the ambit of the Constitution, Pakistan may yet get out of the quagmire it is in right now.

One can only hope that the views expressed by General Bajwa are not just the parting acknowledgement of an outgoing chief leaving behind a controversial legacy, but reflect the wiser and deeper thinking of the institution which the incoming command is charged to roll out. The challenge then is not in General Bajwa talking the talk, but in General Asim Munir walking the talk.

The writer is the managing director of Geo News.