Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Are we heading towards another Martial Law?

Dr. Umar Khan
Dr. Khan heads a Lahore based Think Tank. 27-08-07

Are we heading towards another Martial Law?

The young and inexperienced Indian PM Indira Gandhi summoned the army chief and asked him if he was imposing martial law. In 1967 most of the third world was under military rule and India with its poverty, diversity and illiteracy was considered a prime candidate. Indian newspapers of that time were full of rumors about the inevitable military takeover by Gen (later Field Marshal) Manak Shah who was being questioned. Manak Shah refuted the rumors and when confronted with the intense question of why not? He cited his oath and duty as the reason for not imposing martial law. Indira intervened and corrected him; telling him that he was not doing it because he was unable to impose martial law. She added that the Indian civil society would not allow him to do so neither would the army support him in breaking of the constitution. She was right and despite all the rumors against all odds India, the poor third world country never experienced a martial law.

These are the callous dynamics of power universally applicable. Self imposed restrictions or character has no part to play here and it is only the ability that finally determines the out come. There is a near consensus among political scientists that armies do not take over due to corruption or any other reason but simply because they can and wish. The argument that certain politicians invite the military is as naiveté as no COAS is obedient to politicians. Then the Generals always yield to the demand of martial law but resist the demands to return. Indira understood the power dynamics and because of these could rule India for a long time keeping it intact. The best way to keep armies out is by not giving them opportunities.

We in Pakistan never had an active and responsive civil society. Most of the areas comprising the modern Pakistan had a culture and reputation of conformity surviving upheavals with minimum resistance. No wonder the society did not resist the civil bureaucratic autocrats neither the military rulers. This compliance was so deeply rooted in our society that it tempted even the popularly elected politicians to start behaving like autocrats amassing all powers in their hands. These peculiar characteristics made our part of the world prone to military takeovers and we had plenty of them taking over at different pretexts. The power game in Pakistan was so massively tilted in generals’ favor that Gen Janjua, one of our Chiefs openly declared that any Pakistani COS can oust the elected PM and government at will. He elaborated that this can be done after giving an years advance notice too. Unfortunately Gen Janjua, a very honest and professional officer was right. While this speaks loud about the power of our military and the weakness and helplessness of our polity it exposes the apathy and pliability of the civil society too.

Now Gen. Musharraf, the 4th military ruler of Pakistan for the last 8 years is cornered and is running out of options. He is desperate to get reelected in uniform with the same assemblies but he is unable to find reasonable legal justifications for this. Law and constitution were never much of a problem for military rulers who could easily bulldoze them but the times have changed. With the current setup his disqualification appears to be inevitable with or without uniform. After all hardly any court in the world can allow exceptions our generals consider their birth right.

In addition to the judiciary the civil society as a whole is mobilized and appears to be in no mood of any further compromises about the constitution. To make matters worse he is going through a period in which his popularity graph is at its lowest. Despite being a general he enjoyed decent popularity basically due to the disenchantment of the society by the politicians and its special relation with the military. He had easy seven years but now the honeymoon seems to be over. Even if the courts allow him to contest, the civil society with a strong support of the media is expected to oppose to the utmost. This is an alien situation for a general not used to getting tied down by law or public opinion and must be causing discomfort and frustration in the presidential camp. Unfortunately this unpopularity extends to his home turf military also. After eight years of rule his ability to declare martial law is highly questionable.

Another factor to be considered is the crowd of beneficiaries associated with the current regime. They owe their privileges to the uniformed president and would go to extremes trying to protect them. These military backed politicians can over asses the political powers of the military. This simplistic understanding makes them more prone to advise use of military force for their political objectives, which can be very tempting in these difficult times. Musharraf appears to be contemplating heeding to the advice of using force, which can be proclamation of emergency or martial law.

Present governments open and covert supporters are regularly scaring every one of the tough measures Musharraf can take specially packing of the system with martial law. Some influential opinion makers are also contributing trying to convince the people of the futility of resisting the government advocating compliance with elegant arguments ultimately based on fears. Despite repeated efforts threats of using force are not working. The civil society is united and is expected to resist any attempts of extra judicial measures.

Our painfully long experience with martial laws tells us that they never come after warnings. Whenever a general could declare martial law he did, when he could not he used threats. These might be a means of scaring to get compliance of the nation for unpopular actions. Even if martial law or emergency is highly unlikely this certainly does not mean that a general cannot try. A desperate, cornered general can certainly try imposing martial law harming everyone in the process. The new civil society cannot afford to be complacent taking things for granted, not even the newfound independence of the media and the judiciary. It must stay vigilant to protect its rights as now it has much to lose.

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