Generals in Pakistan have always been a pampered lot: holy cows sitting on high pedestals. The men in crisp khaki with red sash in their caps, and a surfeit of regalia — colourful medals not really earned on the battle-field covering their barrel chests, have belonged to a special breed of men: the untouchables of Pakistan who did no wrong and, because of it, were not accountable or answerable to any authority. They were the authority that radiated aura and inspired awe.
That’s until recently; until the long arm of law of the land seems to have caught up with them. The recent Supreme Court of Pakistan’s verdict naming a former chief of army staff and a former chief of the ISI of being guilty of abuse of their authority, has shaken the earth under the generals’ feet. The court judgment advises the government to proceed against the two guilty generals according to the law of the land and hold them accountable for their deeds in power.
The apex court’s ground-breaking verdict against General Aslam Baig — the man who succeeded General Zia-ul Haq as head of the army — and General Asad Durrani, head of ISI under Baig, puts paid to a painfully long tradition of Pakistan’s top judiciary whitewashing the abuses and misdeeds of bumbling and hectoring Bonapartes as a matter of routine.
Pakistan has witnessed at least four military takeovers of the country’s governance. However, on each occasion the highest judiciary of the land came to the rescue of the power-grabbing generals by justifying their loot under the law of necessity. No soldier of fortune was ever hauled up for breaching the ramparts of power for self-aggrandizement and naked power-lust.
The courts’ hand-in-glove involvement with military dictators was in marked contrast to what Pakistan’s vindictive feudal culture has meted out to its political leaders. Pakistan has the dubious distinction of having assassinated two of its prime ministers, and hanging another on trumped-up charges. Two PMs were exiled and one censured and removed from office by the Supreme Court.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan is witnessing the judiciary in a manner that was always expected of it: independent and judicious, and not beholden to any power-centre. The people of Pakistan waged a bitter struggle, five years ago, on behalf of the judiciary’s independence when Musharraf had brazenly attempted to silence the apex court and its chief justice with brute force. It seems that the people’s sacrifices have not been in vain.
In addition to the two big fish being put on the mat, three other generals are being investigated by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for massive embezzlement of funds and wholesale plunder of national assets.
The ring leader of this corrupt-cabal-of-three is General Javed Ashraf Qazi, who also happened to be a crony of Musharraf. In his capacity as minister of railways under Musharraf, Qazi destroyed the once highly-efficient and profitable public utility. A classic case of his corruption was when he bought dozens of locomotives from China of a gauge that was obviously unsuited to Pakistan’s railway tracks. An unrepentant Qazi didn’t stop there. He went on to parcel out more than 140 acres of valuable railways land, in the heart of Lahore, to cronies for a pittance of the land’s real value. The cronies lapped up that parcel of land to lay a dazzling new golf course and country club for the wealthy.
The apex court, taking suo motu notice of that massive bungling by Qazi and his gang of drooling men in uniform, set the ball rolling to unearth the billion dollar corruption saga of the Golden Palm Golf and Country Club now dominating the media air waves.
The Pakistan army is not just a fighting machine. It also mutates into a multi-interest commercial enterprise — a corporation of limited stakeholders — that has its fingers in many a commercial ventures. Its interests are vast and varied — from textile mills to breakfast cereals. It’s more than a commercial empire; more akin to a state-within-the-state.
That Pakistan’s rejuvenated and pro-active judiciary seems determined to challenge the military’s over-arching domination of Pakistan’s civil and political life looks highly probable from the Supreme Court’s intense probing of the military intelligence’s alleged involvement in the ‘disappearing’ of hundreds, if not thousands, of men from various parts of the country, more pointedly from Balochistan. That Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry himself hails from Balochistan isn’t lost on the military brass.
What seems to lend credence to many a political pundit’s prognosis that the judiciary has declared an open season on the harried generals is the recent decision by a session court in Islamabad proclaiming General Pervez Musharraf as an ‘absconder from justice’. Musharraf has been named as principal culprit for the murder of Akbar Bugti, head of the Bugti tribe of Balochistan, in 2005. Musharraf is also a prime suspect in the murder of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
The judiciary’s apparent resolve to call the erring generals to book is an extraordinary development, given the hectoring generals holy cow past in Pakistan. It ought to be deeply disconcerting to a military brass unaccustomed to being held accountable for its deeds. The media’s intrusive reporting of this sea-change in Pakistan’s atmospherics must add to the generals’ angst.
The judiciary’s activism poses as many challenges to the country’s civilian leadership as to their military nemeses. Pundits are wondering if the government would have the backbone to take criminal action against the generals who poked their noses in politics and tried to handcraft the political process to suit their fancy. Zardari, in power, has lived up to his reputation of a street-smart deal-maker loathed to making enemies. Desperate to seek another 5-year term in office — due next year — he wouldn’t like to have the military arrayed against him when the chips are down.
Would Zardari have the guts to issue red warrants against Musharraf and ask Interpol to arrest him in his overseas sanctuaries? Not in defiance of the deal he’d cut with the army to allow Musharraf to go into exile in return for no objection to Zardari becoming president.
Also the court has castigated the presidency’s role of active interference in politics in defiance of the Constitution that mandates an apolitical president. Zardari is guilty of presiding over his party’s political strategy sessions and must know he’s on thin ice.
So Zardari knows, as well as anyone else, that the judiciary’s pro-activism is a double-edged sword that would cut him as well as it stings the generals. That leaves the whole gamut of accountability up in the air. Cassandras have already started predicting that the court’s bang could end in a whimper, given the civilian leadership’s own chock-a-block corruption.
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat.