The more things seemingly change in Pakistan the more they remain the same. Anyone doubting the veracity of this dictum need only look at the unfolding saga of the attempted murder of ace television anchor Hamid Mir on April 19, and the train of events since been triggered in its wake.
Pakistan’s chequered history has long been held hostage by its “deep state”, comprising a deep-seated oligarchy of feudal lords, generals and power-hungry bureaucrats. Under the frequent military rule—which spans, to date, half of its sovereign life—the “deep state” acted up front with impunity and without any accountability. It laid down ground rules that had to be obeyed in totality without question or demur.
Even when they weren’t stalking the land, up front, as rulers and overlords, the power brokers of the deep state made sure that the lines drawn by them—the so-called “red lines”—weren’t crossed, either by the civilian rulers or by those hanging on to their coat-tails. Anyone with the temerity to cross them did so at their own peril and perished in the process.
Who could have known this cardinal rule of political life in Pakistan better than incumbent prime minister Nawaz Sharif? He made the error of challenging the deep state and its pampered, puffed-up, denizens in his two previous stints in power and lost on both occasions. His nemeses in the deep state may have thought he’d learned his lesson and wouldn’t dare disturb the unwritten equation of power-peddling in his third crack at the rampart. But Nawaz apparently didn’t take any heed from his two previous Waterloos, a capital crime in the eyes of those ruling the roost in Pakistan.
It isn’t Nawaz alone who miscalculated; many others did, too, including pundits following the graph of Pakistani politics and the realm’s power distribution. They thought ground realities had changed, drastically perhaps, in the years since Nawaz was booted out of power by the last Bonaparte, General Pervez Musharraf, at the cusp of the century. Pundits and politicians, alike, overestimated the power of the news media which has come into its elements in the past one decade and thought it had become a power to contend with and also challenge the high and the mighty at their game.
By the same token, they underestimated the fierce resolve of the deep state to guard its domain and let no intruder or interloper poach on their turf. In their eyes, Hamid Mir was guilty of punching way above his weight; he’d crossed the red lines by naming names in Pakistan’s security establishment for being the finger on the trigger that had tried to silence him.
The generals were in rage because Mir had the cheek to name the head of ISI—the so-called “state-within-the-state”—bearing direct responsibility for the brazen attempt on his life. Mir’s bluff had to be called, or else others may also imitate him in challenging the generals.
Apparently, Nawaz no longer has the fire in his belly to take on the generals. Against their perceived wisdom he has learned his lesson from his two previous debacles and deems it unwise to challenge the generals. Age seems to have mellowed him and sapped his erstwhile resolve to assert the civilian order’s constitutional supremacy over the “khakis”. In the face of a concerted backlash from the “khakis” Nawaz and his cohorts in the government didn’t show much backbone; they caved in without much resistance.
The government has since filed a case against Geo Television, where Mir anchored the popular nightly programme, Capital Talk, and asked the electronic media regulatory authority, PEMRA, to close down Geo as punishment for its “intolerable” bravado and daring. Apparently eager to follow the example of their pusillanimous leader, Nawaz’ cabinet ministers have been bending over backwards to placate the angry generals, each trying to steal a march over his colleagues in showering kudos on the army for its “sacrifices” in defence of the nation.
Information minister Pervez Rashid, a close confidant of Nawaz, didn’t mind a lot of eggs smearing his face in reminding Pakistan’s irate and befuddled journalists that they owed their freedom to the sacrifices of the army jawans and officers; but for their valiant defence, he crowed, there would be no journalism to speak of.
To the bemused people of Pakistan it is déjà vu; they have seen it so often before, too, with the politicians and civilian leaders backsliding and capitulating whenever the Empire has struck back. It’s no surprise to them, at all, that bumbling champions of civilian supremacy in a democratic dispensation have once again shown their feet of clay in the name of saving Pakistan from deep schism and polarisation.
With the power brokers of the Nawaz government running for cover to save their skin against the wrath of the generals, it’s obvious, as daylight, they don’t mind throwing the news media to the wolves. They want to make a horrible example of Geo not only to assuage the demigods of GHQ but also to knock the fear of the Empire in others of Mir’s ilk; they should know where the buck stops in Pakistan. The same day, April 30, as Nawaz’ supine cabinet ministers—the boss himself having taken off for the refuge of London in haste—were “gracing” an elaborately garnished ceremony at GHQ to pay homage to military’s martyrs in the fight against terrorism—and sitting with their arms folded like disciplined schoolboys in front of bejewelled generals, the Amnesty International released their latest report on the plight of journalists in Pakistan.
The report, titled A bullet has been chosen for you, paints a harrowing portrait of Pakistan’s imperilled news media, where at least 34 journalists have been killed since 2008 because of their daring to report what was not acceptable to power brokers. It bemoans, “Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides…” It also faults the authorities for their failure to “stem human rights abuses against media workers or to bring those responsible to account”.
Perhaps the next Amnesty report would say the Pakistani authorities did bring people to account; the wrong people. The noose is being readied to hang those who dared to speak.
The brass is wasting no time in rallying popular support around its flag, which isn’t surprising given the Pakistanis’ infatuation with their “Pak army”. Rallies are being held to manifest people’s total accord with “their army” and its leaders. The generals are smiling all the way to their lairs; they have the last laugh in Pakistan.
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat. Email:email@example.com