Published in Daily Times as my weekly BAAGHI, on Monday March 19, 2012
“Tacitly registering his concern over the debate in the media on the role of the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Kayani on Wednesday said, ‘The national institutions should not be undermined’”, said a news item in an English language daily newspaper on March 15. What merited this royal annoyance was open to discussion in the media about the re-eruption of a long simmering ‘Mehrangate’ that should be best described as ISI-gate. According to this case, some Rs 140 million had been doled out to politicians to rig the elections in 1990. The rest of the money out of Rs 350 million, as claimed by one Younas Habib, Zonal Manager of Habib Bank at that time, who was allegedly asked by the ISI to generate these funds, eventually went to the coffers of ISI and its officials and General Aslam Beg, the then army chief.
The reports of kingly displeasure came when the ‘Chief’ (as is he called by the ranks) was informally talking to a group of editors at the farewell dinner hosted by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for the outgoing Air Chief Rao Qamar Suleman. ‘Oh, the Chief is not happy,’ was the buzz that quickly took over the atmosphere, if a fly on the wall is to be believed. Curious, as these media persons are normally quite committed to ‘freedom of press’ kind of slogans and usually hit the politicians hard if such a suggestion comes from them, I dared to speak with a couple of them and tried to get a sense if any discontent existed on the Chief’s remarks. There was. With understandable care and qualifying statements to justify the Chief’s unhappiness. Understandable, quite understandable.
To be fair to the Chief, there is little reason to disagree with him. This is perhaps the rarest agreement between us — the bloody civilians and the almighty generals. Indeed, the national institutions should not be undermined. National institutions are undermined when individuals take them for a ride. Institutions are emasculated when individuals responsible for them are allowed to get away with the biggest crimes committed under the guise of ‘national interest’. Institutions are ruined when they are allowed to overstep their jurisdictions with impunity and arrogate to themselves the right to demolish and weaken every other institution of the country. The institutions are, indeed, annihilated when they manipulate the people’s mandate and accord themselves the right to tamper with the country’s law and constitution. In strong agreement with the General, none of us should let the institutions be undermined and weaken themselves.
Now comes the worrying part of the General’s remarks: “The debate (on TV channels) does not support national institutions as it works to de-motivate soldiers performing their duties in 20° Celsius below freezing point. We need to motivate our soldiers instead of demoralizing them by such debates.” What are we being told? These oft- repeated reminders of ‘soldiers doing their duty in 20 minus Celsius’ are not only misplaced but are also hackneyed now to the point of engendering instant yawning. Soldiers on duty in extreme weather conditions are not even the topic of ISI-gate. The nation stands behind these soldiers and salutes them for their sacrifices. What about those who use their soldiers as human bait or as mere pawns to fight the wars created by a few generals? The talk shows discussing ISI-gate are hardly about these poor soldiers. They are, rather, about a handful of generals who subverted the constitution of the country, made an important institution — ISI — an unprofessional one, made this institution a moneymaking machine, put it on a dangerous and anti-state path of undermining the democratic process, filled their bank accounts and walked away. One is flabbergasted at the army’s ability to distinguish between friends and foes. How come nabbing the culprits is akin to ‘undermining’ the institution is an enigma, the answer to which is only known to the almighty generals.
The discussion did not end here. Senior editors were reminded of other countries, including India, USA and Israel, who never talked about their ‘intelligence’ agencies the way the ISI was discussed in Pakistan. Well sir, memory fails me to count the instances when spy agencies of these countries were caught distributing money among politicians to rig elections, kill their prime ministers and torture ‘uncontrollable’ elements of the media to death. “They are never caught,” reminds my friend, a senior editor with another daily, who happened to be present in the said informal media talk. What happened with Al Gore and later Hillary Clinton prompted another senior anchor, as evidence of the CIA’s overstepping the civilian mandate.
They, however, could not come up with a ready reference when I asked about such examples from neighbouring India and other countries, although, “There were many examples of RAW’s overstepping in India as well,” they claimed. While this scribe is not aware of any RAW-hatched conspiracy against their own politicians, the efficiency or lack thereof of IB and NIA is widely discussed in the Indian media. Their ‘soldiers working under 20 Celsius’ don’t mind too much, as professionalism in other countries is the focus of these institutions. We perhaps need to take extra measures to safeguard our soldiers’ morale, which inter alia includes clear demarcation of the role of spy agencies and making sure they don’t make or break democratic governments and people who suffer at their hands do not malign them.
Even if the agencies in other countries play this ‘august’ role of interrupting the democratic process in their countries, does it justify ISI’s doling out money to keep a certain political party of the people’s choice out of government? Now that’s dangerous, if the army thinks whatever happened in 1990 was justifiable and is an established way of agencies’ working around the world, it should worry every law-abiding citizen of Pakistan. If the army is insisting on being right when it dictates the democratic process, we need to worry about our future. In this case we really need to reflect what has really changed despite the army’s lip service that they don’t want to mingle in politics.
About ‘Mehrangate’, the General said, it happened 20 years earlier and discussing it now was fighting history. “We should learn from the past, live in the present with a focus on the future,” he goes on. If indeed it happened 20 years ago, then most of the current soldiers (who the General thinks are losing morale) were not even born. These young soldiers must see that the culprits of serious crime of undermining the constitution of Pakistan are not exempt from the law by virtue of whatever office they might have held in the past. These brave sons of ours, the soldiers, must be taught that whosoever takes the law into their own hands and compromises the professionalism of Pakistan’s army, must face the grip of the law. Giving them a practical example of how important it is to safeguard the army’s own professionalism should not be considered detrimental or negative.
Lastly, if we don’t have to ‘fight history’, the military leadership needs to investigate who from its ranks reportedly met with a retired judge and requested to pass on the message to the ‘right authorities’ to keep lynching the government on the NRO judgment and contempt cases. The ‘Do-Not-Fight-History’ doctrine is not selective sir, is it? Something seems badly rotten in the state that rests within a state.