Monday, November 19, 2007

War on Terror is depriving Pakistanis of their basic rights

Going to bed yesterday I counted the nights many prominent Pakistani lawyers have spent in jail this month. I tallied 15, for it has been 15 days since General Pervez Musharraf proclaimed emergency in Pakistan. Whereas, ostensibly, the purpose of emergency was to arrest the advances religious extremists had been making, in the wake of emergency thousands of lawyers and political activists were detained by the Pakistani government.

After imposition of ‘emergency’, Musharraf government has taken other repressive measures. Independent minded judges who valiantly challenged the executive branch of the government have been removed from their jobs. Private television channels that gave large coverage to political news and broadcasted debates and analyses on government policies and actions have been taken off air. Just two days ago Pakistani TV channels broadcasting from Dubai were made to shut off their operations. Strident political leaders have either been put in jail or put under house arrest. By all means developments of this nature should be of grave concern to any nation. In other parts of the world people pour out on streets for far less serious matters. But save for a small portion of the society we don’t see a unified national movement in Pakistan ready to take on Musharraf’s government. You ask, why?

Democracies are always threatened by special interest groups. In Pakistan the largest, most organized special interest group has guns and tanks, it is the Pakistan Army. The Pakistani army feels justified meddling in the political affairs of the country because it believes it can do a better job of governance than the Pakistani politicians. And not too long ago this conviction of the army was widely shared by the common man in Pakistan.

In October 1999 when General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif, people came out on the streets to express their jubilation. Pakistanis were truly happy to see corruption-riddled Nawaz Sharif government go. And before Nawaz Sharif credibility of Benazir Bhutto too was eroded by financial scandals surfacing during her two tenures as Prime Minister.

In contrast to the economic activities that took place during the democratic governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, what Pakistanis saw during Musharraf government was spectacular. Businesses started booming, foreign investments started pouring in, construction of country’s infrastructure picked up, and independent radio and TV channels started operations. Who cares if these developments were largely a result of post-9/11 geopolitical situation of Pakistan? Pervez Musharraf was at the helm; he took the credit of turning around the country and ordinary Pakistanis believed him to be the savior they were looking for, all along.

If discredited politicians and the self-perceived moral high ground of the Pakistan Army were not enough guarantees of Musharraf regime’s longevity, external support from the US cemented the general’s grip on power. Bush administration never got tired of thanking Musharraf for his role in fighting extremism in that part of the world.

Musharraf did rule with a guise of democracy. There were elections; there were assemblies where political parties of all hues were present and an active opposition debated issues, but the whole show was acted out under the watchful eyes of a dictator who was both the president and the Chief of Army Staff.

With GDP growth rate averaging over 7% and Pakistan Army and the US firmly behind Musharraf, the general could probably continue ruling the country relatively undisturbed were it not for his dismissal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan on March 9. Since then it has been a gradual but continuous downfall for Musharraf and November 3 promulgation of emergency took the veil off the real nature of his dictatorship. Now, unlike ever before the future of Pakistan is hanging in the balance.

How would Pakistanis claim back their country from their army, especially when the country lacks credible political leadership? Sixteen days after the imposition of emergency this question baffles Pakistani intelligentsia. Probably, such a monumental feat would have to be accomplished with unity among political parties and through active support of civil society.

Unfortunately, Pakistan does have a precedent of a showdown between the general population and the army. It happened in 1971. Then, through external help the largely unarmed population prevailed over the army. This time around getting help from India is not an option.

[Photo courtesy of AP/Riaz Khan)

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