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Home > News > Columnists > Lt Gen Ashok Joshi & Col (Dr) Anil Athale

Pakistan: Towards democracy?

November 26, 2007

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An oft-repeated phrase, 'the more things seem to change, the more they remain the same' has a close fit to Pakistan in the context of the current happenings there. For, in the last 57 years or so, Pakistan seems to have been either under direct or covert military rule.

So what is so new about the 'emergency' declared by General Musharraf on November 3, 2007? We do not know if the emergency, which had been declared by the Nawaz Sharif government in the wake of 1998 nuclear tests, had ever been lifted.

This may create a sense of d�j� vu for many of us in India. The late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi [Images] had declared an emergency in India in 1975. In due course, the 'fresh' emergency had been converted into an 'internal' one.

Many believe that this change was inspired by the observation of an alert desk officer -- a civil servant -- who had pointed out that the emergency that had been imposed in India in the wake of the Chinese aggression in 1962 had remained in force since then. It seems that circumstances that inspire governments to declare emergencies often give rise to amnesia.

Indira Gandhi had used the device of emergency in 1975 to get around a damaging judgment of the Allahabad high court. Musharraf in 2007 pre-empted a possibly adverse judgment by the Supreme Court against his election as the president in uniform. The similarity ends there. The urge for civil society has proved to be much stronger in India than in Pakistan. The internal emergency in India was an aberration that lasted for no more than two years. It is quite another story in Pakistan.

It is a misnomer to call the military takeover(s) in Pakistan as coup d'etat in the accepted sense of the phrase. The bureaucracy, possibly in active connivance with the disgruntled politicians, has been actively participating in the military takeovers in Pakistan. This happened whenever Pakistan appeared ungovernable to the bureaucracy.

All the military takeovers in Pakistan have been bloodless and without disturbing the army's command structure. The coups did not vitiate the chain of command and loyalty in the army. It seems as though, over a period, the Pak army had acquired a 'constitutional prerogative' to take over the government of Pakistan.

Does this phenomenon have its roots in the way Pakistan was initially carved out of the subcontinent?

In the Indian freedom struggle, the middle class including many professionals were in the forefront, but the lawyers predominated. The middle class could inspire the rest and there was a considerable groundswell against the British rule. The freedom movement harboured ideas about 'freedom' that generally correspond to what is called 'civil society' in the current idiom.

The movement for Pakistan, in contrast, was mostly in the hands of the feudal gentry and other elites who cooperated with the British in their war effort. Though the supreme architect of Pakistan was the eminent lawyer, the late barrister M A Jinnah, the movement as such did not have the mass participation except in the closing phase that commenced on August 16, 1946.

Jinnah launched direct action on that day, and what he said -- "We shall have India divided or we shall have India destroyed" -- predictably resulted in a blood bath. This was only the denouement.

A century ago, a Muslim delegation comprising the Aga Khan, called on the viceroy in 1906 to plead for the 'position accorded to Muslim community in any kind of representation direct or indirect, and all other ways affecting their status. It was argued that the status should be commensurate not merely with their numerical strength but also their political importance' and further, that their contribution to the defence of the British Empire should be taken into account.

The two-nation theory ultimately rested on such a foundation: the right of a minority to nullify the will of the majority by disregarding the principle of adult franchise. This mindset got a further boost during the Khilafat agitation that supported the sultan of Turkey as the 'Khalifa' who had a divine right to rule.

Thus, the following main strands were knit into the fabric of Pakistan: the 'right' of a minority to rule; the use of force to acquire and remain in power; and the continuation of the medieval outlook.

The British who believed that their strategic interests would be better served by Pakistan rather than by undivided India aided the emergence of Pakistan. Britain, understandably, was more comfortable with feudal leadership, which was likely to prove more 'reliable', than the elected government.

The inherent logic for and of Pakistan, when extended, would lead many in Pakistan to believe that after carving Pakistan out of the subcontinent, it could very well seek confrontation with India and prevail. After all, if some minorities were to have a divine sanction to rule, it would be very possible for them to create a strong war-machine and employ force to achieve their purpose.

Thus, Pakistan was predisposed to martial law, or at least it seems so in retrospect. The upshot was and is that the Pakistan army looks upon Pakistan as its fief. It is educative to recall that the feudal lords and commercial interests, having led the movement for Pakistan -- not so much for the end of colonial rule, but for prevailing against the majority -- have generally been comfortable with martial law. They have always looked to the government in power for support. Neither the army nor the power elites in Pakistan have had much concern for democracy, and even less for civil society.

In Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, there are three main avenues. The first two avenues are named after Jinnah, and Mohammed Iqbal [poet, philosopher and politician]. Having run out of national icons thereafter, the third avenue is named after 'Kashmir.' Kashmir is a national 'icon' in Pakistan. It is a unifying factor in troubled times. It seems that Pakistan is more comfortable with the Kashmir problem than a solution to it.

Pakistan has always fallen back on the Kashmir issue in troubled times in the hope that it would 'unify' the nation. There is a fervent hope that things could be different this time around. It may be very tempting for the Pakistani rulers to persuade the 'freedom-fighters' to move into Kashmir rather than practice their dark arts in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] or in Pakistan itself.  Hopefully, they will refrain from this adventure.

In the past, the judges in Pakistan have been falling in line by endorsing military takeovers with the now infamous 'doctrine of necessity'. What is it that caused the now dismissed judges to become assertive in Pakistan lately? Was it their commitment to the rule of law? The cynics could conclude that it is the dissatisfaction of the judiciary with the wedge of the 'power-pie' being handed down to it.

The latest verdict by the newly sworn-in judges would fortify the cynical view. On the other hand, a more charitable view may mean that for the first time in its history, the judicial fraternity in Pakistan has found courage to challenge the prerogative of the military establishment.

The point of interest at this crucial time in the history of Pakistan is, if the present anti-Musharraf movement has the potential of developing into a real mass movement not merely for democracy but also for civil society.

Democracy, as a polity, is significantly better than marital law, but to be beneficial, ideas of civil society have also to coexist. It would appear that some kind of middle class -- represented at present by a small number of lawyers and media -- is on the rise in Pakistan.

This development rather than elections per se hold some hope of a change. However, this awakening may be slow and spread over a couple of decades or more. The elites in Pakistan too seem to be realising for the first time that they need to move away from the idea that Pakistan must necessarily confront India as a matter of honour.

If so, this may usher in a change in attitude and thinking, and democracy in Pakistan may be a harbinger of better relationship with India. But that would be some distance away. As of now, it is interesting to note that even one of the former heads of ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) has come up in support of 'democracy.' Possibly, he is better aware of the ground realities.

India has much to be anxious about if the present movement were to descend into instability and turbulence. Even the mighty US has a lot to worry about the Pak nukes. One hopes that the genie would remain in the bottle. If not, it portends terrible things. A time to act for those who helped Pakistan create the nukes and even for those who looked in the other direction knowing fully well that the country was bent on acquiring nuclear capability without other concomitant appurtenances essential for nuclear powers.

No one knows where the loose cannon would fire. In comparative terms, India has more to fear from instability than military rule in Pakistan, which has been there anyway.

Even so, in these troubled times, when it seems that Pakistan is finally taking its first halting steps towards democracy, it is time to wish it well and to hope that democracy will eventually take Pakistan to a civil society with which India would be able to deal in a mutually beneficial manner.

The authors are retired army officers and members of Initiative for Peace And Disarmament, a Pune-based think tank. 

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