Damn good show

There are whispers the prime minister has a soft spot for the zombies at the gates

Asad Rahim Khan April 25, 2016
The writer is a barrister and columnist. He is an Advocate of the High Court, and tweets @AsadRahim

The crazies overrun the city — launching wave upon wave of violence.

Fanatics hold up a major town centre, declaring they won’t stop until their demands are met.

The state is divided; there are whispers the prime minister has a soft spot for the zombies at the gates (his party, the Muslim League, certainly does). The Chief Minister of Punjab ignores the warnings, and plays it passive. More murder ensues.

The citizenry spends its time either fearful or furious — fear over the rioters lynching people outside, fury over the state kneeling to such thugs.

And the military, well, the military waits in the wings.

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” Yeats wrote The Second Coming around a hundred years ago, and the poem — a moody take on mortality and loss of faith — has been dubbed “the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English”. The Pakistani press is no exception — The Second Coming tends to show up more often than not.

The trouble is, all the above applies to Pakistan not in 2016, but in 1953. It was the Jamaat and the Ahrars that were storming Lahore, over state officials belonging to the Ahmadi community. It was PM Nazimuddin with the alleged soft spot; it was CM Daultana that wanted to ‘negotiate’. And when the centre could not hold, the centre asked the army to step in.

Recounts a former vice-chief of army staff, “Hailed by the public […] the army responded quickly and effectively and proved that it could manage civil affairs with judicious application of force. [General Azam Khan] launched a media campaign to publicise the jawans and to display his own authority. [The military’s] performance in civil affairs was reported widely in the print media in superlative adjectives.”

Peace was returned to the city. The public was safe. The press was dizzy with joy. While addressing Lahore’s garrison officers, the field marshal saluted General Azam for putting up a “damn good show”. And that was that.

For the sake of closure, a judicial commission was set up (and, as we now know, such commissions never go out of style). Justices Munir and Kayani slammed the “subversives”, before saying, “if the Ahrar had been treated as a pure question of law and order, without any political considerations, one District Magistrate and one Superintendent of Police could have dealt with them”.

The judges went on to ask whether the problem of law and order could ever be “divorced from a democratic bed fellow called a Ministerial Government, which is so remorselessly haunted by political nightmares”.

Indeed, had Mr Daultana shown the guts to throw a single police SP at the rioters, the country might have been different. Should the state choose to step up to its responsibilities, the country may yet be.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. To read the press 63 years later, the zombies are at the gates again, the executive is bogged down, and the military’s putting up a damn good show. Yet again, the judicial commission is the need of the hour. Yet again, the centre cannot hold.

Much of the time warp is down to our institutions, or lack thereof. Children are told there’s a separation of powers in this country: an executive and a legislature and a judiciary. So to each we turn.

The first and second are duking it out: the executive is tussling with our parliamentarians — at least, the ones in opposition — over the Panama papers. Mr Khan demands the PM’s resignation, the PM says he’s done nothing wrong, Mr Khan says he’ll storm Raiwind, the PM turns to the judges. The judges, so far, have looked away. Instead, the army chief has won the gold: sacking two generals and three brigadiers for corruption.

Over to the judiciary, it’s again the military at the front and centre. Selected terrorists continue to be tried via military courts, an arrangement validated by the Supreme Court itself last August, the bench voting 11-6 in favour.

And since we’ve already run through all the powers that make up ‘separation of powers’ — i.e., the executive, the parliament, and the judiciary — let’s throw in the police for good measure. They charged bravely after the Chhotu gang, but they lost 10 men, others were taken hostage, and all had to make way for an army-led Zarb-e-Ahan. We’re told the bandits have since been beaten.

A pattern emerges. What we’re left with now is what we were left with in 1954: the short-termism that allows things to fall apart every cycle — to plug every gap in the patchwork of the state with an army baton.

In the short run, the Chhotu crew has been defeated. In the long run, the Punjab police still lacks the capacity to defeat the bandit-gangs of tomorrow (Chhotu’s or otherwise).

In the short run, jet-black terrorists will be tried and convicted by the military courts. In the long run, the civilian justice system will remain adrift, prosecutors will remain at risk, and law and order will be at stake.

In the short run, a judicial commission may act as a curtain call to the Panama affair. In the long run, successive civilian governments will continue to be perceived as slothful, self-serving, and utterly compromised. Not a thing came of the Munir Report. It remains to be seen what may come of the commission.

Like Yeats’s poem, ‘institutions’ and ‘capacity-building’ and ‘state support’ are this paper’s anthem; buzzwords to be found in each and every op-ed.

The trouble is, there’s no doing without them: a state that falls back on judicial commissions and military involvement is no state at all. There can be no more passing of the buck; institution-building takes time. But it would have been better to realise as much in 1954, not in 2016.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2016.

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