An own goal? Or far too many own goals.

Last week was one of debilitating self-injuries for a people already lost to the maze of distrust.

Shahzad Chaudhry July 26, 2020
The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

Or far too many own goals. The last week was one of debilitating self-injuries for a people already lost to the maze of distrust. It only deepened. We as a nation are in a phase where lack of direction and leadership causes mental chaos and mindless fratricide. We were already in a difficult state. To touch the point when no one seems in control is a bad place to be. Fighting Covid, corruption, lawlessness and political turmoil, even if contrived, renders us liable to manipulations that we can easily do without.

Just this week the honourable Supreme Court (SC) opened with a litany of complaints against one or two or three state institutions. While the order, or what is called the decision — regarding the culpability or otherwise of Khawaja brothers of the PML-N from Lahore — detailed the National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB) inability to fix a guilt on the duo which was perfectly fine in how the Courts read the case but how the decision was situated in the long preamble went far beyond the context. They in their ‘observation and opinion’ indicted the power centres of this country’s ruling system. And while those being absolved were two politicians from a party facing charges of rampant corruption, the source for the judges’ unbound displeasure was located elsewhere. The NAB was the apparent bogey but those who in Court’s opinion manipulate the NAB for political ends were the real culprits. When you use the term ‘political engineering’ everyone knows who it refers to.

There were two ‘own’ goals in this episode. That the Khawaja brothers were exonerated of any wrongdoing on the basis of what was presented before the courts — itself open to diametrically opposing interpretations but better kept off in interest of one’s health and well-being — was just right. An inept NAB had failed to prove the charges. But then the honourable judges questioned the need for NAB — inter-alia for the need for accountability structures and processes alleging mala fide by targeting opposition politicians and in that only the opposition politicians to politically manipulate their will. NAB’s track-record and abysmal rate of convictions in mega-cases is no help in altering perceptions. Buoyed by such conclusive observations by the top Court the opposition, mostly the PPP and the PML-N, went to town to reinforce the need to abolish NAB. It just so happens there are serious charges of financial malpractice and misappropriation against most in the top leadership of these parties. If accountability weakens as an institution in this country, an already fragile political system will only lose even more credibility. That is detrimental.  

If the powers that be are the real focus of the Court’s ire, as is prima facie the case in this judgment, it then invokes institutional dissonance of which there are enough aspersions around. To those for whom the military establishment of the country has been a proven villain over the years — in the political frame — it gives a fillip to the allegations of political manipulation and engineering. Implicitly this would compromise the democratic credentials of all governments since PPP’s of 1988. When the military is so blatantly criticised by the highest Court perceptions begin to dull of the state itself. This can quickly translate into diminishing self-assurance in the military impinging upon its war-fighting capacity or what is largely defined the morale of the troops — which is a substantive force-multiplier. There is thus a disparaging consequence which gets lost in the environment of institutional tussle for either principles or eminence. Politicians, civil society notables and progressive journalists, all pry on this institutional vulnerability to add their two bits to the fracas. Nothing remains rational, all is tribal, as the military fends these off and sometime reacts inexplicably.   

In this backdrop a journalist gets kidnapped in broad daylight from the midst of the capital. The event was duly recorded by security cameras from a school where his wife worked. He chose to remain in front of the school for a considerable long time after dropping her off. The abductors arrived in due course and he was kidnapped on the school security camera. That the abductors wore police uniforms now doesn't count for much. The IG Islamabad denied it was any of his people’s doing. There were others who wore civilian clothes synonymous with personnel of intelligence agencies. If it indeed was the handiwork of the agencies it was shoddy. The entire sequence was duly recorded on camera and shown to the world. If not, that leaves a lot open to speculation. All in all, the on-camera event reinforced the culpability of the army as an enemy of free speech and fundamental rights in the country. The journalist was released by his captors after being held for 12 hours.

The journalist, a consummate critic of the military, was to appear before the Chief Justice of the SC the next morning and if asked would have rendered a harrowing tale. An odd observation by the CJ about the army and its role in an environment of acute discord would have made glaring headlines and deep ruptures in what is already a fragmented fabric of nationhood. How it might have impacted numerous ongoing judicial processes is anyone’s guess, but it would have brought to question all which seemed to carry the army’s backing and support. One of those cases is against a sitting judge of the SC. In the event the CJ chose to pass the moment.

Clearly, the law-enforcement agencies alone can apprehend people for alleged charges, but they do exceed their powers at times — how a victim was brought to an unfortunate end still looms in memory of most. Rare though, but gangs and terror groups too have found the space for abductions for ransom or to cause bodily harm. When it is a journalist it becomes dirty and widely abhorrent. In an environment of suspicions and conspiracies all hands seem guilty enabling a field day to those who seek to malign the power centres. It is equally true that the military has been more assertive lately in the matters of the nation even if it only is to support a sitting government in its functions. Its involvement in areas beyond its primary domain then opens up space for questioning its role and reputation. There is a need for a re-think in how the military understands its own role even if it is well-intended. Those who wish to vilify the army invoke the past and relate it to the present in an uncomplimentary twist.

Who is playing this game, and on whose behest? If it is for true democracy which entails a long journey, we should all be in it. But if it is only meant to frame and create chaos and sow suspicion the hands seem long and the state doesn't seem to be doing very well against such malice. There isn’t a more perfect hybrid war than when countrymen begin to destroy their own — people, state and its institutions. It is time for all to reflect.

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