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Democracy and Human Rights in Post-Coup Pakistan

Asma Jahangir (frontlinedefenders.org)

Asma Jahangir (frontlinedefenders.org)

The Kargil incident was in one way, one realized, the end again of either the civilian rule. It was really at crossroads. Or the civilians would be able to overpower the military. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. There were tensions. There were always tensions between the army and the civilians.

One of the reasons that that does not happen in Pakistan is because whenever a civilian government is in power, they will always ostracize the opposition. So there is a "divide and rule". And these tensions that are built within the political parties are something that the military really takes advantage of.

So we saw that there was a clash of interest. We continue to see that there is a clash of interest between the people of Pakistan and between the power-brokers of Pakistan. When I talk about power-brokers of Pakistan, I mean not just the leadership of the Armed Forces. Here, I am not talking about anybody in the Armed Forces, because the normal people in the Armed Forces have no say in decision-making. It is the leadership of the Armed Forces. It is establishment-born political leaders, or establishment-supported political leaders. And the Superior Judiciary of Pakistan. This is the troika that I see in Pakistan.

In this troika, there is always that vacuum. That vacuum is created purposely, which is filled in time and again by what we call "Leaders of our Islamic Parties." This pattern, now we are beginning to see, is happening in Pakistan. We saw that there is, in Pakistan, now a time where those who talk about peace are considered to be enemies of the People. Those who speak of war and bloodshed are considered to be patriotic people. Militancy is now being officially proposed and condoned. For example, we talk about in the sense of a process, of foreign affairs. Here, I would just like to stop for a minute and just look at it in this way. Where I said, and this is going back to my first point, that there is a clash of interest. Whereas people of Pakistan, the ordinary people of Pakistan, would want peace. That is just a natural phenomenon, anywhere in the world. But the official voice of Pakistan is belligerent. It's hawkish. The people of Pakistan do not want the grandeur of nuclearization. What the people of Pakistan want is economic prosperity, where their children can study, where they can get health services. Now you can argue that this is not the voice of the people. But at the same time, you did not see the ordinary people of Pakistan gushing out in the streets and saying, "Whatever may happen, we want war. We want nuclearism." But what you do see is misery. When you ask the people why they're miserable, they don't say, "We're miserable because we don't have a nuclear bomb." They are miserable because they do not have the next day's meal.

They have no security. Much more, in countries like ours, it is often argued that Pakistan is a country with many illiterates. Pakistan is a country which is very poor. So how is it that people can be aware of something like that? Well, there is far more need to be aware. There is far more need for worry in that country; a country with so much poverty, with so much misery, and at the same time with so much callousness and irresponsibility. Then to have this priority, which is all screwed up, is something to be really looked at far more seriously than in a country where, okay, it may be still affordable. Although, I myself think that such things are never affordable and ill affordable. However, this is the contradiction that I wanted to show you.

Because of this theory that the atom bomb is a deterrent; this has been sold time and again in Pakistan. But now people are beginning to realize that this is a very expensive deterrent. It has isolated Pakistan. It has made Pakistan more into a risky state. Any action on Pakistan will not be a benign kind of an action. It will be a very well-thought out action, because the stakes are much higher. So we are no longer a country which is simply poor and simply ignorant and simply has its problems. But we have a country that also has problems that can actually flow over to other parts of the world. Therefore, it is watched very closely.

We have for example, also in Pakistan, another very confusing new phenomena, which is that people begin to confuse systems with people. When Mr. Nawaz Sharif left, it was as though the "system" was wrong. When our new General came, because a General looks good, therefore the "system" was accepted. That confusion has not only remained in Pakistan. That is a confusion that you find even in the corridors of the United Nations, where they're beginning to de-link human rights and democratic development, where they feel that military governments who give certain human rights, selective, charitable human rights to their loyal subjects, they will be more acceptable. But human rights is an end by itself. To give people dignity, to give people their rights, and that end by itself will only be achieved if there are objective institutions, democratic institutions, and the first thing any military government does is to destroy those institutions. So whatever human rights we have got today has been through the courtesy of the General before whom we have to bow very graciously and thank him many times for it. They can be taken away as easily as they were given.

Therefore, these are only short-term measures. And why I worry about it is that this is not only in Pakistan. The new military face all over the world is using, if I may say so, and politicizing, the human rights aspect of it. Human rights can never be disconnected from democratic movements and democratic processes. We have then, of course, the government which came in and which was welcomed. There is no denial that our previous government had possibly one of the worst human rights records. Apart from the fact that it had a pretty bad human rights record, it was oppressive. It was inaccessible. It was corrupt. It had no respect for the people at large. So there was a kind of a relief in the first few days. They were looking for an alternative and hoped that the new military government would perhaps bring in a magic wand and change things around in Pakistan. But nobody has a magic wand. Military governments are not fairy godmothers. They are people in uniform who know the language of the gun, rather than the language of a person who speaks in terms of non-violence or in terms of peace. So we saw that the first few days of military government were not only welcomed, but people were thrilled. This is very typical. Why I want to say this here, and I know it's controversial, but this is typical.

You pick up something that is very populist. You do it the first time. Take all of the rich people and put them in the prison. I recall that everybody was happy. But nobody actually questioned the fact that how can people be picked up and kept in prison for so many days, like 90 days, without charges? Nobody was allowed to ask why these people were handcuffed when they were sleeping at night. When these questions were eventually asked, we were told, "These are rich people. What are you talking about? De-human conditions? Every Pakistani lives under de-human conditions." To my utter amazement, half of the hall clapped. So this is how you generate a kind of populism on values which are inherently wrong, but perhaps where the people themselves may not have been as innocent as we may want them to have been.