Let me, therefore, before proceeding further, whack my own argument.
Take, for instance, our context and open with a legitimate question: when bigger issues are at stake and the fundamentals of a system remain vulnerable or unresolved, is it even possible to be nonpartisan. More pointedly, should one remain nonpartisan? Put another way, if power is exercised by unelected centres, the rules of the game are flouted and the game is altogether rigged, can one afford the “luxury” of being nonpartisan?
Formulated thus, this is not an easy question to answer. But before we get to answering this, let’s look at what we are dealing with. Since almost its inception, this country has been yearning for political stability. So far that hope has been a chimeric dream.
Put another way, if power is exercised by unelected centres, the rules of the game are flouted and the game is altogether rigged, can one afford the “luxury” of being nonpartisan?
Barring some intermittent periods of growth and cash inflows that have served only to entrench rent-seeking and made the business elites both extractive and lazy, the economy has mostly teetered on the brink.
We are currently grappling with our third constitution, having abrogated two earlier ones. The story of those periods is painfully tragic. In fact, the 20-, and 30-somethings who think that they are witnessing the lowest point of our history, unsavoury though things are, need to read our history to appreciate our remarkable capacity to clusterduck everything.
At the centre of over seven decades of politico-constitutional upheavals has been the question of civil-military imbalance. The army and its intelligence agencies make and break politicians and political parties. Their functioning is opaque and their dominance of the system near-complete. Since 2008, the army has also learnt that it is better to capture the key nodes of the system and operate the system while remaining in the background. Essentially, like a Central Processing Unit within the computer rather than taking over the computer from the civilians at gun point. Smart move because if you are the CPU, you are the system!
Then we have the judiciary. It has meandered and blundered like other institutions: from legitimising dictatorships to reversing its own decisions to intervening in the functions of the executive and the legislature to posturing for public acclaim, we have seen it all. And the curtain is still to drop.
The details are too many so I shall leave it at this. But I want to make two points: one, what’s happening today is nothing compared to what this country has witnessed at other points; two, I want to reexamine my earlier argument about the heavy burden the nonpartisan carries.
The second point is to our purpose here. A PTI partisan can justifiably argue that the army is trying to isolate Imran Khan and destroy PTI; she can stress that given the civil-army imbalance, it is important to flag this point and the damage it has consistently caused this country. Corollary: this is not a time to be nonpartisan. Others must take positions.
At the centre of over seven decades of politico-constitutional upheavals has been the question of civil-military imbalance.
She would be right, but only partially. Let me explain: since April 2022 and more specifically since May 9, Mr. Khan and the PTI, have consistently targeted the army leadership, specifically former and current Chiefs of Army Staff. I am on record as opposing statements that target the army’s organisational integrity and cohesiveness, explaining why it’s dangerous to try and destroy the chain of command. There is a difference between opposing the army’s praetorian inclinations and wanting to destroy its ability to defend the polity against external and internal threats.
One scholar of civil-military relations, Peter D Feaver, has put the paradox most aptly: “The civil-military challenge is to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask them to with a military subordinate enough to do only what the civilians authorise them to do.” In other words, how do you ensure that an institution created to protect the polity does not become a threat to the polity. There’s no specific answer, as I noted in a long piece for Dawn Magazine (Can the Military Stay Out of Politics; Dec 18, 2022).
But the point here is slightly different. During Mr. Khan’s nearly three-year tenure, Mr. Khan himself, as also his supporters, denounced anyone agitating the army’s machinations in politics. Dissenters and objectors were branded as traitors to the country. In fact, the self-exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, on more than one occasion, castigated the army for having engineered Mr. Khan’s government. Also, much before Mr. Khan’s references to East Pakistan, Mr. Sharif invoked the unfortunate episodes from this country’s history, including the secession of East Pakistan. Mr. Khan and his supporters had then roundly bashed Mr. Sharif.
It is also a matter of record that even after the vote of no-confidence, Mr. Khan kept calling on the army to side with haq (truth) and withdraw support from batil (forces of evil). That was the genesis and purport of his reference to “neutrals” and likening them to “animals”. Put .another way, Mr. Khan was not analysing civil-army relations in terms of the principal contradiction between the civilians and the army. Had he done that, he would have realised that to keep the army out, the civilians have to hang together. But he would have no truck with other civilian parties. Result, as I wrote last year with reference to the principal contradiction: “Khan persists in rejecting other political actors while also running down the army; he faces a two-front situation. Mao found that untenable. Khan will too.”
The nonpartisan will denounce the army’s role and military courts not as part of a partisan agenda at specific points but as a matter of principle.
Similarly, during Mr. Khan’s tenure, many dissenters and journalists were disappeared or picked up, harassed, beaten or otherwise threatened. Most were critics of Mr. Khan and considered to be in the opposition camp. TV channels like ARY and Bol had a field day with some anchors denouncing the ones who were getting the short end of the state’s stick rather than standing up for them. Now the PTI supporters want every conscientious person to stand up for its cadres and denounce the army.
So, the answer to the question posed above is that this is where the difference between the nonpartisan and partisan becomes sharp. The nonpartisan will denounce the army’s role and military courts not as part of a partisan agenda at specific points but as a matter of principle. What the protestors did to Ministry of Defence properties on May 9 is condemnable. Equally, for the army to pick up PTI cadres (including harassing their families) and institute military courts to try them is dangerous and uncalled for. Just to establish the point I am making, back in October 2015, even after the Supreme Court’s favourable decision on military courts, this is what I had written:
My objection to the creation of military courts is more fundamental and relates to creating ‘exception.’ As I have noted previously, the act of creating an exception itself is a problematic proposition. While jurists like Carl Schmitt consider it the basic trait of the sovereign, many others, notably Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida, refer to an exception as a force that lies outside of law and is legal fiction.
The point I am making, if it’s still not obvious, is that unlike the partisan who would take positions on the basis of what suits her party, the nonpartisan carries the additional burden of taking positions on the basis of certain principles. In other words, the nonpartisan is partisan to principles, not parties.
One scholar of civil-military relations, Peter D Feaver, has put the paradox most aptly: “The civil-military challenge is to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask them to with a military subordinate enough to do only what the civilians authorise them to do.”
The nonpartisan would oppose military courts regardless of who is in power and to what end those courts are to be used. She would agitate unlawful arrests and detentions regardless of who is being picked up, not cheer one set of such detentions while opposing others. She would, even if opposed to Mr. Khan’s or anyone’s politics, stand up for the constitution when it clearly stipulates that elections must be held in 90 days. She would oppose the destruction by unelected power centres of any political party regardless of her own affiliations or views. Equally, she would oppose statements and actions targeting military discipline and destruction of army properties. She would not celebrate on social media when Matiullah Jan or Asad Toor or Hamid Mir are harassed and shed tears only when Imran Riaz Khan is picked up. She would roundly condemn all such actions regardless of who is being targeted, no matter how obnoxious.
The reason is simple: we cannot cherry-pick principles or play ducks and drakes with the fundamentals. The moment we do that, we tie ourselves into knots that become extremely difficult to unknot.