There’s an old saying about how power corrupts humans. So, since Pakistan army has been enjoying unlimited extra-constitutional powers irrespective of whether a military dictator or a democratically elected government was running the country, to expect it to remain untouched by corruption is a tall order. Yet, to call the Pakistan army ‘corrupt’ may not be ‘technically correct’ because unlike politicians and bureaucrats who secretly acquire assets through underhand dealings, the military in Pakistan does so openly through cleverly devised procedures that give unauthorised practices the semblance of legitimacy.
Take the case of former Pakistan army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, who on his retirement was allotted a whopping 90 acres of agricultural land in the much sought-after Bedian Road area on the outskirts of Lahore. Since such allotments were never made public in the past and political parties chose to look the other way, not much is known about how this unusual perk extended to Pakistan army chiefs came into existence. Perhaps information regarding real estate allotted to Gen Sharif too would never have made news but somehow this information leaked out [was the Nawaz Sharif government responsible?] and once picked up by media was thoroughly investigated.
But despite many eyebrows being raised in civvy street, Rawalpindi seemed unfazed by this development. So much so that Dawn reported how a “security establishment official” had said that there was “nothing unusual” about the land allotment since it was made “in accordance with the existing rules and purely on merit.” However, examination of what the security establishment official referred to “existing rules” reveals that instead of a government order sanctioning such grants to senior army officers, the General Headquarters [GHQ] of Pakistan army itself is the sole authority that makes as well as approves these land allotments.
From what has been mentioned in the media, one gathers that the ‘procedure’ of land allotment to Pakistan army chiefs being followed by GHQ, is as follows:
- The requirement of land to be allotted to the army chief and its location is directly intimated by GHQ to Chairman of the concerned Border Area Committee [BAC], which is the agency that holds records of all land located along the borders.
- The BAC chairman is an army officer [holding the rank of a Brigadier or Colonel] and an assistant commissioner serves as the civil member of this committee. The BAC is assisted by a revenue officer [tehsildar] and his staff.
- The provincial board of revenue is required to allot land on the records of the provincial government to GHQ as per the requirement projected by the BAC. The Board of Revenue intimates this land allotment order to the district collector who in turn conveys the same to the establishment officer. [The point to note is that even though there are no official orders issued by a competent authority on this subject, the civil officials still consider that an establishment officer is ‘legally bound’ to implement the orders of the BAC chairman!]
But now that Justice Qazi Faez Isa of Pakistan’s Supreme Court has clarified that “The laws governing civil and armed forces personnel do not entitle them to receive residential plots, commercial plots or agricultural land,” it seems that the Pakistan army’s ‘land-grab’ days are numbered. The need of judicial intervention to end what author Shuja Nawaz aptly referred to in his book ‘Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within’ as “culture of entitlement” rampant in the military and bureaucracy of Pakistan was long overdue and Justice Isa deserves credit for having showed spine to challenge the illegal practice of land allotment by the army to its own fraternity.
Since Justice Isa has buttressed his considered views [against this craftily managed largesse being enjoyed solely by army officers] with both historical references and legal arguments, it would now become extremely difficult for Generals to now manipulate the system. Some of his observations:
- The laws applicable to the armed forces do not provide for any allotment of residential plots, commercial plots or agricultural land; “nevertheless, senior members of the armed forces get plots and agricultural lands and continue to be given additional plots and agricultural lands as they rise up the ranks.”
- Gen Ayub Khan’s request for a plot was turned down by the then Pakistan army chief Gen Douglas David Gracey, but “gradually, the mores of the military changed to make all such ‘sweetheart’ deals acceptable.”
- “If lands are given to only one category like the members of the armed forces and the civilians in the service of Pakistan are disregarded, it constitutes discrimination and offends the fundamental right of equality.”
- “In addition to receiving pensions, public lands are taken [by defence officers] which is eminently unfair.”
- Without specific legal sanction, no one, including the prime minister, had the discretion to grant land, a house or an apartment to anyone.
But then, since Rawalpindi has the reputation of being law unto itself, there are bright chances that it may prod its ‘man in Islamabad’ [Prime Minister Imran Khan] to introduce a bill legalising ‘land-loot’ by the army. Because if it could manage to get Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2020 for amending Pakistan Penal Code to include a jail term and fine for the “heinous crime” of intentionally ridiculing, bringing to disrepute of defaming the country’s armed forces tabled in the Senate, there’s every possibility of Khan being pushed into tabling a bill that approves land allotment to army chiefs!
Though a promising development, Justice Isa’s directive has just touched the tip of Pakistan army’s staggering line-up of self-serving schemes and projects, which Ayesha Siddiqa has exposed in her well researched book ‘Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’. Infact, she’s even coined the word ‘Milbus’ [pronounced milbiz] which is unique to Pakistan army and has defined it as “military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defence budget. In this respect, it is a completely independent genre of capital.”
Amplifying further, she explains that the “most significant component [of Milibus] is entrepreneurial activities that do not fall under the scope of the normal accountability procedures of the state, and are mainly for the gratification of military personnel and their cronies… in most cases the rewards are limited to the officer cadre… The top echelon of the armed forces who are the main beneficiaries of Milbus justify the economic dividends as welfare provided to the military for their services rendered to the state.”
In 2016, the then Defence Minister Khwaja Asif while replying to a query in the Senate revealed that the armed forces of Pakistan were operating nearly 50 commercial projects, units and housing colonies worth more than $20 billion. Since profits accruing from these highly profitable enterprises are primarily being siphoned by senior army, navy and air force officers, the armed forces of Pakistan will most certainly fight tooth and nail to protect their humungous financial empire.
So, while the ‘gavel’ of Pakistan’s judiciary may have struck the first blow against the armed forces’ illegal practice of land allotment, a ferocious riposte from the army’s ‘sword’ is but natural!
Tailpiece: Cocking a snook at Generals of Pakistan army who became millionaires overnight through generous receipt of funds and real estate, Qazi Husain Ahmed, who served as ‘Ameer’ [chief] of Jamaat-e-Islami [JI] Pakistan for four-consecutive terms had in the late eighties referred to corps commanders of Pakistan army as “crore commanders” [commanders having assets worth 10 million].
Normally, one would be inclined to dismiss this unsavoury sobriquet as gross exaggeration Generals are soldiers and not businessmen. But with ‘Fact Focus’, [a Pakistani investigative news portal] publishing a report duly supported by documentary evidence which reveals that retired Lt Gen Asim Bajwa and his family members “own a business empire which set up 99 companies in four countries, including a pizza franchise with 133 restaurants worth an estimated $39.9 million,” the former JI Ameer Ahmed’s pithy observation on Pakistan army’s seniors officers is bang-on.