That the Pakistan army had lost its ‘holy cow’ status within the country became more than evident in April last year when despite serious objections by the opposition, Pakistan’s National Assembly Standing Committee on Interior passed the Criminal Law [amendment] Act 2020. Accordingly, Section 500A [Titled-intentional ridiculing of the Armed Forces] was included in Act XLV of Pakistan Penal Code [PPC] 1890. It reads, “Whosoever intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the Armed forces or a member, therefore he shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine which may extend to Rs 500,000.”
While opposition parties rightly held that this law goes against Article 19 of The Constitution of Pakistan, which guarantees freedom of speech, the media feared that since what exactly constitutes ridiculing, bringing to disrepute and defaming the armed forces of Pakistan or its members remains undefined, this draconian law could be easily misused to terrorise and muzzle free expression of views. It’s also rumoured that many army officers [both serving and retired], are upset by this development as they perceive the need to enact a law to protect the army’s image as a big embarrassment and something that’s ‘unsoldierly’!
They contend that instead of using a legal ‘shield’, the army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] should have undertaken a comprehensive programme to restore the army’s tottering image. While this viewpoint does have merit, it would be unfair to say that ISPR hasn’t attempted to do so. Readers may recall that ISPR has tried every trick in the book to preserve Rawalpindi’s fading halo- be it pampering the media, openly warning scribes that it had the capability to monitor social media and even abduction and physical abuse of journalists by “unknown miscreants,” ISPR has done it all, but nothing seems to have worked.
Unfortunately, incorporation of Section 500A in PPC doesn’t seem to have helped either. After the conclusion of the 79th Formation Commanders’ Conference, ISPR stated, “The forum took note of the recent propaganda campaign by some quarters to malign the Pakistan Army and create division between the institution and society.” While the Pakistan army does deserve sympathy for its unexpected fall from grace, but then, by meddling in the country’s internal affairs, Rawalpindi has itself created the existing sorry state of affairs as far as the image of the Pakistan army is concerned.
For example, Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s declaration of “neutrality” during the no-confidence motion crisis deserves appreciation as it reflected Rawalpindi’s non-involvement in internal politics. However, the message conveyed through ISPR’s statement [shared by Geo News and The News International reporter Murtaza Ali Shah on twitter which reads, “79th Formation Commanders’ Conference expressed complete confidence in leadership’s well-considered stance to uphold the constitution and rule of law, at all cost,” clearly reveals that Rawalpindi closely oversaw the political developments, which debunks Gen Bajwa’s “neutrality” claim.
Pakistan army’s cavalier ways coupled with its scant regards for law of the land as well as contempt for independence of institutions is what irks the public. In addition to the media, even the otherwise reticent judiciary has made some rather scathing observations like calling Pakistan army “the biggest landgrabber” in the country. It also questioned as to “Who is the Army to play the role of mediator? … Where does the law assign this role to a Major General?” In fact, the Chief Justice of Pakistan even went as far as telling the Attorney General that “They [the army top brass] must be made to understand the law,” adding, “Who will do that?”
Another Supreme Court judge observed that “The laws governing civil and armed forces personnel do not entitle them to receive 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.” Furthermore, in an indirect but obvious reference to Pakistan’s army congenital habit of meddling in the country’s internal politics, and indulging in rampant corruption, former Prime Minister Imran Khan had recently stated that “I salute India. India’s foreign Policy is better than Pakistan’s, they work for their people, the Indian army is not corrupt and they never interfere in civilian govt.”
Another issue which angers the public to no end is Pakistan army’s incurable fixation of tilting at windmills and repeatedly making false claims about its achievements. For example, ISPR’s post-79th Formation Commanders Conference press release mentions that “Pakistan Army has always stood by the state institutions to guard it and always will, without any compromise.” While this statement may be intended to reassure the public regarding the army’s neutrality as far as politics is concerned, the use of the word “always” is not only misleading but factually incorrect.
Leave aside long periods of military dictatorships imposed by Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Gen Yahya Khan, Gen Zia ul Haq and Gen Pervez Musharraf, for Rawalpindi, everyday interference in functioning of the government has been more of a rule than an exception, and some examples mentioned above prove this point. In this regard, even Gen Bajwa who spoke about the army’s ‘neutrality’ recently, isn’t above suspicion since he did hold a secret meeting with some leaders from opposition political parties. Had this meeting been in national interests, then why was it shrouded in a cloak of secrecy?
The reality is that in Pakistan, the army is ‘more equal’ than other citizens since it has managed to preserve its extra-constitutional perks and privileges through the craftily contrived narrative of an existential threat from India that made Pakistanis see the armed forces as the sole bulwark that was preventing a hegemonic India from overrunning their country. However, with the availability of the internet and advent of social media, public awareness has multiplied manyfold due to which people have become more discerning and are thus no longer gullible.
So, while it may like to blame “some quarters” for “the recent propaganda campaign to malign Pakistan Army and create division between the institution and society,” thefact of the matter is that it’s Rawalpindi which is the main culprit responsible for denigrating the Pakistan army!