It’s not very often that the judiciary pulls up the armed forces in Pakistan, and so, the navy must have got a rude shock on Thursday, when Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah directed secretary of the Cabinet Division to ensure that the Sailing Club of Pakistan Navy at Rawal Lake should be sealed off by the Capital Development Authority (CDA). From the judgement order it’s apparent that the Judge is irked by the fact that CDA Member (Planning) Dr Shahid Mehmood who represented his department “not only stated that the land was not allotted” to Pakistan navy but even “candidly conceded that no approval was obtained from the competent authority” for construction of this ‘leisure facility’ as required under the CDA Ordinance, 1960.
Lamenting the “abysmal state of implementation and enforcement of enacted laws, which inevitably leads to violation of fundamental rights,” the Judge, in an embarrassing reference to the repeated highhandedness exhibited by the armed forces of Pakistan, directed that this issue should be placed before the cabinet in its next meeting “because the enforced laws are not being implemented and that enforcement has been confined to common citizens.” Justice Minallah has also accused the navy of brazenly flouting laws governing construction in an “environmentally sensitive” area and regretted that all this was done for the sake of an “illegal building, which is purportedly being used as a club and that too for commercial purposes.” (Emphasis added).
It’s the widely prevalent cult of lavish self-conferred privileges within Pakistan’s armed forces that make its top brass believe that being the ‘defenders of the nation’ puts them above the law and Justice Minallah took pains to mention to the naval officer present that “We appreciate your sacrifices and respect you, especially because of your martyrs.” But he also made it amply clear that “nobody is above the law, not even this court” and he didn’t end here. In a stinging reference to the army’s record of rampant human rights abuses and utter lawlessness in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, he sent out a clear message to Rawalpindi that “These aren’t the tribal areas but the country’s capital.”
The Judge not only asked navy officials present in court for the authority under which the navy was running a “commercial enterprise,” but also observed that the CDA was trying to soft-pedal the issue by terming the construction as “unapproved,” while in the eyes of the law it was “illegal.” He lashed out saying that “It seems like the CDA member is afraid to say that the illegal club belongs to the Pakistan Navy” and even told him to “Go and raze down the illegal construction,” asking him, “Why there are different standards for the poor and the rich?” (Emphasis added).
The court order went on to note that “It has been consistently observed that it has become a norm for the Capital Development Authority and other agencies to promptly take action against those who are common citizens and who do not have the means to influence, while the privileged and elites are being treated differently. This is unacceptable for a democratic polity governed under a Constitution which guarantees fundamental rights,” and so the navy may take serious exception to such a strong indictment since it’s a relatively smaller ‘land-grab’ player in the Pakistani armed forces fraternity. But with the army having a whopping 12 percent of Pakistan’s land holding, this menace has reached such alarming proportions that the navy has no choice but to bear the consequences of Rawalpindi’s unbridled immoderation on this issue.
Ever since Ms Ayesha Siddiqa published details of Pakistan army’s commercial empire in her well researched book ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’ in 2007, institutions and people started talking about the army’s commercial ventures more openly. In his book ‘Crossed Swords’, Shuja Nawaz narrates how in 2007, “the country saw the jarring banners carried by lawyers who were protesting the removal of a chief justice by the military ruler: Ae watan ke sajeele Genrailo; saaray ruqbey tumhare liye hain (O’ handsome Generals of the nation, all the plots are just for you).” In July 2016, Pakistan’s Defence Minister informed the Senate that the army was running nearly 50 “projects, units and housing colonies” functioning in the country under the administrative control of Fauji Foundation, Shaheen Foundation, Bahria Foundation, Army Welfare Trust (AWT) and Defence Housing Authorities (DHAs).”
One month later, in article (‘Lust for Land’) published in leading Pakistani English Daily ‘Dawn’, on 27 August 2016, former civil servant and noted Pakistani columnist Irfan Husain stated, “The military has long been expanding its footprint across Pakistan’s cities through its multiplying defence societies. Land is acquired at nominal rates from provincial governments, and developed with money taken as advance payments for residential and commercial plots from officers. Allotment letters are then sold to civilians at several multiples of the price they paid.” (Emphasis added).
In another comprehensive and unbiased account (‘Qayyumabad’s long battle against DHA,’ Dawn, 22 August 2016), Fahim Zaman and Naziha Syed Ali reveal that “Through the years, the residents of Qayyumabad have consistently maintained that DHA has unlawfully grabbed 53.22 acres that are part of their locality, including 30.32 acres earmarked as amenity areas to serve their needs. However, their negligible political and financial clout puts them at a huge disadvantage in trying to establish their claim. They are, after all, up against DHA, the country’s most powerful land authority that provides real estate windfalls to the men in uniform while catering to the residential and commercial aspirations of the super-rich.” (Emphasis added).
That Pakistan army’s insatiable lust for real estate has crossed bearable limits is evident from an observation made by Supreme Court Judge Justice Gulzar Ahmed last year that, “Defence Housing Authority (DHA) of Karachi have encroached so far into the sea. If they had their way, they would build a city on the sea. The owners of DHA would encroach on the entire sea all the way to America and then plant their flags there. The owners of DHA are wondering how they can make inroads into India!” (Emphasis added).
Under these circumstances, even the most ardent fan of Pakistan armed forces will tend to agree with columnist Irfan Husain’s view that “As long as this unseemly acquisition of land by the military continues, it might be seen as a colonising force!”