Ayesha Siddiqa’s questionable narrative

  • It’s about priorities

An article ‘Possibilities of a Verdict’ written by Ayesha Siddiqa which was published in The Indian Expresson 11 February 2019 discusses a verdict by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on the military and intelligence agencies. The learned writer is a research associate at CISD, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and a known critic of Pakistani military. In her 2007 book Military Inc Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, she takes a critical and harsh look at the various enterprises run by the military’s welfare organisations instituted to support retired military personnel. She asserts that Pakistan occupies a paradoxical, even contradictory, place in American foreign policy. Nominally a strategic ally in the war on terror, it is the third-largest recipient of US aid in the world. At the same time, it is run by its military and intelligence service — whose goals certainly do not always overlap with US priorities.

Military Inc offers a close look at what the rise of the military has meant for Pakistani society. Ayesha Siddiqa tries to portray how entrenched the military has become, not just in day-to-day governance, but in the Pakistani corporate sector as well. She asks questions like: “What are the consequences of this unprecedented merging of the military and corporate sectors? What does it mean for Pakistan’s economic development—let alone for hopes of an eventual return to democracy and de-militarisation?”

As a research scholar, Ayesha Siddiqa has every right to question any enterprise, be it military or civilian. However, her observations are mostly based on blinkered vision focused on military bashing. She misses the ethos and the philosophy behind military welfare institutions but that is not under discussion here.

In her opinion piece, ‘Possibilities of a Verdict’, she asserts that the decision by two senior judges of Pakistan’s Supreme Court is significant because of its sharp criticism of the role of the military and its intelligence agencies in the country’s politics.

The case pertains to Tehreek Labaik Pakistan’s (TLP) protests in November 2017 that paralysed life in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. She writes that the director-general of Pakistan Rangers, an army general, was photographed distributing envelopes containing 1,000 rupee notes to the TLP protestors. Delivering their verdict on February 6, Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Mushir Alam — who have a reputation of being far more principled than many other judges in the supreme court — criticised the military’s supposed manipulation of Pakistan’s domestic politics.

Ayesha Siddiqa may be a scholar of high repute, but she should have more faith in the media practices of her own country

She asks the ultimate question: Will the reprimand bring about any difference in the behaviour of the politically active — even arrogant — military? She states that three issues are worth devoting attention to in this respect. First, will this judgment help generate a consensus amongst the higher judiciary regarding its relationship with the armed forces? This is especially because the judiciary itself is divided on the extent it should interfere in the affairs of the military.

She claims that unfortunately Pakistan’s judiciary is not at the peak of its credibility. Its reputation has been tarnished by two populist chief justices, Iftekhar Muhammad Chaudhry and Mian Saqib Nisar. The governments of Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf appointed judges who were wanting in professional ethics or were known to have conservative right-wing values. Justice Faez Isa and a few others are exceptions who slipped through the system.

Ayesha Siddiqa goes on to assert that the renowned human rights activist (late) Asma Jahangir had raised suspicions about the financing of the lawyer’s movement that had pitchforked Chaudhry to prominence. She surmises that the former chief justice was even known to have selected a judge of the Lahore High Court on the recommendation of the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) leader, Abdul Rehman Makki. Another conservative judge chosen by him, Justice Shaukat Siddiqui had, however, exposed the ISI’s interference in influencing decisions of the highest court. Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, on the other hand, had turned Pakistan’s highest court into a kangaroo court that interfered with governance to the extent that it became difficult to distinguish between judicial orders and legislative action.

Second, according to the erudite scholar, the court’s latest decision opens up possibilities for the government and the civil bureaucracy to assert themselves vis-a-vis the military. She believes that the government may, however, not be inclined to do so since the military is the major force behind Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Ayesha’s assumption is that there is a possibility of the government, or other forces, using the decision to generate some temporary chaos over extending the term of the current army chief — it’s known that he wants an extension. However, an overall strengthening of Khan’s hands does not seem to be a long-term possibility.

Third, Ms Siddiqa opines that there is little possibility of implementing the decision, unless there is greater accountability of the military’s actions. Ayesha Siddiqa claims that though the Pakistan army was involved in politics since the mid-1950s, it has been controlling the socio-political discourse much more extensively since 2013. Her tirade against the military reaches a crescendo: “The army and its intelligence agencies pick up people and torture them, interfere in media operations on an almost daily basis, advise private companies about giving advertisement to media houses, stop universities from employing people and put individuals on the exit-control list.”

The judgment will be presented as an example of the Pakistani judiciary’s independence. A case will therefore be made of not influencing the judiciary in other litigations, like those pertaining to the JuD and Hafiz Saeed.

The author pleads that Pakistan’s civil society must not be tricked by the way an otherwise excellent decision is presented to it; it should also not desist from using the verdict to its advantage. The verdict indeed gives it a foot in the door to contest for greater rights. After all, the concept of the state should not be limited to one institution.

Indian audience is rightfully feeling obliged to Ayesha Siddiqa for providing them much needed “arrows in their quiver” to support anti-Pakistan/anti-Imran Khan and anti-army/ISI narratives.

Interestingly, a comment on the article in Indian Express says it all. “The writer is a scholar of repute. One thing this column highlights is that Pakistanis have freedom to write against even their all prevailing army/establishment which is a taboo here in India. But one wonders why she should write in an Indian newspaper against her own country’s army? Does she belong to Hussain Haqqani’s club?”

Ayesha Siddiqa may be a scholar of high repute, but she should have more faith in the media practices of her own country. Firstly, it would be more credible if her opinion pieces appeared in Pakistani press. This may not be possible if she wants to play to the Indian gallery. Secondly, some of her assertions necessitate verification especially those pertaining to missing persons. The case is being heard in the judiciary and sanity would demand that a verdict be reached before commenting on it, lest we bias the judgment.