The reign of hawks

Source: Published in Current Affairs on Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why did jihadis and bigots of all hues come out in a frenzy to profess allegiance and support for the army and ISI?

WHAT we are witnessing in Pakistan is a meltdown of the state and society, while hawks, intriguers, instigators, bigots and obscurantists rave it up. Optimists hope that the war between khakis and the media will encourage retrospection, highlight the need for checks and balances to strengthen the vital functions of our media and intelligence agencies and initiate a process of holding to account vigilante elements within both that indulge in excesses.

Optimism is a wonderful thing for it brings along the promise of a better tomorrow. When caught in a nightmare such as the one we are experiencing, hope springs from faith in the intrinsic human ability to learn from mistakes and take corrective action. But doesn’t such hope become plain denial once it is evident that conceit, self-righteousness and petty-mindedness have drowned out the rational ability of power wielders to zoom out and look at the larger picture?

This picture has become murkier. It is no longer about seeking revenge for a media group’s audacity to indulge in character assassination of the holiest of the holy. The problem has acquired partisan and commercial dimensions, which make its resolution thornier. The lesser charge is that Geo attempted to defame the DG ISI in contravention of the law and journalistic ethics and needs to be prosecuted. But the case being built is that Geo slandered the army/ISI at the behest of the PML-N as part of a larger conspiracy to cut the khakis to size.

The PML-N and Geo painted as an evil joint venture helps others: it helps opposition parties interested in mid-term elections, not possible under the Constitution unless called by the prime minister; it helps competing media houses vying for the viewers and advertising revenue dominated by one group; and it also strengthens the hand of the khakis in a new power matrix where courts have begun asking probing questions in the missing persons’ cases (and have even indicted an army chief), and journalists have acquired the gall to question the virtue of serving generals.

The PTI has reason to protest if charges of massive electoral rigging are not fairly prosecuted. PTI might genuinely believe that segments of the media exhibit a bias towards the party. But why mix the two and make the incredulous claim that a group was complicit in electoral rigging? Why add to the unhealthy national pastime of imagining conspiracies, and make allegations about receipt of secret funds and pursuit of foreign agendas without presenting proof?

When did it become the media’s job to deliver vigilante justice to a rival group? What happened to the old school media ethic of not naming and shaming rival platforms and standing together to defend the space for free expression? And what demons could possibly possess some media groups that they began inciting hate against a rival in the name of religion? Is religious hatred not already in a state of inferno that media also felt the need to add fuel to fire?

And what was the gut reaction of the khakis when they found themselves under attack? Why did jihadis and bigots of all hues come out in a frenzy to profess allegiance and support for the army and ISI? We have been told for over a decade by the khakis themselves that the foremost threat to national security emanates from within. We have been advised in hushed tones that lessons from the failed enterprise of employing non-state actors in pursuit of national security have finally been learnt.

We have been lectured that after fighting the TTP for years and losing our brave officers and soldiers in this gruesome war, there is no confusion that private militant groups that fuse intolerant religious ideology with the ability to practise violence need to be liquidated. And yet despite the sacrifices being rendered by our troops and the supposed lessons learnt from past mistakes, the assets instinctively brandished when attacked by a media house were none other than Lashkar-i-Taiba, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, the Sunni Ittehad Council etc.

Do our generals not realise that continuing to nurture and preserve non-state actors means kindling more of the same fire that is raging across Pakistan and has claimed more than 50,000 of us? What has our divisive national security narrative and its approach to defining patriots and traitors done to make Pakistan a stronger and safer country for its citizens? Why are we so suspicious of our own autonomy and agency that we believe anyone of us will readily sell his soul and country for a song to the first foreign bidder?

Why has it become so hard in our country to debate competing notions of national security without getting one’s integrity and patriotism impugned? Can two citizens not argue for and against trade with India, both driven by the desire to see Pakistan progress and prosper? Can two citizens not argue for and against a military solution in Fata, both inspired by the need to maximise the strength of the Pakistani state and the security of its citizens?

No matter who wins the initial rounds of this no-holds-barred conflict between journos, politicos and the khakis, it will be a pyrrhic victory. No one will walk away from this mud-fest standing tall. Meanwhile the damage being inflicted on the credibility of vital institutions and legitimacy of the state itself is immeasurable. Thought leaders within the government, the army, political parties and the media must exhibit leadership, harness their attack dogs, end this madness and focus on the existential challenge confronting us.

Author Information

Written by Babar Sattar

Author Information: The writer is a lawyer.

More by Babar Sattar
Read all from Babar Sattar»