The reopening of ‘Mehrangate' has the judiciary, the legislature and the media asking many questions.
No one quite knows how far Mehrangate or the missing persons case will go in righting the civil-military relationship that has long been skewed in favour of the latter in Pakistan, but for the first time “those who must not be named” are not only being named but also shamed in public.
Never before in Pakistan's history has the much feared Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) faced the kind of scrutiny it has in the past few weeks with the judiciary, the legislature and even the media finding courage in each other's efforts to stare back at the actual powers that be of this country. Though criticism of the military and intelligence leadership began in the bruising month of May 2011 — which saw the U.S. raid in Abbottabad to take out al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the terrorist strike on the Mehran naval airbase, and the disappearance and murder of a journalist — it gained traction in January this year when the Supreme Court decided to reopen what has come to be known as “Mehrangate” after 13 years.
“Mehrangate” dates back to 1996 when Pakistan's first Air Force Chief Asghar Khan drew the Supreme Court's attention to a charge made by former Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar in Parliament that the military and intelligence leadership had worked in tandem to create the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) to prevent the Pakistan Peoples Party — led by Benazir Bhutto — from winning the 1990 elections.
Former Chief of Army Staff Mirza Aslam Beg and his ISI Director General Asad Durrani were alleged to have doled out millions to politicians of all hues including subsequent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to form the IJI because the military just did not trust Benazir Bhutto with state secrets and feared that she would seek to avenge the “judicial murder” of her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
After a couple of hearings — the last in 1999 — Mehrangate got cobwebbed despite Air Marshal (retd) Khan's efforts to keep the issue alive. His applications to six Chief Justices of Pakistan between 1999 and 2012 — including the incumbent Iftikhar Chaudhry during the Musharraf era before he was removed by the military dictator — went unheeded.
Sceptics aver that it was the criticism of the apex court's “single-minded” pursuit of cases against the PPP and compulsion to be perceived as being even-handed that forced it to reopen the Mehrangate case as the higher judiciary was being questioned for turning a blind eye to the omissions and commissions of other institutions of the state. Nevertheless, the reopening of Mehrangate and follow-up on cases that put the security establishment in the dock have been largely welcomed. In court, the security establishment has had to suffer a tongue-lashing from none other than Justice Chaudhry himself. Here is a sampling of the remarks made in various court hearings vis-à-vis the ISI and Military Intelligence as reported in the local media: “You need to get it out of your mind that you are superior and others [civilians] are inferior… Who gave you the right to hound people? You are insensitive to the human loss that the families of missing persons have suffered lately because of you… There is a hue and cry throughout the country that you abduct people and then dump their bodies. You are an arsonist. You have set Balochistan on fire.”
And, the unease within the armed forces — often billed as the self-proclaimed arbiters of the nation's destiny — has begun to show. Unaccustomed to such public criticism of the men in uniform, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani last week told senior journalists that such an open discussion about the role of the intelligence agencies and forces was not good for the institutions and the morale of the men who are performing their duties in sub-zero temperatures.
Known to be a man of few words, Gen. Kayani opened up during his fleeting informal interaction with mediapersons at a dinner. He cited the case of other countries like the U.S. and Israel where, according to him, the role of intelligence agencies is not discussed the way the ISI is in Pakistan. According to one newspaper, the general reminded mediapersons that he had taken a conscious decision four-and-a-half years ago that the Army would not involve itself in politics and “I stand by my decision and will stick to it.”
The CoAS made these remarks on a day when the other institutions of the state were clearly closing in. Earlier in the day, the Chief Justice of Pakistan had observed that the intelligence agencies were exceeding their mandate and the National Assembly passed a unanimous resolution calling for a legislation to regulate the role and functioning of intelligence and security agencies who are alleged to be responsible for a number of the missing persons and the unrest in Balochistan. If Gen. Kayani's words were meant to force some introspection in the media and bring down the tempo of the discourse, it did not quite have that effect because the general opinion is that such discussion and debate are long overdue. Further, it was pointed out that no one was questioning the role of the soldiers out on the field who were just following orders. Under the scanner were the decision-makers in the security establishment, past and present.
Breather for PPP
“History hangs heavy over the Pakistan Army,” said the Dawn in its editorial the following day. “For decades, it has directly and indirectly influenced the direction of the state far beyond its official remit and treated all other institutions, be it Parliament or the superior judiciary, as subordinate. To criticise the army leadership when it overreaches and to demand accountability of those who have violated the constitution and the law of the land is to rise to the defence of democracy and constitutional order; not to undermine the institution.”
Countering Gen. Kayani's contention that intelligence agencies elsewhere are not subjected to such criticism, veteran journalist Najam Sethi pointed out that the Central Intelligence Agency in the U.S. and the Research & Analysis Wing in India are generally staffed by civilians and accountable to elected representatives who then take the flak for the follies of their security establishment; spooks included. “There is no conflict of interest in these countries between their agencies and the national interest as defined by their elected civilians in government,” he said in a television programme.
In all this, the PPP — which is responsible for institutionalising the political role of the ISI way back in 1975 but has been the biggest victim of the machinations of the security establishment — has got a breather probably for the first time in this tenure. Though Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani is nowhere out of the woods vis-à-vis the contempt case and the Memogate issue remains open, this dispensation may well go down in history as the first to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the security establishment which lived on to tell the tale.