A relic of the British colonial past, sedition laws have been used with impunity as a tool to suppress fundamental democratic rights in Pakistan. There have been very few Pakistani leaders who have not been accused of sedition and anti-state activities. Even writers and journalists have not been spared.
A large number of opposition leaders, including two former prime ministers, retired generals and other former holders of important public offices, have now been booked on sedition charges and for anti-state activities. Interestingly, the case has been filed on the complaint of an obscure individual.
It was apparently Nawaz Sharif’s virtual address from London to an opposition conclave in Islamabad that has raised the spectre of this draconian law against the former prime minister. The others are accused of listening to the “seditious” speech that was telecast live on electronic media. The government maintains that it did not have anything to do with the filing of treason cases. But can a police officer act on his own on such a politically sensitive issue?
The three-time former prime minister has been accused of being an “Indian agent”. It was the incumbent prime minister who fired the first salvo blaming Sharif of “working on an Indian agenda”.
Taking their cue from their leader, the party spokesmen launched a campaign of vilification against the opposition leaders. Politics now seems to have descended into sheer vulgarity with rival groups questioning each other’s patriotism. Such an ugly spectacle may not be new to Pakistani politics, but things had never hit such a low before.
Sharif’s scathing criticism of the role of the security establishment in the country’s politics seems to have been the main reason for action against the former prime minister. There has been little in Sharif’s speech that other political leaders have not said before. It has been criticism of the unlawful and unconstitutional indulgence of a state apparatus acting outside its mandate. How can it be described as an act of sedition and anti-state activity?
Justifying the sedition allegation, the prime minister’s spokesman maintained that criticism of the security establishment is a defiance of the Constitution. He did not refer to the other, more important clause of the Constitution that prohibits members of armed forces’ involvement in politics. Pakistan has repeatedly witnessed the suspension of the Constitution and usurpation of power by the security establishment. Over the decades, the latter’s deep involvement in political affairs under civilian rules has also not been a secret.
‘State within a state’
Virtually all elected civilian governments have had the bitter experience of what is commonly described as a “state within a state”. Their own failings notwithstanding, elected governments have never been fully autonomous in taking decisions on key national issues. It is also no secret how the intelligence apparatus was used to destabilise the civilian leadership and prop up pliant politicians.
This dark game has been going on for the past seven decades. Political parties would all too willingly assume the role of pawn in this game of chess. This has also been a major cause of perpetual political instability in Pakistan. The involvement of the security establishment is perceived as much more pronounced in the present political set-up than under previous civilian dispensations, pushing the establishment much deeper into political affairs. Naturally, this makes it the target of the opposition’s attack.
What makes establishment elements more controversial is the perception of their involvement in extra-constitutional activities and partisan role. From the opposition parties’ perspective, the establishment leadership has become a part of the current political dispensation which affects its professional responsibilities.
Criticising the establishment for wrong policies and excesses does not make anyone anti-state. In fact, greater harm is done when there is a perception that national security institutions have become involved in politics. Observers have alleged that there are elements among them who did more damage to the institution’s reputation than its critics over the years. Today, the sedition cases filed against the opposition leaders will once again drag the establishment deeper into the political battle between the government and the opposition.
This campaign of labelling opposition leaders “anti-state” and “Indian agents” indicates the government’s weakness and state of panic. It is not the threat of the opposition alliance, as much as its own ineptitude that has caused this nervousness in the ranks. The prime minister needs to focus more on improving his government’s performance than policing the patriotism of political rivals.
A number of recent scandals have worsened the Khan government’s predicament making it more vulnerable to the opposition’s attack. The latest sensational revelation by a former Federal Investigation Agency chief that he was asked by the “highest authority” to file cases under anti-terrorism and treason laws against some senior Pakistan Muslim League (N) leaders raises serious questions.
The prime minister allegedly admonished the former chief for not pursuing corruption investigations against the Sharif family. The revelation came in an interview, exposing the government’s claim of strengthening state institutions.
There is a view that the current civilian set-up has done more damage to civilian institutions than any administration in the recent past. As previously, there is an attempt at using law-enforcement agencies against political opponents. In fact, it is such actions that have brought the opposition parties together to challenge the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government. Despite the perception that it is supported by the establishment, it will be hard for the Imran Khan government to defend itself.
Labelling the opposition “anti-state” may not help the government to confront the most serious challenge yet to its rule. Such charges are certainly not good advertisement for the government that has come to power on the promise of delivering good governance and to establish the rule of law.
It should not be the right of those in power to decide who is a patriot and who is not. Many of those who are not tired of displaying their ‘patriotism’ may not consider it wrong to usurp the rights of other people.
This article first appeared in Dawn.