The Divine Right of Army Chiefs in Pakistan
Divine Right or Constitutional Rule
By Husain Haqqani
Between them, Pakistan ’s four military rulers since 1958 have virtually created a new concept in political science that can best be termed “the divine right of army chiefs.” It is patterned on the “divine right of kings,” the absolutist doctrine that asserted that a monarch derived his right to rule from the will of God. According to the doctrine of divine right, a king’s authority could not be restricted by the will of his subjects, the aristocracy, the judiciary or a constitution. Any attempt to depose the king or to restrict his powers was deemed in medieval Europe as rebellion against the will of God. A similar philosophy appears to be at work in the political thinking of Pakistan ’s military rulers.
Only a belief in the divine right of army chiefs can explain some of the assertions made by General Pervez Musharraf in his Press conference over the weekend. He claimed that “I did not violate the Constitution and law of this land,” even after suspending the constitution. Quite clearly, he sees his decisions as the law of the land. Similarly his statement that the Supreme Court judges who refused to accept his Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) were not “above the Law” indicates the belief that the army chiefs, and not judges, have the ultimate authority to interpret the law. In normal jurisprudence and political science the law is what the judges say it is.
Musharraf is not the first Pakistani military chief to consider himself above the law and constitution and yet insist that he was not violating the law. Field Marshal Ayub Khan abrogated the 1956 constitution and then introduced a constitution in 1962, which began with words to the effect, “I, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, do hereby give the Islamic Republic of Pakistan the following constitution.” That language was unusually similar to the one used by King John of England in the preface of the Magna Carta in 1215 wherein he said he had “granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below” to the people. In 1969, Ayub Khan abrogated even the 1962 constitution and handed power over to the next army chief in a move akin to abdication in a monarchy.
Yahya Khan held elections in the hope of securing a fragmented and pliant parliament and was surprised by the mergence of two strong civilian leaders, one in each wing of a Pakistan which then included today’s Bangladesh . Personal weaknesses relating to wine and women notwithstanding, Yahya Khan is reputed to have been an able soldier and a financially honest man. But his inability to understand political issues and to deal with them led to military defeat as well as the division of Pakistan in 1971. Even after elections had determined whom the people supported, Yahya Khan believed that he had been assigned a mission by the Almighty to save Pakistan from politicians he believed to be corrupt and unsuited to lead the nation.
Yahya Khan did not waver for one minute from the strategy that he and his fellow generals evolved, ignoring public opinion and the voices of the intelligentsia. He declared the leader of the majority party in erstwhile East Pakistan a “traitor” and refused even to share power with the politician chosen by West Pakistanis because he disapproved of him. International condemnation of use of brute force against Bengalis was dismissed as an international conspiracy instead of being considered sane advice. But Yahya Khan’s militarized strategy turned out to be a recipe for national disaster.
Even after military defeat in East Pakistan , Yahya Khan insisted on announcing a new constitution for the country and was stopped only by fellow army officers who ensured a transfer of power to the elected leadership in West Pakistan . But Yahya Khan never understood what he had done wrong. His security officer at the time, Chaudhry Sardar later narrated that as he drove through Rawalpindi after the 1971 military debacle, the police advised the military ruler to avoid driving through crowds of people in case they vents anger upon sighting him. Yahya Khan retorted, “I have not stolen their donkey that they should be angry with me.” He did not grasp the outrage of the populace over loss of half of Pakistan ’s territory as a result of an ill-fated civil war that invited Indian intervention.
The lesson, if there was one should have been to acknowledge that the complex problems of a nation such as Pakistan cannot be solved by the simple though straightforward approach of a soldier with a sense of God-given mission. But that not prevent General Ziaul Haq from assuming power in 1977 and ruling with an iron hand. Ziaul Haq added enforcement of Islam and promotion of violent Jihadism to the list of his God-given tasks, creating many of the problems Pakistan is today trying to tackle.
General Musharraf, too, has repeatedly demonstrated that his status as army chief somehow places him above the rest of the citizenry in understanding and solving Pakistan ’s problems. Musharraf has, however, never shown much awareness of matters political and constitutional. His ignorance of history was revealed when, while visiting the Gandhi memorial during the course of the Agra summit in 2001, he asked his Indian hosts, “So how did Gandhi die?” Even now he has expelled t hree reporters from Britain 's Daily Telegraph because of an editorial in the paper that used “foul and abusive language” to allude to General Musharraf. The Telegraph editorial referred to language reportedly used by former US president Franklin D.Roosevelt in expressing Washington's grudging support for Nicaragua's then dictator Anastasio Somoza. Anyone well versed in political history and debates over US support for strongmen would have known the reference and taken it in its political context.
In 1999, General Musharraf explained his military takeover by blaming Pakistan ’s politicians and insisted that he needed to correct the country’s course by changing its politics. Now he maintains that he alone knows how to correct the course of Pakistan ’s judiciary. He does not realize that Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has become a symbol of the Pakistani people’s resistance to arbitrary rule. Justice Chaudhry is seen as the judge who refused to roll over and disappear, unlike earlier judges who cooperated with military rulers or simply went home when their conscience dictated otherwise. Chaudhry’s call upon the legal fraternity to “ Go to every corner of Pakistan and give the message that this is the time to sacrifice ” for the supremacy of Pakistan’s constitution has drawn elements disillusioned with existing political leaders to anti-Musharraf protests. The people are also rallying behind the politicians hated by the military because the major divide in Pakistan is now between believers in the notion of the divine right of army chiefs and the globally accepted concept of constitutional supremacy.
According to Brigadier A.R. Siddiqui, who served as head of Inter-Services Public Relations, Pakistan ’s military has built an unrealistic image of itself as being above everyone else in Pakistan . This image has produced “self love”, “self-righteousness” and “self complacency” among Pakistani generals, which is “suicidal for the military profession”. This may be the reason that Pakistan has done less on the battlefield according to independent analysts than the nation has ever been allowed to believe and continues to fare terribly in the arena of politics and constitutional governance. Musharraf must recognize sooner rather than later that he and the rulers of Myanmar are the only ones left in the world who believes that a coup-making general can successfully lead a country forever. The rest of the world left behind ideas about the divine right of rulers, whether Kings or generals, a long time ago.
Husain Haqqani is Director of Boston University's Center for International Relations, and Co-Chair of the Islam and Democracy Project at Hudson Institute, Washington D.C. He is author of the book ' Pakistan between Mosque and Military'