By Rifaat Hamid Ghani
Could one dub the military establishment a sacred cow? Risky: the figure of speech could be taken as mocking or belittling Hindu theology. Offenders could hopefully plead not guilty for the expression ‘sacred cow’ is common usage globally in the Queen’s English. But there is another pitfall – what about the subject to which the epithet is applied? If that is taboo for critical discussion locally and you broach it; you, rather than the sacred cow, could become meat for dissection (figuratively of course). To put it another way — it is politically unwise to offend the military establishment. But circumspection carried too far raises socio-civic issues, can leave the public proverbial ostriches with heads buried in the sand, for, in another sense, prodding sacred cows might be corrective politicking no matter how politically incorrect. The sacred cow of freedom of speech here is curtailed by two enormous public perceptions of religiosity and national security.
Yet, religion in itself is certainly not endangered by freedom of speech: witness Charlie Hebdo’s repeated mockery of aspects of Muslim faith. It did not—indeed could not– affect the sublime certainties of Muslim faith no matter how consciously it offended and wounded Muslim sentiment.
Now how might national security be endangered?
Alas, by many things in many ways. Longstanding, festering civic discontent can overflow. Sentiment can be brought to boil over on grievances. Thus; sanctioned autonomies breached, disgruntled nationalist sentiment misinterpreted, ethnic exploitation, crusading religious rectitude, can be explosive as well as implosive. Even so, public discussion about and around national security and what may promote or hinder it, in itself seldom constitutes any substantial immediate threat requiring pre-emptive action. But it can mischievously or constructively seek to implant ideas—suggest. Although the fifth estate when relaying messages or shaping them is not as effective as it may aim to be. It keeps treading on its own toes. There is just too much information around for a narrative to predominate let alone triumph, unless facts and truths are on its side. But these are often only retrospectively evident. In any ongoing sociopolitical formulations, it is up to the individual citizen to question, accept, reject or ignore proffered prisms. That may also be why media veterans deem it incumbent to act as public watchdogs.
When former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the PDM’s inaugural jalsa virtually chided both the COAS and a former DG of the ISI by name for having misused position to modify due electoral process and ensure the PTI incumbency it took everyone’s breath away. Of course the army and the agencies (as well as some civil servants and public officials) have been known to manipulate political process and intimidate or promote politicians and parties. But these historical instances are in the past, and their explosive content detonated. Stamping into present or yet to be cleared minefields is another matter: Is Nawaz Sharif a fool or an angel for rushing in where most Pakistanis fear to tread? Was he possibly in the right although definitely politically incorrect?
No matter how things turn out, once a taboo is broken it is broken. Like it or not, our military establishment is, since then, less of a sacred cow. Though still not as vulnerable as our civil political herds, its sociopolitical shepherding is meat for debate. Does this endanger national security? In itself it doesn’t: but it could– depending on reactions and responses from and within not just the military establishment but other institutions and their shepherds—and above all the flocks.
In terms of its role as the weaponized defender of our country’s sovereignty none of us seek to undermine the primacy of the armed forces. There is an unfailing enduring esteem and acknowledgement of its competence and valour in that context. But soldiers as citizens are saving and defending what is equally their own country. And civilians as citizens have stood by them with equal love in their moments of surrender as in Bangladesh; and with the deepest concern for them as POWs. Nor do citizens whitewash their own ‘civil’ political arrogance and public gullibility in that context. Historically, it is only when stepping into and after taking over civil political space that the military has brought itself into popular question. Today, the components of hybrid government share with each other in a division of bouquets and brickbats from the governed. The common public hope is that one or the other will make good sense and democratic tolerance in civil governance prevail before the plant wilts. Dissenting citizens and politicians must not be treated as weeds and automatically catalogued as traitors. Dialogue and mutual accommodation of what is being made into ‘the other’ have become imperatives since the disclosure of the alarming content of what is being called the Indian dossier.