Whether former Pakistan president Parvez Musharraf is eventually executed or not, the fact that a special court sentenced him to death is in itself stunning. For, such an outcome was extremely unexpected in a country where the military has dominated almost all aspects of political life since its birth in 1947.
For one, the judicial order putting Musharraf to death directly implies that the traditional equation among the executive, military and the judiciary is changing. Or, to be more specific, the judiciary has asserted its independence vis-a-vis the other two. It may be a trifle premature to similarly declare the executive as being superior to the military. Current Prime Minister Imran Khan, for instance, is widely seen to be close to the military and his victory in the last elections was attributed to the support from the military.
The judiciary, however, has had a better track record than the executive in the way it has resisted the military’s dominance in Pakistani politics. In fact, in the specific case of Musharraf, the judiciary had always been a hindrance to his plans to browbeat all institutions to emerge as a grand dictator.
In 2007, one of the reasons why Musharraf suspended the Constitution and imposed a national emergency was because of widespread protests caused by his move to sack the then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. It is the very same decision, to impose Emergency, that has now come to bite Musharraf. A special court on Tuesday sentenced him to death for this decision. In other words, the judiciary has had the last laugh in the long-lasting tussle with Musharraf.
What has happened as a consequence, intended or not, is that the unprecedented ruling casts a slur on Pakistan’s military and questions the patriotism and national commitment of one of its top officers. No wonder the current army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa has expressed anguish at the ruling and has said the court has not done justice to a former military chief and president of the country who had worked for the country.
Eventually, even if the Supreme Court upholds the death sentence (on appeal) the civilian President has the powers to pardon Musharraf. And, that is what will likely happen as the government, under Imran Khan, is in no position to antagonise the military.
For more than half the seven decades since Pakistan’s independence the military has been in command of the country. It is not easy, for instance, to criticise the Pakistani military establishment and many journalists and independence activists have had to bear the brunt of attacks including death for daring to expose perceived misdeeds in the military.
The best example of antagonising the military is perhaps that of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. In October 1999, Sharif was on the verge of dismissing Musharraf . The then military chief was returning from a visit to Sri Lanka and Sharif ordered Karachi airport control not to allow his plane to land. It was potentially a dangerous situation as the aircraft could run out of fuel if forced to remain in the air.
A livid military, without further ado, deposed Nawaz Sharif in an instant coup. Musharraf all but transited from being an army chief in air to the country’s ruler when he landed. There ended a civilian challenge to the power of the military.
The balance of power within Pakistan, particularly the military’s dominance and its vested interests have also prevented normalising of relations with India. For the military to remain important and much-required, through all these decades since the country’s formation, the Kashmir dispute has been kept alive and New Delhi has been portrayed as a constant threat.
Whenever a civilian government has attempted to take steps for better relations with India in consonance with the government in New Delhi, more often than not, a military-inspired event attacking India or a terrorist strike has derailed the peace process. The Mumbai terror attack in 2008, or the Kargil conflict in 1999, are but examples of this. So much so, attempts at peace between the two neighbours have always meant taking one step forward resulting in several steps back.
In the Kargil conflict, Pakistani soldiers in mufti had over several months occupied Tiger Hill in the early months of 1999 even as Islamabad was involved in peace talks with New Delhi. The then prime minister Nawaz Sharif was reportedly unaware of developments in Kargil. Musharraf, who was the army chief at the time, did not deem it necessary to keep the civilian leadership informed.
Indian military personnel who stumbled on this development, were shocked at the intrusion. It also exposed an Indian intelligence goof up. A B Vajpayee, who was India’s prime minister at the time and Sharif were talking peace until the Kargil intrusion was discovered. The Indian army fought off the intrusion and regained Tiger Hill and other territory that had been occupied by the Pakistani military. The peace attempts eventually came to nothing.
Months before the Mumbai terror attack, relations between the two countries had eased to an extent where access across Kashmir on both sides was facilitated and moves were afoot to relax ties on other fronts too. But the attack put paid to peace and all relations broke down.
Not just that, many Pakistani cricket players who had played the T20 IPL cricket matches in India were not accommodated in any of the league teams after the 2008 attack and that continues to this day.
The balance of power issue within Pakistan therefore has long-term implications for ties with India. In that sense, the judiciary’s assertion vis-a-vis the military in that country is a development that could increase the chances of peace in the region by some notches at least. More so, if the civilian government too follows the judiciary, and puts the military in its place. A tall order, but not entirely impossible.