By Ayesha Siddiqa
RECENTLY, the new Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, tasked the military with defending not only national territory but also the ideological frontiers of the state. The statement was an uncomfortable reminder of the past 60 years during which the armed forces have remained the defenders of the country’s territory and ideology.
As retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan rightly pointed out, it speaks of a sense of inferiority amongst political players when they push the ideological debate on the military’s table. It was pointed out that giving the military the task to defend ideology was indeed flawed. The problem is not just about giving this task to the military but what exactly the organisation is supposed to defend.
We are still grappling with the question of what is the country’s ideology. Is it a country created for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent and meant to provide them with space to live? Or to build a fortress of Islam which would emerge as a counter-balance against all other forces in the South Asian region? These are two different kinds of ideas.
According to the first one, since the Muslims of the subcontinent didn’t think that they had a chance to enforce a favourable distribution of resources, they had to create another country. Since the issue was really a socio-economic one, such a state would have naturally proposed the better distribution of resources amongst various ethnic and religious communities. However, this did not happen. After 60 years of existence we see society fractured along ethnic, religious and sectarian lines.
The Pakistani establishment is often surprised to see Pakistanis discussing their issues outside. This is mainly because state ideology does not have sufficient space for people to voice their issues within. So they are constantly looking for external neutral arbiters.
Does the ideology then include the desires and aspirations of ethnic minorities like the Baloch, Sindhis, Mohajirs, Seraiki, Pakhtun and others who also want to be part of it but instead feel deprived? Or is it that we will always have to employ the power of the bullet in defence of this amorphous ideology as happened in the 1970s in East Pakistan and Balochistan or in the 1980s and 1990s in Sindh or more recently again in Balochistan?
The main issue with handing over the defence of ideology to any state bureaucracy is that the latter tends to define ideology in bureaucratic terms which means something that can be imagined and implemented easily. The nation has drifted from being a country for Muslims to one which is supposed to defend a larger religious ideology. Such conceptualisation becomes doubly problematic for both the nation and its armed forces that have been dragged over the years into defending a larger than life ideology.
As a result of the founding fathers not defining the country’s ideology — an issue compounded by the state’s problematic politics — the country drifted towards posing as a fortress of Islam. Religion became one of the tools for legitimising power. Even seemingly secular leaders like General Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto used this gimmickry to win popular support.
During Ayub Khan’s time, Pakistan was presented as the largest Muslim country on the basis of population, something that angered other Muslim states like Egypt. Later, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto talked about Pakistan being the leader of the Muslim world. Every leader raised the bar further. This naturally influenced the military’s thinking as well.
Religion was also used aggressively as a military-strategic tool. Here, the reference is not just to General Ziaul Haq’s period in power but to generations of generals before him. Islam was used for the first time during the 1947/48 war with India as the ‘tool’ with which to muster support among the northern tribesmen. This tactic was repeated during the 1965 war.
Again, strategic links were developed between the military and religious parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami to raise sub-organisations like Al-Shams and Al-Badr that could fight the war in East Pakistan against the Mukti Bahini. While it didn’t save the day for Pakistan, the links between the religious parties and the seemingly secular military continued. The links were further strengthened during the Zia years and later on.
The links between the military and militants, who are also considered as tools to fill the gap between conventional and nuclear wars, are indicative of how ideology is defined by state bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the problem has come to haunt us today in the form of suicide bombings and terrorism.
The link between militancy and the military is one of the consequences of allowing the military to define and then defend ideology. The links grew deeper due to the post-colonial nature of the military. The senior officer cadre used religion as a tool without much fear of how this would impact on the rank and file which was expected to follow the commands of the seniors.
Since interaction between the militants and the military was limited to certain segments, the bulk of the organisation was not affected. In any case, given the country’s socio-economic conditions, the bulk of the men would follow the top managers even if they did not ideologically approve of their orders.
This is just one part of the problem. The other relates to a sense of self-righteousness amongst the officer cadre regarding their affinity with the state as opposed to millions of civilians who are seen as a threat to national integrity. The majority of civilians (certainly the politicians) are seen as unsympathetic to the national interest. The tragedy is that the men in uniform often judge the bulk of civilians (even those who are not corrupt) on the basis of how they have been indoctrinated by their organisation and their limited knowledge of civilian life.
For instance, all business entrepreneurs are viewed with suspicion because they are seen as trying to make a profit even when they do business with public sector, military-controlled defence production institutions. The need for a commercial entrepreneur to make profit is often not understood.
The country today is faced with an imbalance between military and civilian institutions and lives. These are two species which co-exist without the semblance of an equal relationship. Under the circumstances, it is not fair to entrust the more powerful party with the role of defining and defending the ideological frontiers. A critical problem that this would create is one of a never-ending sense of hostility.
After 60 years, it is still not too late to debate and agree upon an ideology based on a dialogue amongst different stakeholders. The rest of Pakistan badly needs a sense of ownership of the country.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent strategic and political analyst. firstname.lastname@example.org