ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 7, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 19

Death blow to democracy at Pakistan's Tiananmen Square

Across the Palk Straits By Kuldip Nayar

The stately building of the Supreme Court stands on the Constitution Avenue in Islamabad. The avenue has seen the Pakistan constitution being battered again and again. It has come to remind one of the Tiananmen Square in Beijing where the pro-democracy protestors are beaten and bundled to jail when they criticise the rule of the Communist government. Totalitarian regimes, whether of the Left or of the right, are the same when it comes to oppression.

Pakistani opposition legislator Imran Khan, center, with their supporters march toward the National Assembly to submit his resignations, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Opposition legislators submitted their resignations as part of their efforts to undercut President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's re-election bid while two of his opponents filed fresh legal challenges to his candidacy. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

People in Pakistan, unlike the Chinese, have not yet surrendered their right to rule themselves. The flame of democracy still burns although dimly. The desire to protect it has inspired the Pakistanis to defy the authorities for years as they did a few days ago on the Constitution Avenue.

Their demonstration was against the Supreme Court's 6-3 judgment to allow President General Pervez Musharraf to contest for another five-year term without shedding his uniform. The police and the soldiers beat some 200 lawyers and journalists, coming like waves in a battlefield. What I saw on Pakistan television screens, before they were switched off, was no beating. It was carnage.

Leading lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, who won Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary his reinstatement, seemed to be the main target. Some journalists at the risk of their own life spread themselves on him and saved him. They are lying in hospitals with broken arms and deep wounds. That the Supreme Court ordered suo moto inquiry of the beating in Islamabad is a commendable step. Two police officials have already been suspended. But the Supreme Court went over a similar exercise a few months ago. That too was a suo moto inquiry. At that time also, the "police" was equally brutal in beating up the lawyers who were agitating for the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhary.

I do not recall the dismissal of the Director General of Police or Inspector General of Police, nor any arrests. If some ordinary policemen were punished, none knows about it. I am not surprised at the brutalities. When governments run amok, they use every method, illegal and repressive, to chastise opponents and critics. The idea is to use power to break the morale of the opposition and the intelligentsia. I saw this happening in India during the emergency (1975-77) when the police and the government servants became a willing tool of tyranny.

What hurts me is that the ethical considerations inherent in public behaviour become generally dim and in many cases beyond the mental grasp of many of the government functionaries. Desire for self-preservation is the sole motivation for the official action and behaviour. What the police on the Constitution Avenue did could not have been possible without a word from the above. Reports are that the "police" were given instructions by the powers that be. The police zulum is not uncommon in India as well. There are instances of Gujjars being beaten up in Rajasthan and workers in Haryana.

The difference in India is that people have their revenge when free and fair elections take place. They see to it that the rulers who use the police for their ends are defeated. I wish elections in Pakistan could give kind of the freedom which the Indians have. The democratic system makes all the difference despite the excesses which the security forces commit.

In an open society, justice catches up with the criminals, sooner or later. What I have not been able to make out is why Benazir Bhutto, chief of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), is conspicuous by her silence. Many lawyers who were beaten up are her party's stalwarts, particularly Aitzaz Ahsan. There has been no public condemnation, nor any warning to the government which behaved as if it was pitted against the enemy. That Benazir Bhutto has been negotiating a deal with General Musharraf has been known for some time.

Now the cat is out of the bag. The details of the deal are coming out. Benazir Bhutto will return to power after the next elections which may have to be "managed" in such a way that a particular number of seats go to the PPP and a particular number to the religious parties. Musharraf will see to it and balance the two in such a way that he and his supporters become arbiters. This way he hopes to complete his five-year term as president even without uniform.

Benazir Bhutto may go down in the estimate of the public because all cases of corruption against her have been taken back and the questionable bank accounts, frozen so far, have been released. I hope she is aware of the protest within the PPP, particularly for not standing by the side of the members who have given their all to the party to attain the position she enjoys today. Beating was bad enough, but her tacit acceptance was worse. Is it a part of the deal that some articulate and radical members should be eliminated for the smooth running of the new relationship between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf?

It was once said that all political parties would ask their members from the National Assembly to resign if General Musharraf were to file the nomination paper for the president's office without discarding the uniform. At least Musharraf has created confusion by announcing the name of his successor as the chief of the army staff. The surprising part is that all the opposition members of the National Assembly except those belonging to the PPP have resigned from the house in protest. The PPP, once in the forefront, is now seen on the side of Musharraf and his kind of politics.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who resigned from the National Assembly, has said that they will now go to the masses and awaken them against Musharraf. That alone is not enough to restore democracy in Pakistan. The soldiers have to go back to the barracks and stay there as is the practice in India and other democratic countries.

It is a pity that America which calls itself the strongest democracy in the world has been a party to what has been agreed upon between Benazir Bhutto and General Musharraf. Washington has its own ways to "save' democracy.

(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist and ex-diplomat. He was also a one-time member of the Rajya Sabha)

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