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After an intense three-day drama, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that General Bajwa, who was given an extension for three years, would remain in the chair for six months, and that during this time parliament would legislate on the extension/ reappointment of an army chief. In Pakistan’s history, many army chiefs have either given themselves extensions or been granted one, but never has it been questioned by the courts. In only one case in 2010, when General Kayani was granted an extension, an appeal was filed in the Islamabad High Court.
It was dismissed on the ground that the high court does not have jurisdiction on the Army Act. It never went beyond the high court. The present judgment order is a landmark one, which has balanced aspirations across the board and impacts Pakistan in the long term. The court considered three aspects – law, procedure followed and the grounds for granting an extension. In every case the state was found wanting. Legally and procedurally there were shortcomings. The court even remarked that there was ‘ambiguity in the army act’.
On the grounds for granting an extension, the court remarked, “If they find an extraordinary general tomorrow, will they grant him an extension of 30 years?” To add to the misery of the government and the army, the Chief Justice mentioned, “We were labelled as agents of India and the CIA when we examined the Army Act yesterday”, implying that anyone who questions the army is anti-national and an Indian agent. It was this power of the army that the judiciary broke. The army chief was also part of the discussions in the PM’s house where the case was being considered and observations of the court addressed.
To add insult to Imran Khan, the Chief Justice stated, “It is embarrassing that the army chief has to keep an eye on summaries instead of the country’s defence.” The court put the army in its place. Pakistan was a divided house on the issue of extension. Many felt that the army chief should retire honourably, and the concept of extensions must end. After all, the country has many competent generals to replace him. Even the Pakistan Bar Council announced a day-long strike against the extension. A three-year extension meant that all senior officers, almost 17 of them, would have retired.
Most in the running were therefore against the extension and hence there were divisions within the army. The senior most officer after the retirement of General Bajwa post the 3-year extension, would be Lt Gen Faiz Hamid, who is currently the DG ISI. Hence, the deep state was backing the extension since it benefitted General Faiz. The decision of the Supreme Court has given some a cause for cheer. Simultaneously, the decision has changed Pakistan’s internal atmosphere for a long time to come. Firstly, it has removed the army from being the sole authority to determine its future.
Silently, the court has placed the parliament as supreme as it now needs to decide what legislation it would pass and the period of extension that it can permit for the army chief. To rub salt into wounds the court stated, “There is no check on the activities that are going on in cantonment or under which law an action is being taken. Now a constitutional institution is examining this matter.” Secondly, in a country where the army chief has been able to influence the judiciary and accountability courts to put behind bars all who oppose the army’s interests including former PMs and presidents, this decision has proved that there are still a few sane voices which can challenge their writ.
How would this impact the judiciary in the time ahead is to be seen. Thirdly, within Pakistan there was a debate on who is more important, the individual or the institution. For General Bajwa and his selected Prime Minister, Imran Khan, it was the individual and not the institution. Many across Pakistan felt that in order to safeguard the institution, General Bajwa should have resigned and let the government act in its own time to overcome the deficiencies pointed out by the court, rather than rushing for a legislation in six months. Khurram Husain wrote in the Dawn, “There is more to the institution of the military than its might and prestige. After Wednesday’s hearing in court, there is little doubt that this higher purpose, before which all chiefs should submit, will best be served by standing down.”
Fourthly, Imran proved himself incompetent once again. He kept amending his extension directions based on court orders only to be rebuked again and again. It also proved that his set of advisors were as incompetent as him. Further, the same judiciary which he attempted to challenge a few days ago, put him in his place. He may never learn from this lesson as he never accepted his faults but tweeted, “a great disappointment to those who expected the country to be destabilised by a clash of institutions.”
He implied India and the Pakistani opposition. There are also doubts on why the court took up the case. One thought is that by doing so, the court has legalised the extension, and knows that Bajwa would gain his three years through parliament. This would close all litigation which may arise in the future. For China, which praised his extension, as he remains the main backer of the CPEC, this would have come as some relief. For India, it would mean engaging an army with a known devil as its head.
The reactions and denials of Pakistan after the Balakote strike and recent strong crossborder fire assaults, have enabled India to judge his reactions to strong Indian counter measures, which is to hide rather than face them. The main loser in the entire episode, solely because General Bajwa placed himself before his institution, is the Pakistan army. Its power has been checkmated. However, with a selected PM at the helm, it may regain it soon.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)