What does recent sentencing of its officials tell about the Pakistan Army redefining the contours of ‘nationalism’?
Dr Kapil Patil, Associate Fellow, VIF

Two former senior army officials and a civilian working for what the army termed as "sensitive organization" were awarded rigorous sentences under the Pakistan Army Act and Official Secrets Act on charges of espionage. While Lt. Gen (Retd) Javed Iqbal was handed over life imprisonment of fourteen years, Brigadier (Retd) Raja Rizwan and Dr. Wasim Akram were handed death penalties.1 Unconfirmed reports of their arrests began trickling in since this February, but it took more than three months for the army to confirm this. Since Lt. Gen Iqbal served as the Director General Military Operations and Adjutant General, and Brigadier Rizwan superannuated after having served as a Military Attaché in Germany, it becomes a matter of inquiry to identify the factors prompting the army to go public with announcing these sentences. Complete absence of any information on the nature of charges at best prompts drawing of various scenarios and causalities to understand this unusual development.

Given the rampant corruption among the nation's civilian political establishment, the army - over the years - has carefully crafted its image as being the sole institution championing the national cause. The aggressive use of the ISPR through films, music videos and daily soaps, along with coercion of mainstream media has been successful to a large extent in instilling this belief. With all these investments, acknowledging the role of senior officials in anti-national activities goes against the very narrative the army has pushed over the years. The army has undoubtedly enjoyed the monopoly of defining traitors, be it Ayub Khan accusing Fatima Jinnah of being an Indian agent, Zia ul Haq’s role in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s death sentence, or the recent disgraceful ouster of Nawaz Sharif, who is the latest victim. Hitherto, the "traitor" was either found in political parties, rights groups or the in civil society. Imran Khan's election campaign, which enjoyed strong support from the "establishment”, was based on delegitimizing Nawaz Sharif as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party (PTI) branded him as an Indian agent. Similarly, the army's accusation that the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement is funded by Indian agencies is another instance of its relentless efforts at discrediting even those fighting for constitutional rights.

However, with the recent sentencing, the army seems to have broken the tradition by accepting that even its senior most personnel are fallible. Although there are several past examples of army handing over rigorous imprisonment or death penalties to its personnel, but such cases have been limited to junior ranks. Regarding senior officials, The last known case one could recall is of Major General Zaheer ul Islam Abbasi serving a seven year jail term (1995-2002), but his involvement in assassination attempts on the then Prime Minister Bhutto and Army Chief General Abdul Waheed Kakar was too serious to let him go.2

One possible explanation could be the army projecting itself as an accountable institution in light of growing criticism of the impunity with which the army has operated. This may stem from the new low reached in civil-military ties after Nawaz Sharif’s ouster. Notwithstanding Imran Khan's popularity during the run up to 2018 elections, the circumstances in which the PTI won the elections once again raised strong suspicions regarding the army's usual role in tampering with the electoral processes. This, accompanied by the rising temper among the Pashtuns (who account for 15 percent of the nation’s population) on bringing accountability to the army’s excesses in the tribal areas has kept the army at the receiving end from the opposition parties (mainly the Pakistan People’s Party, the PPP), the civil society and the international media. In this context, the decision aims to reinforce the "establishment's" view that the army is the only institution in the country with high standards of scrutiny. Perhaps there is a clearer plausibility visible in case of the civilian’s case which pertains to Pakistan Army’s persistent quest to curb illicit proliferation activities emanating from its nuclear installations. The fact that the civilian employee hailed a sensitive organization - believed to be the Kahuta Research Laboratories - calls into question Pakistan’s long-standing claim that illicit proliferation activities from its nuclear complexes have been fully curbed. By expeditiously punishing the alleged officials, the Pakistan Army may have tried to avoid yet another controversy over nuclear proliferation activities.

It is a well-known fact that A.Q. Khan and other Pakistani scientists used the nuclear smuggling network to reap millions of dollars by transferring sensitive materials and technologies to countries seeking to acquire nuclear capabilities such as Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Since the dismantling of the A.Q. Khan network in 2004, the Pakistan Army has strongly claimed that illicit proliferation activities from its soil have been fully ended. Therefore, if believed to be true, the alleged undercover activities present a major setback for international, and in particular, the American counter-proliferation policy towards Pakistan which has historically vacillated between (non)proliferation and other politico-security considerations. The punishment handed over to the civilian not only points toward the continued engagement of Pakistani nuclear scientists in the illicit activities but also points to continuing nexus between the rogue elements of scientific and military establishment driven by the motives of personal gains over professional integrity. It thus puts a big question mark on much-touted personnel reliability programmes (PRPs) administered by the Pakistani Army to its high-ranking officials at the behest of successive American administrations. Furthermore, it also decisively punctures any moral claim that Pakistan may have in support of its prospective membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

In conclusion, it must be noted that while the punishments are being viewed as the army’s commitment to upholding the national security, the semantics go beyond it. That is, the security element notwithstanding, the army has also used the moment to redefine contours of “nationalism” by bringing its own personnel to the same parameters of scrutiny as it expects for the civilians.

References :
  1. “COAS endorses death sentence for retired brigadier, a civilian for 'espionage, leaking information'”, Dawn, Islamabad, June 17, 2019.
  2. Azam Khan, “1995 coup attempt: 15 years on, SC takes up key”, Express Tribune, Karachi, August 14, 2012.

Image Source: https://img.etimg.com/thumb/height-480,width-640,msid-67334016,imgsize-651348/pakistan-shares-with-india-list-of-nuclear-installations.jpg

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