Pakistan Army-citizen fissure highlights military’s perception management limits

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The date 9 May, 2023, marks a black day for Pakistan and Pakistanis from all walks of life. The significance of this day does not solely stem from the breach into heavily fortified military areas by protesters but rather from the consequences brought about by those residing within these guarded spaces. It is a day when people finally awakened to rise against Pakistan’s most dominating actor that has largely controlled every aspect of Pakistani life for decades.

While arguments may exist both in favour of and against the intrusion into military zones, there is no room for debate regarding the actions undertaken by the Pakistan Army since that time. In the weeks that followed, Pakistan has seen nearly 5,000 civilians, including those associated with former prime minister Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), arbitrarily apprehended under terrorism charges. Intriguingly, the military establishment orchestrated the departure of Khan’s associates from PTI, meticulously dismantling the party’s structure and rendering it incapable of participating in any electoral activities.

These violent actions against the populace have cast a negative shadow upon the previously holier-than-thou institution—a reputation it meticulously constructed through calculated media campaigns orchestrated by its sophisticated multimedia unit, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). This institution’s practice of shaping public perception has involved backing television dramas such as “Ehd-e-Wafa”, “Sinf-e-Ahan”, and “Parwaz Hai Junoon” among numerous others on major entertainment channels within the country. As prominent Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa emphasises ISPR has emerged as “a major media empire with one of the largest radio networks in the country”, whose sponsored “films and programmes tend to focus on internal enemies, depicting them as co-conspirators of the foreign threats to Pakistan” and “army as the only institution with the will or capacity to protect Pakistan”.

Since 9 May, the establishment under military control has undertaken a violent crackdown on civilians, resulting in hundreds of arrests including children of former soldiers like Khadija Shah, the granddaughter of former Army Chief Asif Nawaz Jangua. Moreover, the Pakistan Army’s dictates to subject the arrested civilians to military court proceedings has eroded their purported holy and ‘untouchable’ public image and led to a sense of shame. As such, ISPR went on overdrive and has since released a series of nationalistic propaganda songs like “Mayain Pakistani Hai”, “Sabz Lahu”, “Jaan ki Qeemat”, “Tu Jaan Watan” and “Shabash Naujawan” to sway public sentiment in its favour, predominantly by emphasising the sacrifices made by soldiers in safeguarding Pakistan’s sovereignty.

On 24 May 24, 2023, ISPR released “Maayen Pakistani Hain” (Mothers are Pakistani), a deliberate creation that skillfully juxtaposes images of the 9 May demonstrations with depictions of grieving mothers of fallen soldiers. Accompanied by a narration in Urdu, the song’s verses convey:

Which translates to:

‘Today is such a black day that they put me on fire’

‘But a self-inflicted wound won’t make me die’

‘I am a nation with a dignity of its own in the world,’

‘No one can dare to violate my sanctity’

It was a brazen attempt by the military’s charm offensive division of ISPR aimed at eliciting a sense of unity by evoking emotions by reminding people of the soldiers’ sacrifices and the profound roles played by their family members, particularly mothers, for the nation. Concomitantly, it aims to ostracise those who protested against the regime and Army’s political role even as the military establishment amplified its crackdown.

Leading up to Pakistan’s Independence Day (14 August), ISPR released four songs on 12-13 August 2023. One of these is “Sabz Lahoo” (green blood), featuring interviews with the widows, mothers, and children of military personnel who lost their lives while combating extremists in recent times. The song tries to rekindle Pakistan’s memory of the sacrifices of those who gave “everything” for the country’s sake, emphasising that Pakistanis should not overlook the fact that their security has been secured through the immeasurable sacrifices of soldiers and their families. Another song, “Jaan Ki Qeemat”, further reinforces this narrative, seemingly intended to remind Pakistanis that their freedom “was bought with the highest price” of the blood.

In parallel with this emotionally charged campaign, Pakistan’s political arena witnessed the military further solidifying its authoritative grip over state institutions. Numerous human rights activists were targeted and apprehended under the pretext of criticising the military’s involvement in human rights transgressions, especially in regions like Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The Pakistani Army seems to believe that this dual strategy of a charm offensive and leveraging the sorrow of fallen soldiers might divert attention from its targeted aggression against civilians. However, they are mistaken in interpreting the prevailing forced silence as a sign of normalcy or legitimacy. It wasn’t long ago when promises were made to the Pakistani people that the Army would refrain from meddling in the nation’s politics and cease its interventionist role.

As Former Pak Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa approached the conclusion of his second term as Chief of Army Staff, he openly acknowledged the military’s decades-long, intricate, and unconstitutional involvement and interference in the nation’s political sphere. Bajwa acknowledged that these actions had tarnished the reputation of the Army. He proudly proclaimed that the Pakistan Army had distanced itself from managing the country’s political affairs and was committed to political neutrality. He stated, “A major reason for (the criticism of the Army) is the Army’s interference in politics for the last 70 years, which is unconstitutional. This is why in February last year, the Army, after careful consideration, decided that it would never meddle in any political matters. I assure you we are firmly resolute on this stance and will remain so.”

It seemed that the Pakistani military had finally recognised the erosion that had plagued it since the time of Zia ul Haq’s overt religious infiltration into this significant arm of the state—a branch that, during the upbringing of many Pakistanis, symbolised the guardian (pasbaan) of the very essence of Pakistan. The elevation of General Asim Munir, hailed as General Bajwa’s protégé, raised expectations that a consistent policy outlook might continue and that he would adhere to the widely promoted guideline of maintaining distance from centres of power.

But alas!, Gen. Munir has emerged as a bigger megalomaniac than any of his predecessors, hence a bigger disappointment. It is astonishing that despite the Army’s declared commitment to refraining from political involvement, it orchestrated behind the scenes to manoeuvre through its installed Shahbaz Sharif regime to secure the passage of the Official Secrets Amendment Bill 2023 and the Pakistan Army Amendment Bill 2023, which bestow expanded powers upon the military-controlled establishment, through the parliamentary process. Regrettably, their ambitions didn’t stop there; they went on to undermine the nominal president, who, in theory, holds the title of supreme commander of the Pakistani Armed Forces. The establishment superimposed its influence by compelling the presidential office to affix his signature without his concurrence to ratify amendments to the aforementioned legislation to assume more power.

President Arif Alvi’s tweet starkly revealed the powerlessness and helplessness of his office in the face of these actions by the military establishment, which demonstrated the army’s overarching control of government. President Alvi tweeted that he “did not sign Official Secrets Amendment Bill 2023 & Pakistan Army Amendment Bill 2023” and “my staff undermined my will and command”, thereby underscoring how these acts by the military establishment shamed the nation before the international community and rendered the president’s office virtually powerless.

The armed forces must come to terms with the reality that they are dealing with an educated generation that yearns for participatory democracy within the country. This generation cannot be easily swayed or misled by its intricate web of propaganda tactics that may have been more effective earlier. The youth aspirations are woven into the very fabric of democratic ideals, which are guided by a vision of a nation that thrives not on the manipulation of information or the imposition of a singular narrative but on the strength derived from the active participation of its citizens in the decision-making processes. Therefore, any attempts to suppress democratic values or manipulate the truth through propaganda gimmicks will likely be met with resistance from a generation that values truth, justice, and the principles of an inclusive society.

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