The shooting of three PIA employees demonstrating against the privatisation of the national flag carrier concentrated the attention of the nation on it, apart from allowing opposition parties an opportunity to bring obloquy onto the government for its handling of the situation. At the same time, it raised important questions about the role of the state in economic activity, not solved by the calling off of the strike.

Under the strictest canons of the free market, the state should not own PIA, because it should not be in the transport business. However, even under one view of the state, as a nurturing structure, meant to plug gaps which the private sector would make, the state was supposed to have an airline which would continue loss-making routes. These would justify the airline having profitable routes, so that it could internally subsidise those losing routes. Another view of the government owning PIA would be the socialist or communist one, that it was inherently unfair for such a large enterprise to exist in private hands. Indeed, according to that view, all enterprises should be in the hands of the state, and state-owned enterprises were not to be nationalized. Then there is the national security argument, in which PIA is a sort of adjunct of the Pakistan Air Force. PAF influence on PIA is considerable. The Aviation Division, the government department controlling PIA, is part of the Defence Ministry, and there has been an element of interchangeability between C-in-Cs of the PAF and MDs of PIA. Joining PIA was an option for PAF personnel, who had to retire at early ages. Because training pilots is expensive, PIA is not the only airline whose pilots are reservists in their country’s air force. Indeed, in the old USSR, Aeroflot pilots were routinely Soviet Air Force reservists.

However, neither the national security nor quasi-socialist arguments will count in this era of supply-side triumph. PIA is losing heavily, and the government is supposed to make up these losses out of its budget. As the government is kept afloat only because it is borrowing from the IMF, the latter has demanded that the government shed loss-making enterprises. PIA is one of them, and its privatisation has been promised by the government to the IMF.

Why are the PIA employees reacting so strongly, to the extent of undergoing a fatal clash? PIA may have resumed flight operations at the same time as the government has postponed the privatisation, but the fact remains that privatisation means loss of jobs. Past experience shows that previous ones have seen employees being given golden handshakes and shown the door. PIA is an overstaffed airline, because it was seen as a source of jobs by previous governments. Providing employment might be a socialistic objective, but it is not a supply-side one.

There is also an impulse against nationalisation that comes from Islam. Islam is not usually seen as favouring state intervention, but the fact remains that an important pillar of the Islamic economic system is the concept of state property as of two types, alienable an inalienable. Alienable state property is that which can be sold, given away or otherwise transferred to a private person, such as office furniture or even buildings. On the other hand, inalienable state property is that property which the state cannot sell, such as highways, or certain categories of property appertaining to fire, water or pasture, in which all Muslims have a share. This is based on a saying of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), “Muslims are partners (associates) in three things: in water, pastures and fire”. By extension, this applies to all community utilities, such that their absence will prevent human settlement from continuing. This applies to electricity, which means that electricity generation cannot pass into private hands, and thus it is clear that the privatisation of DISCOs, demanded by the IMF alongside that of PIA (and the Pakistan Steel Mills, does not meet the standard set by this Hadith. PSM probably does, though, for steel mills do not produce anything without which a settlement of people would move. Though the DISCOs privatisation has been put off by the government for fear of labour unrest, the IMF will still continue its loan programme.

Is PIA a utility that makes it public property rather than state property. That is a juristic decision best given by a scholar who has mastered both economics and Islamic law, but it seems that PIA may be sellable. After all, airlines can be in private hands, like other means of transport. While the state could well own one or more airlines, it could also sell them, or any of their property, such as planes or buildings.

However, it should also be clear that while there may be differing views on whether PIA should be privatised, with Islam casting a doubt on whether it could be privatized at all, depending on whether one follows the capitalist, communist or Islamic viewpoints, all three systems would take the same view of the shooting of unarmed protesters, engaging in a legal assembly. It would be murder. The communists might hold that, the assembly being against the state, it was an illegal assembly. However, there too, the purpose of the assembly being opposed to something the state should not do, the assembly could be lawful. Islam also recognizes the right to do that which is not forbidden by law; in this case, to assemble. No system acknowledges the right of any assembly to disturb the peace, but it has not been claimed that the assembly of PIA workers was doing so. Using force would only then be a defence for a lawfully constituted authority. If one is not a legal authority, one can still stop a breaker of the peace, but one does so at one’s own risk.

There is also a federal-provincial issue. This assumes importance in the current situation, where the provincial government belongs to one party, the federal to another. The provincial government is trying to use this situation to score points off the federal. Law and order is a provincial responsibility, but the airport where the firing occurred is under federal control, and the policing is conducted by the Rangers, an agency formally under one federal ministry, but provided officers by another.

Even within the federal government, all is not united. The two ministries involved are the Interior Ministry and the Defence Ministry. While the Interior Ministry is accounted a supporter of the civilian government, the other is supposed to represent the COAS. Both are linked through the Rangers, and an attack on them is considered an attack on the COAS, which is what the PIA protesters are supposed to have done. The killing is supposed to have been done to make the elected government look bad, and pave the way for a military takeover.

Capitalism seems okay with military rule, as the USA has used it throughout the post-World War II era, fist in South America, then in the rest of the world. Communism has also used it, though it has preferred coups by the communist party. Islam also views military rule with deep suspicion, as the early caliphate’s history shows, though the prevalence of military courts once Turks began converting to Islam in the 8th century AD might have created a different impression. Incidentally, the national-interest argument seems only true for capitalism or communism, not for Islam, which insists on the rule of law. The privatisation seems to violate that law, as the firing certainly did.