The use of intemperate language regarding Pervez Musharraf by a federal minister and a statement by Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif have generated an unnecessary controversy in the country about the role of the army and the civil-military relationship. For the strengthening of the democratic process and the rule of law in Pakistan, for safeguarding national security, for the promotion of political stability and the economic development of the country, and for the preservation of the army’s “dignity and institutional pride,” it is essential that all stakeholders react to these events in a calm and dispassionate manner keeping in view national interests instead of parochial considerations.

Pervez Musharraf has been indicted on charges of high treason under Article 6 of the constitution for the suspension of the constitution as the Chief of the Army Staff and for other associated inadmissible acts as the President on 3 November, 2007. While commenting on the issue, it is important to remember that the charges against Pervez Musharraf have not yet been proved in the court of law. Until and unless the special court trying him finds him guilty, he must be presumed to be innocent. Secondly, like any other citizen of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf is entitled to a fair trial in which he and his lawyers must have the full liberty within the bounds of law to defend him. Thirdly, our anchorpersons and TV channels must avoid conducting a media trial which is neither fair to him nor to the goal of the rule of law in the country.

Having framed charges of high treason against Pervez Musharraf, the Federal Government must allow the trial to proceed in accordance with the requirements of a fair trial. Neither the Federal Government nor any of its ministers or spokespersons should indulge in any comment or activity which frustrates the objectives of a fair trial. The federal ministers should be especially careful in their choice of language and the content of their comments on Pervez Musharraf’s trial. From this point of view, the use of intemperate language by one of the federal ministers while referring to Pervez Musharraf was inadvisable.

At the same time, the army and its top brass must avoid over-reacting to the comments about Pervez Musharraf’s trial. To start with, it is Pervez Musharraf who is being tried in his individual capacity on charges of high treason and not the institution of the army which must get the respect it deserves as a vital security organ of the government of Pakistan. The responsibilities of the army and its officer corps have been laid down clearly in the constitution, and the oath that the officers are administered when they are commissioned. They must remain within the constitutional limits in the performance of their official duties. Pervez Musharraf is being tried precisely because he allegedly violated the provisions of the constitution.

Musharraf’s trial is an essential step towards establishing the rule of law in the country. It is important to establish in our body politic, the principle that everybody is equal before the eyes of the law and nobody, no matter how powerful, is above the law. We cannot have different interpretations of law for civilians and members of the military establishment. The argument advanced by Musharraf’s supporters that he should not be tried because he had served as the army chief has no basis in law. All he deserves is a fair trial; nothing more and nothing less. His legal rights are the same as those of other citizens of Pakistan, especially now when he is heading a political party. If an incumbent Prime Minister can be sent home by the judiciary because of some violation of law, on what basis can Pervez Musharraf claim special privileges for himself as a former army chief?

In view of the foregoing, there is no justification for the army as a respectable state institution to react negatively to the trial of an individual. In any case, the views and feelings of the army as an institution must be conveyed to the federal government confidentially through official channels and not the media. This would be especially relevant if General Raheel Sharif’s comments stressing the army’s determination to “preserve its own dignity and institutional pride” were meant to show support for Pervez Musharraf in his trial.

The army chief however, deserves the benefit of the doubt in that his comments perhaps did not relate to Musharraf’s trial but to the general issue of the army’s honour in response to some harsh and unjustified media comments. Here again, ideally the federal government should have come to the army’s defence through an appropriate public statement rather than the army chief taking this task  upon himself. It is the responsibility of the people and the government to show necessary respect to the army as a vital organ of state security. On the other hand, it is the duty of the army to discharge to the best of its ability, its responsibilities in the defence of Pakistan under the command of the federal government and within the bounds of the constitution (Articles 243 and 245).

Unfortunately, the media (especially electronic media), has not yet acquired maturity in dealing with sensitive national issues, and has played a negative role in whipping up a state of frenzy on the statements of the federal ministers and the army chief. Some of the TV channels, anchorpersons, and commentators have been guilty of gross misrepresentation of facts in their misguided zeal to conjure up the dangers of martial law. Thus, instead of educating the people, they have been advocating a propaganda line which may suit the vested interests of certain quarters but certainly does not serve our national interests.

It seems that these elements have not learnt the required lesson from the events of 2007 and 2008; that martial law has no place in the future political culture of Pakistan. Any attempt by any quarters to encourage or impose martial law in Pakistan under any pretext will be resisted firmly by all democratic and political forces in the country. The recent statements by some of the major political parties should have left no doubt in this regard. The army must continue to perform its admittedly difficult and vital duties within the limits laid down by the constitution. Any deviation from this course will prove to be disastrous for the security, political stability, and economic well-being of the country.

Finally, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now that he has returned from China, must take immediate steps to calm the situation down. He must tell his ministers and spokespersons firmly, to exercise the greatest care and circumspection in commenting on Musharraf’s trial which must take place solely in accordance with the dictates of law. He must also assure the armed forces confidentially and publicly that the government holds them in high esteem. At the same time, the military establishment must be told unequivocally that Musharraf’s trial will proceed in accordance with the demands of the law and the constitution.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.