The democratic process came to a halt in Pakistan in October 1958 when the then Commander-in-Chief of the army declared martial law. The Constitution was abrogated and the politicians demonized. Ayub Khan then announced a new Constitution which he later violated when he handed over the country to General Yahya Khan. Yahya held the first ever national elections but refused to honour the verdict of the people. He sought to keep the country intact by ordering military action against the revolt in East Pakistan. India intervened. Pakistan suffered a humiliating defeat. The Pakistan army surrendered and the country, as K. Subramaniam said, was “cut to size.”

The Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report which examined this terrible tragedy was never published. When the General responsible for the break-up of Pakistan died, he was buried with full military honours.

Democracy did return to the country but lasted less than six years; because of the ruling party’s electoral excesses and consequent protests all over the country, the army walked in once more declaring yet another Martial law. The Prime Minister was hanged after the Supreme Court found him guilty of the charge of involvement in a case of murder. Military rule lasted eleven years. After Zia-ul-Haq’s accidental death, the army generals let the politicians run the affairs of the state but kept a strategic lever in their hands. Nawaz Sharif in his second term tried to assert his authority as a civilian chief executive but was deposed by an ambitious General who ruled the country for another decade or so.

General Musharraf twice sabotaged the Constitution of Pakistan, brashly violating the supreme law of the land and dishonoring the oath of upholding it. He is currently being tried for high treason under Article 6 of the Constitution.

The last few years have seen four remarkable developments which have served to strengthen the democratic process.

One, a change in the higher judiciary which, departing from its past record, has demonstrated visible progress as an independent institution. Former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who was twice dismissed by the military dictator and was restored after a national lawyers’ movement (joined by the politicians led by Nawaz Sharif), deserves credit and praise for the transformation of the superior judiciary. He was accused of trespassing his jurisdiction but he stood firm and undeterred in taking up cases against the excesses of the civil administration and the illegal acts of the military agencies. An important decision taken by the Supreme Court during his time was the observation that thereon, no military takeover would be legitimized under the so-called law of necessity. In other words, a military adventurer in the future would have to face the charge of gross violation of the Constitution, if he dared to take over and declare martial law.

The second important change has been the rise of the electronic media, especially the mere choice of television channels. Television talk shows have rightly exposed the government, businesses and other segments of society. The debates broadcasted night after night have been instrumental in taking up various issues and problems imparting valuable and timely information to the public. This has been a nonstop source of continuing public education. More than parliament, TV shows hold politicians, officers, businessmen, religious leaders and even the military, to account, for their acts of commission and omission. The Finance Minister Ishaq Dar for instance, was recently questioned extensively about the way he managed to strengthen the rupee and the unexplained quid pro quo for the gift of 1.5 billion dollars from “a friendly country.” The Prime Minister himself and other top leaders are under the spotlight increasingly, answering embarrassing questions posed by overly smart anchors.

The judiciary’s independence and the proactive role of a loud and persistent electronic media have certainly strengthened the sinews of democracy in Pakistan.

The third happy development has been the smooth transfer of power from one civilian government to another after the national elections.

The fourth welcome development has been that the military high command has increasingly been seen to be willing to go along with the policies and programs of the civilian government. Credit initially has to go to General Ashfaq Parvaiz Kayani for the restraint exercised by him and to his decision to detach serving military officers from civilian jobs held by them. Not that remote guidance (from behind) was totally given up on. The military’s role with regard to security and strategic matters is still there (as indeed is seen even in mature democracies like the US). There are, however, definite intimations of a shift to civilian quarters.

This healthy development has continued with the induction of the new COAS who has been in line with the initiatives taken by the Prime Minister in reconstituting the Defence Committee and formulating the security policy which includes the activation of NACTA and an overarching National Intelligence Directorate. Again, the decision to open dialogue with the Taliban and the process itself has the support of the military high command. The recent FIR filed against a military officer (though a junior one) merits a mention alongside the Supreme court’s persistence in the cases of the missing persons.

Pakistan these days is abuzz with reports about the trial of General Musharraf. Hopefully he will appear before the court on March 31. He must face the trial in the spirit of a commando and avail the opportunity to submit himself to the rule of law. The army high command should abide by the directions of the court and not interfere with the judicial process.

Considering the rapid advancement of the democratic process, as delineated above, it is indeed unfortunate that the leader of a major political party is calling for the takeover of the country by the military. Parliament should take serious notice of such unconstitutional opinions voiced by an influential politician.

    The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.