17 August 2001
B. MURALIDHAR REDDY
Islamabad: CIVIL society in Pakistan has been left wondering if absolute power has given the military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, a heady feeling. A televised news conference he addressed on July 20, three days after his return from India has left the liberal sections aghast.
There is little doubt that Musharraf's media managers went to extraordinary lengths to make the press meet a platform for the General to boast about his victory on the battleground of Agra.
For the first time in recent times, the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi received a carte blanche from General Headquarters (the military headquarters of Pakistan) in Rawalpindi to facilitate anyone and everyone who wanted to attend the news conference to travel to Islamabad. The event was rescheduled to 7-30 p.m. instead of 5-30 p.m. to suit newspaper deadlines and the prime time television across the border. It mattered little to the military establishment that only 18 newspersons, including photojournalists and camera persons, chose to grab the opportunity.
The General's two-hour long discourse was aired virtually by every television channel in India thanks to Pakistan Television (PTV). And this more than served the purpose of Islamabad.
The General, who won kudos in Pakistan for his brutal frankness on the Kashmir problem at a breakfast meeting with leading Indian editors in Agra, did not disappoint the media as he once again made Kashmir his main text. But it was the sub-text (or texts) that caused tremors. The tone of the General was not just authoritarian but almost dictatorial. Wittingly or unwittingly large segments of Pakistani society became his target.
He denounced virtually everyone - the political class, the civil and human rights activists and even a section of the media - but, perhaps unwittingly, spared the Jamaat-e-Islami. When he debunked the 53-year history of India-Pakistan relations, the General perhaps forgot that the military ruled the country for a longer period than the political class.
The disturbing signs of the nature of the military regime were more than evident when reports appeared in a section of the press about the sacking of the chief reporter of a leading Urdu daily for daring to ask the General an embarrassing question. The newspaper management has since denied the report but there are few takers in Islamabad for the official version. The question that cost the reporter his job was an innocuous one: he wanted to know from Musharraf if the outcome of the Agra Summit would have been different had a civilian set-up been at the helm of affairs in Islamabad. The reporter went on to mention how Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had managed to negotiate the Simla accord in 1972 and Nawaz Sharif had been able to give shape to the Lahore Declaration.
The question made Musharraf livid. "Are you joking with me?" he asked and went on to explain how the Simla accord was negotiated against the backdrop of 90,000 Pakistani soldiers imprisoned in India. On the Lahore Declaration, he reminded the questioner about the street protests by the Jamaat-e-Islami activists and said it was not the military but the people of Pakistan who had rejected it.
Even if one were to give the benefit of doubt to the General and blame his overzealous managers for the reporter episode, how does one explain the subtle and not-so-subtle messages delivered by Musharraf at the news conference.
The case of Asma Jehangir, human rights activist and lawyer, best illustrates the point. Musharraf made no effort to hide his anger against her when a questioner wanted to know if his government was contemplating any action against her for her alleged 'anti-Pakistan tirade' during a recent visit to India.
"I have many things to say against such people who speak ill of their own country abroad. But I am restraining myself at this juncture," he said. He was so worked up on the question that it took him some time to regain his composure.
Few came to Asma Jehangir's rescue after Musharraf's outbursts and she had to write a letter, which appeared in the Dawn to defend her position. "I deplore Gen. Musharraf's outburst at his press conference, after a hawkish journalist had called for action against me and others for speaking against Pakistan while in Agra... Clearly, the General's sermon on how the peoples of India, Pakistan and Kashmir should ignore hawks whilst working to build peace rings hollow after his concessions to the hawkish lobby within Pakistan, one of whom was the journalist who asked for action against me."
She went on to write that Musharraf did not have a monopoly over frankness and that those who had struggled for democracy and the rights of civil society were equally entitled to air their views. "I have struggled for a democratic system for the last 30 years and suffered four dictators. Any coercion or threat by the fifth in line will not force me to accept the utility or legitimacy of military rule."
She pointed out that the General's contempt for politicians amounted to negation of the contribution of the political forces that gave birth to Pakistan. "His press conference was an insult to all civilians as he emphasised the superiority of people in uniform. The General cannot become the statesman he so desperately wants to be if he cannot be tolerant and if he cannot respect differences of opinion," she wrote.