Mar 14, 2009

In the ‘national’ interest: an unedifying chronology

By Kaleem Omar
If successive governments in this country are to be believed, every action ever taken by any government of the day is always taken ‘in the national interest’ – even actions that result in our losing half the country. Given this trend, which has been with us since the early 1950s, it would come as no surprise if government spokesperson were to tell us that Section 144 has been imposed in various parts of the country ‘in the national interest’.
A variation on this theme is actions taken ‘in the supreme national interest’. The addition of the word ‘supreme’ in this formulation is meant to obfuscate the fact that such actions are, in reality, highly undemocratic measures aimed at cracking down on the government of the day’s political opponents. The list of such actions is a very long one indeed.
When Governor-General Ghulam Mohammed dissolved the Constituent Assembly in 1954 and sacked the Nazimuddin government, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’.
When the Federal Court (the forerunner of today’s Supreme Court) upheld Ghulam Mohammed’s action in a 1955 judgment, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. The only judge who disagreed with the Federal Court and wrote a dissenting judgment was the late Justice AR Cornelius. He went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Many still fondly remember him as Pakistan’s greatest chief justice.
When Mohammed Ali Bogra, our ambassador in Washington, and a man who enjoyed no political support in his own country, was summoned home by Ghulam Mohammed in 1954 and appointed prime minister in place of Khwaja Nazimuddin, it was done ‘n the supreme national interest’
Bogra was America’s man. It was during his time that we saw the unedifying sight of camel carts transporting bags of American wheat from Karachi Port to the city railway station for transshipment up country with placards hanging around the camels’ necks reading: ‘Thank You, America.’
When Prime Minister Choudhri Muhammed Ali came up with the so-called ‘One Unit’ scheme in 1956, merging the four provinces of the country’s western wing into the single province of West Pakistan, thereby doing away with the very concept of federalism on which Pakistan was founded, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. Among other things, the ‘One Unit’ scheme sought to undo East Pakistan’s demographic majority through the politically untenable and undemocratic concept of ‘parity’, thus setting the stage for the eventual secession of the eastern wing.
When Governor-General Iskander Mirza sacked Firoz Khan Noon’s government in October 1958, scrapped the 1956 constitution, banned political parties, and appointed army chief and defence minister General Ayub Khan the country’s chief martial law administrator, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. When Ayub Khan sacked Iskander Mirza only three weeks later, packed him off into exile in England and assumed the office of president himself, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’.
When Ayub Khan imposed his own authoritarian constitution on the country in 1962, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. His constitution introduced the concept of the so-called ‘Basic Democracy’, with some 80,000 Basic Democrats forming the electoral college for the election of the president. To no one’s surprise, these Basic Democrats then elected Ayub Khan president, though there were widespread allegations at the time that the presidential election of 1965, in which Ayub Khan supposedly defeated Miss Fatima Jinnah, the Combined Opposition Parties’ candidate, had been rigged.
When Ayub Khan handed over the presidency to army chief General Yahya Khan in March 1969, instead of to the speaker of the National Assembly as provided for in the 1962 constitution, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’.
When Yahya Khan put the country under martial law, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. There was not a peep out of the courts when he took that step. After Yahya Khan’s ouster in December 1971, however, a Supreme Court judgment declared him a "usurper".
When Yahya Khan launched a military crackdown against Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League in East Pakistan in March 1971, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. Following the launching of the crackdown, the Pakistan People’s Party’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said in a statement at Lahore airport on his return from Dacca on March 26: "Thank God, Pakistan has been saved."
In fact, of course, that was not the beginning of the ‘saving’ of Pakistan, but the end of Jinnah’s Pakistan as we knew it. After taking over as president of what was left of the country on December 20, 1971, Bhutto announced that what we now had was a "new Pakistan".
When Bhutto – aided and abetted by the army’s new chief Lt-General Gul Hassan and air force chief Air Marshal Rahim Khan – appointed himself the country’s first civilian chief martial law administrator on December 20, 1971, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. Only a few months later, Bhutto sacked Gul Hassan and Rahim Khan, accusing them of "Bonapartism". The sacking was seen as a classic example of the old adage about biting the hand that feeds one.
When Bhutto declared a ‘state of emergency’ in the country within hours of the adoption by Parliament of the 1973 constitution, thereby suspending all the fundamental rights that had been given to the people by the new constitution, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. Ironically, the ‘state of emergency’ was formally lifted only in late 1977, several months after army chief General Zia-ul-Haq had ousted the Bhutto government in a military coup on July 5, 1977.
When General Zia took over the government and placed the country under martial law, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’. In a radio and television address to the nation, Zia solemnly promised to hold elections in 90 days and hand over the government to an elected government. In the event, those 90 days stretched out into 11 years – all, of course, ‘in the supreme national interest’.
When Zia held a referendum in December 1984 asking people to vote on whether they wanted an Islamic dispensation in the country (a referendum couched in terms that declared that if the people voted ‘Yes’ to this question, it would be taken to mean that General Zia-ul-Haq would continue as president for the next five years), it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’.
That was a bit like someone telling a group of cricket fans, "All those in favour of playing cricket, raise your hands" and then, when everybody had raised their hands, declaring, "Oh, good, that means I’m elected captain."
When President Zia railroaded the National Assembly and the Senate (elected under the non-party elections of March 1985) into enacting the 8th amendment to the 1973 constitution, which gave the president the right to sack the government and dissolve the National Assembly, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’.
Among other things, the 8th amendment also provided ‘constitutional cover’ to a whole host of martial law regulations and orders promulgated by the Zia military regime, as well as to various actions and measures taken under those regulations and orders. A few weeks later, martial law was formally lifted. Zia, however, continued as president and army chief.
When Zia sacked his own hand-picked prime minister, Mohammed Khan Junejo, in May 1988, following the Ojhri Camp blast and Junejo’s subsequent statement in the National Assembly promising to table the Ojhri Camp inquiry report on the floor of the House, it was done ‘in the supreme national interest’.
When Zia chose not to appoint a caretaker prime minister to head the caretaker government following the dismissal of the Junejo government and the dissolution of the National Assembly in May 1988, contrary to the provisions of that very same 8th amendment, and decided to run the caretaker government himself from behind the scene, it was, again, done ‘in the supreme national interest’.
The list of things done ‘in the supreme national interest’ goes on and on.

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