Southasian generals nowadays seem to be present more in government secretariats than in barracks. And they are there not to listen to elected civilian bosses, but to displace them, or, alternatively, to exercise behind-the-scenes control. The messily evolving political processes in almost every country of the region certainly offer them opportunities to do so. But the history of Southasia has illustrated, time and again, that an active political role for militaries is a sure-fire recipe for an even messier, more violent and conflict-ridden landscape.
In Pakistan, the military has ruled, directly or indirectly, for almost the entire six decades the country has been independent – though at present, the institution arguably faces its most severe threat yet. The army likewise orchestrated a coup in Bangladesh soon after the country’s liberation; now, a democratic interlude of a decade-and-a-half notwithstanding, it is back in the saddle as the real power behind the Dhaka throne. Burma, meanwhile, has become nearly synonymous with its brutal military regime. The army chief in Nepal seems itching to derail the peace process in that country, barely two years after the military and its principal patron, the monarch, were humiliated by a resounding display of people power. The continuous war in Sri Lanka certainly gives the generals and admirals an inordinate say in the affairs of Colombo. And even in India, the armed forces exercise more influence in policymaking than is often imagined – particularly with regard to ‘disturbed states’ in the Northeast, Kashmir and external affairs vis-à-vis the neighbourhood.
What allows the men – and they are always men – in khaki to assume the avatar of leaders and state administrators?
For one, a democratic dispensation that deals with the painful process of nation-building has to reconcile multiple contradictions and conflicts – a seemingly chaotic and visibly noisy exercise. Add a set of politicians who want instant gratification and who are only too happy to destroy democratic institutions by using them as tools for personal patronage. Such a scenario, seemingly all-pervasive in Southasia, makes the military look clean in contrast to ‘dirty politics’. Generals aspiring to be political theorists peddle lines about how democracy is a Western import, and that what is needed are more-rooted political systems ‘suited to the soil’. Meanwhile, the army’s craving for order is only matched by a similar yearning among the middle class, which often wants quick, technocratic solutions. And then there are always the big international players, who often suffer from selective amnesia about commitments to human rights when it comes to supporting regimes that are ‘friendly’.
It is this unholy alliance with foreign powers that has been responsible for direct military rule in different parts of the region, and for distorting democratic evolution in others. Pervez Musharraf ousts Nawaz Sharif, and the middle class is ecstatic. The US then takes little time to see him as a frontline ally following the attacks of 11 September 2001 – even if doing so comes at the cost of marginalising the mainstream, popular democratic forces, which would be able to withstand Islamist militancy in the long term. Likewise, the army props up a stooge in Bangladesh with a wink and a nod from the embassies, and the residents of Gulshan and Baridhara are happy to welcome a technocratic fix. There has been a period of uncertainty in Nepal’s peace process, and suddenly everyone wants to be friends with the Nepal Army. Energised by the sudden limelight, the COAS goes about sporting nationalist bombast, even as he neglects the force’s operational readiness.
When armies take on active political roles, objections based on moral or constitutional grounds can yield only limited dividends. What is as important is to show that such arrangements never work, and almost always sow seeds for further violent conflict.
In India, in something of a vicious circle, there is turmoil in every disturbed area where the generals have been calling the shots, where they overshadow elected representatives and civilian administrators. Some may argue that the army is active precisely because there is conflict, but the influence of the military in political decision-making only perpetuates the cycle of violence. A case in point is how the Indian Army and security agencies have consistently vetoed the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows the army to shoot at will and with impunity, leading to gross human-rights violations and disaffection among civilians. Allow a Manipuri or Kashmiri to talk about the Indian Army, and a listener will quickly understand the anger and alienation.
Pakistanis are all too familiar with the hazards of khaki rule. Yahya Khan presided over the break-up of the country, while Zia ul-Haq allowed for the beginnings of radical Islam, which has now come back to haunt the citizenry and taken the lives of several leaders, including Benazir Bhutto. The 1980s was a lost decade for Bangladeshis, with cronyism and conflict; the next few years promise to be much of the same. And those who think about replicating the Bangladesh model in Nepal – a civilian government backed by the Nepal Army – if elections do not take place in April, should remember that doing so will only lead to intensified conflict, with the Maoists in the hills and Madhesi militants in the plains.
There are no two ways about it: politics must be based on popular will, and must be left to the politicians – while army generals must be kept resolutely out of civilian affairs. Sure, an immediate complete withdrawal of the military from politics may not possible everywhere, such as in Islamabad or Rangoon, where the militaries are entrenched. But a phased withdrawal from public affairs, and a partnership in which civilians are allowed to take firm control, is the only way out in these instances. In all other cases, a stern message has to go out to the army bosses, that adventurism will not be tolerated. Meanwhile, politicians across Southasia must come together to make this a non-negotiable principle of democracy in Southasia.