Controversy Over General Bajwa’s Extension

In an unusual move Pakistan Supreme Court suspended on Tuesday the summary issued by Prime Minister Imran Khan on August 19 to grant extension for another 3 years to the Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. The 59-year old General was due to retire on 28th midnight as Chief of Army staff in his first stint but got a conditional 6-month reprieve from the Supreme Court on the assurance that  parliament will pass a legislation in this regard.

The issue led to a volatile debate in the country and a legal battle in the Supreme Court.

The 3-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Asif Sayeed Khosa took this stand on legal and administrative counts. The bench found the entire process “Upside down” causing huge embarrassment to both Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Arif Alvi. The court pointed out that the proposal should have been approved first by the Cabinet. Only then could the Prime Minister and the President act on it. As media reports reveal only 11 of the 25 ministers approved the proposal. The court also pointed out that the Army regulations do not mention word “Extension’ and the tenure of the Army Chief is not specified anywhere.

In a swift damage control move, Imran Khan held an emergency Cabinet meeting and withdrew the first summary and issued a fresh one after amending the Pakistan Defense Services Rules to include the word extension in it. The Government cited “Regional security environment” as the reason for the extension to Gen. Bajwa. But could this be the real reason for granting him extension for a full 3- year term?

Never before, has the Pakistan Supreme Court gone against the country’s army in such a way. If anything, it has in the past only approved repeated military coups in the country on the plea that such an intervention by the army had been necessitated because of the failure of the civil governments to deliver. Soon after 9/11 Pakistan Supreme Court not only endorsed extra constitutional activities of Gen Musharaf but gave him 3 years to hold an election and amend the constitution. As such, the powerful army ruled Pakistan for more than half of its existence, wielding considerable influence on both security and External affairs issues.  More than the Court verdict, what is important is the message that the suspension of the notification sends. The court was concerned that in the past, five or six Generals have granted themselves extensions. It took objection to this and said it should not happen again.

Legalities apart, observers wonder if the court is cocking a snook at the Prime Minister’s office in retaliation to recent presidential references against two Judges in unaccounted funds case. The legal community seems to be seriously displeased at the interference of the government in the appointment of Judges. The Bar Council of Pakistan has called for a strike next week against the extension. Many political parties too have opposed the extension move. Incidentally, day to day hearings in a special court in high treason case against Gen. Musharraf will also begin form December 5.

Some believe that all this is happening because Imran Khan Government is seen as sold out to the army, earning the reputation of being a selected rather than an elected government. They say, the move to give Gen. Bajwa a full 3- year extension could be an expression of gratitude to the army by Imran Khan. The fact that the Law minister Farogh Naseem resigned from his post within hours of the Supreme Court order to represent the government only lends support to this theory. Whether it was a payback or not, the incident has exposed the government as immature to handle country’s issues. Interestingly, a petition has also been filed in Peshawar High Court opposing the extension on the ground that General Bajwa is an Ahmadi, a sect in Islam that has been subjected to persecution since they were declared non-Muslims in Pakistan. What view the court takes on this remains to be seen.

Script: Ashok Handoo, Political Commentator