In an extraordinary development, unprecedented in the annals of Pakistan's troubled history, almost a hundred retired senior military officers, including former chiefs of staff, met Jan 31 in Islamabad and denounced President Pervez Musharraf - till recently the chief of army staff - and described him as the "main obstacle to democracy" in the run-up to the Feb 18 national elections.
This is the second such meeting of the group, which calls itself the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen's Society (PESS), and in their first meeting on Jan 22, they collectively exhorted the beleaguered president to step down, given the increasing turbulence within the country and the resentment against him that was building up. Lt Gen (rtd) Faiz Ali Chisti, leader of the Society who was part of the Gen Zia ul-Haq regime (1977-88), added: "He (Musharraf) should resign his office of the president. This is in the supreme national interest and makes it incumbent on him to step down."
But the provocation for the second meeting and the strong denunciation of Jan 31 were the intemperate remarks by Gen Musharraf during his recent tour of Europe. In a media interview (The Financial Times), when asked about the emerging criticism from the retired 'fauj', Musharraf replied dismissively: "They are insignificant personalities...Most of them are ones who served under me and I kicked them out. They are insignificant. I am not even bothered by them". This is extreme both by way of accuracy and the protocols that govern relationships within the uniformed fraternity in a state like Pakistan.
Many of the officers who raised their voices the first time around are far senior in service to Gen Musharraf, such as Air Marshal Asghar Khan, Gen Aslam Beg, Lt. Gen Talat Masood et al, and hence the question of their being 'kicked out' is an absurd claim. And for all Musharraf's personal foibles, lack of basic courteousness to his own 'biradri' (fraternity) has not been one of them - till now. And the straw that may have broken the camel's back was that he chose to be so derisive of his seniors and peers in distant Europe.
The riposte has been dramatic. Gen Musharraf is now being cast as the 'main obstacle' to democracy and more ominously for the Pakistani president, the Society has decided to support the ousted Supreme Court judges, lawyers and journalists in their demands. This stand by the retired fauji community comes in the wake of yet another extraordinary development - former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry writing an open letter (Jan 30) to the US secretary of state and other heads of government, where he has described President Musharraf as someone who 'claims to be the head of state'. In a detailed rebuttal of the public charges levelled against him, Chaudhry has cautioned the West against falling for the 'charm offensive' of the commando general and to save Pakistan from further Musharraf machinations.
Reports suggest that PESS has also decided to 'apologise' to the Pakistani people for their role, while being in uniform, in imposing martial law over the last 60 years and preventing the nurturing of a true democracy and people's power. If this show of belated but welcome contrition gains support in Pakistan, it would indeed be the third extraordinary development - a mega mea culpa in the South Asian context. The Daily Times, a leading Pakistani daily, in a feisty editorial (Feb 1) has listed the many apologies that are due from the more significant members of PESS going back to 1956, when then Major Abdul Majid Malik assisted Gen Ayub Khan in the first military coup of Pakistan.
It adds sagely: "The biggest crime to which many retired generals must confess, and then apologise for, is the policy of seeking 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan because the consequences of this policy are now threatening to actually spell the end of Pakistan itself. In fact, some of these retired generals are too tainted for mouthing principles that the civil society of Pakistan has decided to uphold. They should keep their zip up unless they are ready to give up what they have enjoyed over the years and are still enjoying at the cost of the nation."