Before Aizaz Syed’s Funeral

Democracy is an unpleasant yet unavoidable reality for patriarchy-driven and authority-seeking members of any society. The way developing countries are sticking to democracy invariably, a big change is expected in the power structure, though challenges are immense. Pakistan is no exception to this phenomenon.

On 6 June 2022, led by Lieutenant General (retired) Ali Quli Khan, ex-servicemen from the Pakistan Army held a press conference outside the National Press Club, Islamabad. The retired army officers demanded the dissolution of the parliament and the holding of early elections, but they refused to take any questions from the media.

On the occasion, a veteran journalist Aizaz Syed asked Lieutenant General (retired) Asif Yaseen Malik a thorny question: “In the given economic crisis, do you think army generals should help the government by handing back the lands allotted to them?” As an expression of annoyance, the question invited a dismal reply: “You must plan your funeral.”

It was apparent that General Malik had no answer to journalist Syed’s question and this was why the general yelled the condescending condemning remark. The question is why? Is asking a question such a terrible idea?

Being a journalist in a country like Pakistan is an arduous task. It is a low-paid but high-risk job. Whether from the peace domain or the war zone, dozens of journalists have lost their lives while exploring a matter and reporting the truth. The brave are the journalists who ask questions, no matter how much acrimonious these are.

Journalist Syed also asked, “Why your press conference did not permit the journalists to ask questions?” That was an appalling fact to which General Malik should have responded. Held by the retired army officers, what kind of press conference could be that deprived journalists of an opportunity to ask questions. It means that the press conference holders did know that they could not face the press. Second, they had no taste for being answerable.

Journalist Syed also asked, “Should army generals participate in politics?” He also asked, “After 1971, the biggest challenge to Pakistan’s security was on 2 May 2011 when the US navy seals breached Pakistan’s security and launched the Abbottabad operation. Why did you not resign from the post, as you were the Corps Commander Peshawar?” There were no answers. The respondent was speechless.

It is apparent that public life is entirely different from official life. When an order-issuing authority decides (post-retirement) to face the public especially journalists, awkward and excruciating scenarios do emerge. In public life, a retired military officer without the habit of hearing noes is confronted with unsolicited, unwelcomed questions. The retired officer must have a head for tolerance tested publicly. Democracy is ruthless. It gives a voice to the masses and is disrespectful to oppression. Journalist Syed was showcasing the retired officers as the public face of democracy.

To bully the journalist into silence, the undertone of General Malik was foreboding. The reply insinuated retaliation in the form of a death sentence. A retired army officer cannot reply in this insane way to a journalist asking a question. Threatening a journalist is a serious matter calling for an apology. General Malik failed to learn the ways of evading questions of journalists. Journalist Syed also asked more questions afterward, but General Malik decided to flee the spot.

No patriot is immune from accountability, which is not the prerogative of controlled institutions such as the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to implement. In a democracy, accountability knocks at every door that had tasted power.

On 4 March 2016, a Ph.D. candidate in the field of immunology visited the office of the then Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the University of Health Sciences Lahore General retired Muhammad Aslam, and informed him of the irregularities and problems in the admission processes for Ph.D. candidates. General Aslam was not habitual of listening to complaints; hence, he shouted the candidate out of his office. The deployed soldier of the Pakistan army standing alert outside the office also dealt with the candidate harshly.

Owing to denying entry into the office, the Ph.D. candidate asked in writing about the quality standards of research practice at the university. The VC refused to answer. Such was the arrogance displayed by a retired general working in the civilian domain. Later on, the Ph.D. candidate also informed the university in writing that even several research articles published by General Aslam also violated mandatory universal medical research guidelines updated in 2016 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Council for International Organization of Medical Science (CIOM).

Both the WHO and the CIOM made it mandatory that principles of ethical research set forth in these guidelines should not only be followed strictly in performing research experiments internationally but should also be upheld in the ethical review of research protocols internationally. Violating this bearing, at the behest of the VC, on 6 February 2017, Asad Zaheer Registrar of the UHS inveigled the Chancellor, who happened to be the Governor of Punjab Malik Muhammad Rafique Rajwana, overlooking Pakistan’s international obligations just because research articles were published by an army general.

Amenable to enticement and pressure, the Chancellor acted accordingly and avoided taking cognizance of the issue of conducting substandard research and producing fake research articles. The conclusion is simple: In Pakistan, international obligations to improve medical research and do ethical research are subject to the will of retired army generals. All resources are employed to safeguard their reputation and interest, irrespective of the consequences.

The outcome was that when the COVID-19 crisis hit the country in 2020, there was no medical researcher in the field of immunology available to take on the challenge and prepare an indigenous vaccine. Medical researchers undertaking substandard research and producing fake research articles to earn credit for seeking job promotions by the Higher Education Commission were found helpless in the face of the pandemic. Pakistan had to wait for several months for the supply of vaccines from China and the United States. Hundreds of precious lives were lost in the waiting period and the economy suffered amounting to millions of dollars.

Nevertheless, the mandatory universal medical research guidelines declared by the WHO and CIOM in 2016 are still waiting for implementation in Pakistan.


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