Notifications like these


The line between the de facto and de jure in this country has blurred to an extent that people have stopped taking notice of it, let alone raise voice against it. Hence the muted response to Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s notification to officially allow the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to screen the induction, appointment, posting and promotion of all civil servants.
Apart from a few critical op-eds and some odd tweets, at least one by Pervaiz Rasheed who belongs to the ‘other’ camp within the ruling PML-N, there has been no serious debate in the last two weeks on the impact of the notification by a prime minister who is heading a multi-party coalition. That the issue was not brought before the parliament is almost understandable, given the political climate, but it was not even discussed in the cabinet with other coalition partners. The ‘other’ camp did not openly oppose, apart from that benign Tweet which was endorsed by a couple of other leaders from their rival Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. Whatever may have been the prime minister’s compulsion, he wasn’t preempting a storm of disapproval from any quarter that mattered, for sure.
Even the media thought it fit to mention that, by doing this, the government has given a “legal cover to a practice that had already been in place”. Some civil servants are taking the notification lightly for this very reason. That intelligence agencies’ reports are a standard practice for the appointment of judges to superior judiciary, as pointed out by some news reports, made it more valid somehow. However, what this notification actually amounts to in relation with the Civil Servants Act 1973, what weightage will the ‘official’ ISI report carry vis-à-vis other intelligence agencies reports, and how will the superior courts respond to these reports if and when an appointment or promotion is challenged, are equally valid questions that need to be asked.
But this is all a discussion that falls in the de facto domain, and leaves out certain important questions that tarnish the optics of this one-person notification.
These questions are the de jure concerns — about the role of intelligence agencies in the context of Pakistan’s democracy — that have been raised by dissenting politicians and nationalists especially from smaller (Balochistan prefers to be called marginalized) provinces, activists and journalists, lawyers, teachers and intellectuals. Why? Because they have been, still are, at the receiving end — of harassment, kidnappings, false cases, torture, enforced disappearances and even assassinations. These sections are justifiably hurt at the normalization of assigning a military intelligence agency to report on civilian officers.
In all honesty, the notification did not come out of the blue. This kind of normalization has been happening over the years, at the hands of civilian governments, not bringing the country closer to its democratic goals but to what’s been called a “creeping coup”. In November 2020, the then prime minister Imran Khan approved the setting up of a National Intelligence Coordination Committee (NICC) to be led by the Director General ISI (Was it not Gen. Faiz Hameed?). The body was set up with the intention of improving coordination among the two dozen (yes you read it right) intelligence agencies, with no clarity about its terms of reference, mandate and nothing whatsoever about its accountability.
This absence of framework, that defines NICC’s role and lack of accountability or democratic oversight, characterizes each of these two dozen intelligence agencies individually as well, including the ISI. The question is, if their charter of duties is not clearly defined, and there is lack of transparency regarding their objectives and actual operations, what is the worth of the reports they are busy preparing and submitting. Yet, with one stroke of pen, the entire bureaucracy has been formally placed at the disposal of ISI, with no mechanism to hold it to account if it issues a wrong report.
The tarnished optics about the intelligence agencies are owed to their de facto functions, whether it’s subversion of the political system or managing the media. It has been rightly pointed out that because of lack of transparency, their objectives are revealed only after they have conducted the actual operations — in the name of ‘national security’, prioritizing an abstract state over real breathing people.
Though, in theory, the constitution or law prevents the intelligence agencies from acting unlawfully against any Pakistani citizen or anyone on the Pakistani soil; they cannot make an arrest except with the help of police and magistrate; they cannot tap telephones or restrict anyone’s movement; and remain under the jurisdiction of regular courts. In practice, they do everything to the contrary; they hold the courts in contempt, who may now be talking openly about enforced disappearances, confessions obtained through torture and internment centres, but appear helpless when it comes to bringing them under the ambit of law.
In 1993, senior journalist and editor late Mazhar Ali Khan, wrote in his op-ed column, “The ISI is seen by many people to be an unwanted legacy of military rule. While under martial law regimes, the agency’s expanding constitutional role was at least understandable, because with the Constitution suspended, the will of the military dictator took precedence over every rule, law and tradition; but after the end of military rule and restoration of the Constitution, for ISI’s functioning to go beyond its parameters was violative of the Constitution.”
One would have assumed a reform process in favour of democratization since he wrote those lines some three decades ago. Instead, the country got a blurring of lines between military and civilian rules, a polity characterized by notional democracy, increased military power and notifications like these.

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