A spectacular affair | Talat Hussain

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They were crucial days before the appointment of Pakistan’s new army chief. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with his poker face and old habit of keeping all such decisions very close to his chest, wasn’t letting anyone in on his choice.

This took speculation to a feverish pitch. Hyper and intense lobbying got into top gear, pushing this or that name from the list. Cabinet ministers, members of forces and intelligence community and the outgoing chief had words to say about who they thought were the most appropriate for the job.

Some media outlets also got into the act and became platforms for suggesting ‘the right candidates’ for the prized post. Some of the stories and articles in several newspapers were so obvious in their tilt that you didn’t have to even read between the lines to know who they were rooting for.

In the middle of all this frenzy something spectacular happened, which in its intent and in its content was not just totally brazen but was also blatantly insidious. A video was put out with a direct and unequivocal message to the government. Without mincing words, the video made the ultimate slander against one of the contenders for the post of army chief and created sensational falsehood about his family’s faith. The message then moved to warn the government not to appoint this specific person to this position unless it wanted to earn the ire of the religious establishment.

This unbelievable display of destructive propaganda was augmented by a few tweets from similar ‘religious’ circles that triggered a maelstrom of ill-will on social media. It took another 36 hours for the person to retract his words but that too in a manner that left many a false question hanging in the air.

After that there were a few articles and one or two toned down programmes on television about this subject, but other than that this vile act of besmearing a reputable name and a well-known family of devout Muslims provoked near-zero outrage.

This was truly amazing. Here was a serving and one of the senior-most commanders of the country’s armed forces being dragged through the mud and no one thought his case fit enough to be raised with full force and conviction and to come to his timely defence.

Did the WhatsApp groups and trolls who miss no opportunity to pretend to be the true defenders of the institution have any attack of conscience? None created the kind of uproar that they have become so famous for. No official Twitter account spoke for the man. No official warning came out for the slanderer. No national issue was created out of this abuse.

There were no demands for immediately forming a judicial commission to probe who was behind this direct attack on the person and candidature of an officer of proven credentials. No one held any press conference demanding accountability. Nobody spoke. There wasn’t a squeak from any of those quarters who daily shout from the rooftops how much they love the army.

For a country where the so-called Dawnleaks has become a national scandal and where every sentence of even the most well-directed critique of matters pertaining to the armed forces is put through the shredder of ridicule, this omission could not have been coincidental. The ready-to-jump-at-your-throat brigade of pen-pushers could not have not seen the video. Official circles, which monitor every word about the armed forces, dissect every sound, hear every call and read every message on the subject, could not have not known that this outrageous pack of lies was doing the rounds.

Yet nothing was done to nip it in the bud. (It is another and equally interesting story how the video was tackled, and that too belatedly – but this will be told another time.)

The video was allowed to be circulated at that critical time when the decision about the army chief’s selection was to be put in black and white. It floated freely for hours on end and only then the person in the video issued another recorded message which claimed that his previous ‘information’ was not correct and that he had been given ‘assurances’ that the allegation against the general were untrue.

This retraction – nay, correction – at one level showed what could be achieved when state institutions put their foot down, raising the question as to why wasn’t it done earlier? More importantly, it underscored how deliberate disparagement of such a vile nature was conveniently taken back by simply issuing another video that did not carry even a whiff of remorse and apology for the damage done and hurt caused to the person and his family.

To understand the significance of the above point you need to imagine for a second a TV anchor, a journalist, a politician, or any ordinary citizen making an insinuation like this about anyone in authority, let alone a senior, decorated officer of the armed forces. This would be enough to unleash screaming calls (and trolls) for finding out the architects of the deadly plot to defame the army.

In our country today, merely expressing an unflattering opinion about an outgoing army chief is labelled treasonous. In this land of ours, to call for the accountability of a two-time constitution breaker is considered seditious. Why did slime-slinging of this scale evoke no response? Could this video have come out without a full cabal designing, planning and executing it?

Is anyone even asking these questions? Is anyone raising the point that if every individual in the army is an extension of the institution and an attack on one is an attack on all (the ‘all for one and one for all’ principle) then why did this particular episode not become a vital issue of national interest? Is anyone interested in finding out whether this video was part of lobbying against one candidate so that he could be discredited? Aren’t these fair apprehensions that need to be put to rest?

Of course these are. It is counter-intuitive to think otherwise. But it is stupid to think that these points will become part of any discussion on social media or at other forums where only manipulated campaigns are staged for gunning down critics. It is naïve to expect that there will be any follow up or official probe – unless the new army chief, the man against whom this attack was directed, desires otherwise, which is unlikely to happen considering his preference for compassion over the other basic instincts that some of his predecessors are infamous for.

In all probability, this particular instance will be buried in history, and a pile of other issues with sensational frills will cover the ground for good. However, for the discerning and the rightly-motivated the saga of this remarkable and daring attack on the person of the present army chief serves as an example of the hollowness and hypocrisy of all those who have made careers out of posing as well-wishers of the army. The pains that they take in defending Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf or these days in promoting Gen (r) Raheel Sharif were totally missing from their much-storied sense of duty to protect the honour of the armed forces.

Most important, this episode shows how much space is available for the machines of machinations and slander in our country today and how the scope of serious and critical debate on central issues has been reduced. Mindless projection of individuals and hurling mud at opponents through a network of social, print and electronic media proxies and cronies is singlehandedly responsible for this disbalance.

This network includes different foot soldiers. Some pose as journalists, some as anchors and some as analysts. At different times they perform different tasks, different command performances. But together they form the ground that sprouts a terrifying jungle where no one is safe from horrific personal attacks.

This network needs to be uprooted. It is a weapon of mass reputation destruction in the hands of lobbies that will stop at nothing to achieve their nefarious designs. In the case of the present chief, this network almost succeeded in creating a damning controversy. If the implications of this lesson cannot be understood, nothing else will register. This place will remain hostage to hooligans and goons masquerading as masters of national destiny.

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