In a sign of rising tensions between Pakistan’s elected civilian administration and its powerful military, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal has warned against the dangers of running a state within the state.
Iqbal was stopped from entering a court in Islamabad on October 2 where Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was on trial over corruption charges.
Iqbal, who is also of the PML-N, was upset after soldiers from the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers refused to open a locked gate to the court’s premises and their local commander, a brigadier general from the army, failed to show up promptly at the scene.
"There will be one law here and one government. ... Two states cannot function within one state," Iqbal told journalists as he reiterated that the paramilitary forces are supposed to be under his jurisdiction.
“The Rangers are a force that is subordinate to the Interior Ministry, and when they are deployed they are under the command of the civil administration," he said.
Iqbal was not the only one barred from entering Islamabad’s accountability court, which postponed Sharif’s indictment for seven days. Several journalists, cabinet ministers, and PML-N lawmakers were prevented from witnessing the court proceedings, which is usually open to the public.
“This whole thing [the Rangers taking control of court security] was done without any [legal] authority. It was unlawful,” Iqbal told journalists. “Either that person [the military officer involved] will be punished [or I will resign]. If we are that weak then frankly I am not ready to serve as a puppet interior minister.”
The military has not commented on the issue. In a speech last month, Pakistan’s top soldier, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, expressed support for democracy.
“Strong institutions will strengthen Pakistan,” he told an audience on September 6. “Strengthening constitutional, legal, and democratic conventions strengthens us all.”
The controversy highlights tensions between the PML-N administration and Pakistan’s military. Many senior PML-N leaders have accused the military of orchestrating Sharif’s ouster from office on July 28, when the Supreme Court disqualified him for failing to declare a salary he was entitled to receive from his son’s company in the United Arab Emirates.
“We know very well the supposed real crime of Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League: wanting to establish civilian supremacy in Pakistan,” Khawaja Saad Rafique, a Sharif loyalist and senior PML-N leader, said following his removal from office. “We are elected into the corridors of power but are often humiliated out. We are also frequently thrown into prison.”
While avoiding an open confrontation with the military, Sharif has mobilized his supporters to question the court’s verdict.
“Democracy is another name for respecting the will of the people,” Sharif told reporters on August 14. “Today, on the 70th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, I want to note that if we had respected the sanctity of votes [and the will of the people] we would not have faced setbacks.”
Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir says the controversy reinforces the PML-N’s narrative that civilians do not wield the real power in Pakistan.
“This controversy has exposed the reality [of who has power] in front of the whole world,” he said. “Now the media and civil society will keep pressing to find an answer.”
The controversy is likely to continue. The PML-N is expected to choose Sharif as its leader this week despite continuing corruption cases against him and his family.
With reporting by Dawn.com, Geo TV, ARY TV, Samma TV, and Pakistan Times.