Psy-ops, coming to a screen near you – Issue 51 Volume 9

IN A meeting held a few days ago to look at the revival of Pakistan’s film industry, some of the major guidelines seem to have been provided by uniformed representatives from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). One would have probably expected this to be a meeting of writers, thinkers, musicians or all those capable of coming up with crazy ideas and how to put those on a cinema screen. But it seems that two brigadiers were the most imaginative in instructing the gathering that the film industry should be revived, but in a manner that there is not a single scene/word against the national interest.

The instruction sounds like a tall order, especially when there is no certainty on how these officers would define national interest. They would certainly be concerned about the bosom-heaving, heartthrob-enhancing dancing scenes in Pushto or even Punjabi films that people have been used to watching for years, won’t they? Or maybe not, because hopefully the brigadiers don’t go to the backstreets of Peshawar and Lahore or other places and watch what ordinary folks do.

But a bigger concern is about what ISI and ISPR officers were doing in such a meeting? I can detect two reasons. First, since the army takes psy-ops very seriously and have got into the business of setting up radio and television channels and making movies, they were there as important stakeholders. The military PR agency, the ISPR, is into financing films and uses mediapersons to scout for talent to convert their ideas for the television or cinema screen. One of the recent ISPR-financed productions was WAAR, which was about the army fighting the war on terror. The brother of a serving brigadier ran the production firm.

For the military these days, psy-ops are as big a notion as producing tactical nuclear weapons. Probably, this is something they might have learnt watching all the World War II movies; their argument is that if Hollywood could dedicate itself to making films that made an absolute villain out of Hitler, who many army historians consider as a bit of a military genius, then why couldn’t this be achieved in Pakistan? (Given these standards, the ISPR would approve of the 1980s film called Hitlar, based on the theme of the German Führer not dying but escaping to Pakistan and having a family there, which eventually fights to restore his honour.)

Second, such intellectual intervention is not odd as it represents the nature of civil-military relations in the country. For all those who argue that the Pakistan military has reviewed its policy of intervention in politics, they are possibly looking at all the wrong places. A direct intervention in government can be delayed for some years, especially if the military is well wired into the political, social, economic and intellectual systems of the State. For instance, when brigadiers and colonels get to make policies for the film censor board or command an intense intellectual exercise on rejuvenating the film industry, then they don’t need to come into direct administration, which, in any case, happens when the generals feel personally threatened or perceive a threat to civilians that accidentally undermines the power of the institution.

PEOPLE FORGET that Pakistan’s military is not a revolutionary-type Latin American or Southeast Asian defence force. These were less structured and comparatively poorly organised in terms of hierarchical control. Such a structure also meant that intervention would take ugly forms and often result in direct collision with the society. Therefore, the number of human rights atrocities across the board in most Latin American States is higher than in Pakistan.

Empirical evidence suggests that a professionally structured military functions in a different way through making partnerships and selective violations of human rights, and generally has a better capacity to hide its layered intervention in politics. In relative terms, the Pakistan military’s deep intervention becomes less striking because its human rights atrocities are limited to certain areas that result in dispersing and narrowing the overall impact of such actions. For example, human rights violations in sparsely populated and politically under-represented Balochistan does not get people in Punjab, which has almost 55 percent of the country’s population, to hate the military or hold it responsible for such deeds. In any case, the national security argument helps in convincing most people that there is something terrible happening in Balochistan, which is just the work of foreign forces and, thus, requires surgical intervention by the military.

Over the years, the military has managed to create multiple agents and partners for its marketing. There has been a considerable increase in the number of retired-servicemen-turned-columnists, who (even in India) are the military’s intellectual battalion to expand its influence by stealth. The Pakistan army now even has three universities to turn retired servicemen into PhD scholars who may replace civilians in universities, think tanks and other such places. There are now television channels managed by former ISPR people. I’m reminded of an incident a few years ago when an ISPR brigadier, who also now directs the film industry on its ideology, was trying to recruit civilian partners to make documentaries and films with the ambitious plan of eventually turning the project into a fullfledged media group, which would have a newspaper and television channel as well.

What, in fact, makes the intervention of a professionally structured military like Pakistan’s much harder to detect is that it remains constantly submerged in the political system through its networking and partnerships. There are always enough people who find it beneficial to do business with and for the armed forces as it brings money, power and clout. In the country’s 65-year history, most politicians have cooperated with the army even when fighting against it. The business community or the civil society are not above board either. Today, for instance, even international NGOs working in Pakistan realise that cooperating with the military is a much better option. This is also primarily due to the fact that most international organisations, including the UN, World Bank or Asian Development Bank, are full of young and old civil and military bureaucrats, or sons and daughters who have grown on the milk of military authority. Furthermore, the military and its various agencies have much more unaccountable money to distribute among its partners. So, if you are not benefiting from USAID, DFID or other money distributors, then ISPR is the funder of choice.

The military-civil society partnerships are also dangerous because they enhance the overall praetorian tendencies of the society. Since there are partners in every field or walk of life, the military operates through them rather than apply physical force across the board. Consequently, there is a lesser likelihood of a complete rupture between the military and the society as had happened in the case of Latin America. This also means that there is never sufficient pressure from within for the military to withdraw completely to performing its primary role of defending the country.

In some respects, Pakistan’s military has proved even smarter than the Turkish counterpart. The latter came under severe threat of conflict with its increasingly religious society, which had become counterpoised to an institutionally secular military. Pakistan’s, on the other hand, has linkage with both the secular-liberal elements of the society and an even older partnership with the political and religious right wing.

Nuts like Pakistan’s civil-military complex become harder to crack because there is not even an issue of sufficient external pressure. Perhaps, some hope lies in the military actually negotiating a softening of its attitude as far as direct intervention is concerned. But all of this is likely to happen at the cost of a changed civil society — one that will look not very different from the military in terms of its thinking. Now that the army has begun to intervene in the film industry as well, wonder what kind of people we will grow into?

Note: This article originally published here.