The military enjoys complete autonomy on matters related to allotment of lands in Pakistan. Throughout Pakistan’s history, the military has operated without effective civilian oversight, absent legal guidelines or accountability. This has allowed it to create a vast economy of its own, set up residential schemes and engage in all sorts of business activities that it neither has the authority to undertake or has a direct link with. Cornflakes and potatoes, golf courses and polo grounds, the military has heavily invested in fulfilling the country’s defence needs and continues to do so to this day. It has procured thousands of acres of land and allegedly misused it for commercial purposes. The issue has been raised by a special committee of the Senate headed by Mr Afrasiab Khattak, which has called for the formation of a commission to “review, scrutinise and examine policies, rules and regulations” pertaining to allotment of defence lands in Pakistan.

While there is little reason to believe that the committee’s proposal will prompt action, the importance of raising and debating such ‘taboo’ issues cannot be undermined. The response from the officials of Military Lands and Cantonments department to the committees seeking lists of commercial enterprises built by the military on land acquired specifically for defence purposes is simple and straightforward: there are no lists. The department claims that all past irregular and illegal activity had been condoned at the time of the approval of the new military land policy by the cabinet in 2007. But, the relevant report suggests that the entire development was never debated in the Parliament. In any case, ratifying irregularities through an executive order ought to be unacceptable.

The defence ministry needs to be empowered. It is a token ministry; a portfolio without power, without any influence to implement or change policy, or any practical authority to stop or even question unlawful activities. It has no role in the acquisition of lands, which is completely left to the military to carry out on its own. The superior judiciary has also struggled to assert itself on several issues related to the military.

The rogue nature of the institution will not and cannot be altered overnight. Civilian ascendency will take time, and effort. No one gives up power voluntarily, especially if they are hooked to it and rely on it to make money and exercise political influence. Nonetheless, it is critical to raise these questions. No entity, be it the military, the judiciary or the Parliament itself, can be allowed to operate outside their domain as defined by the country’s constitution; the one they all swear to uphold and derive their power from.