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In the current muddied political atmosphere a breath of fresh air has come from unexpected quarters. Speaking at the passing-out parade of cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul on Saturday, Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa underscored the need for not confusing positive criticism with hybrid war - a multidimensional approach to warfare used to disrupt and destabilize an opponent. In the previous wars, explained the COAS, soldiers bore the brunt at the frontline, in this war "leadership at all levels is the target." Coming in the wake of a hard hitting speech by PML-N supreme leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in which he said his fight was not with PM Imran Khan but "those who installed" him, this could easily be taken as an argument for further shrinking of the space for freedom of expression. But these turned out to be preparatory remarks to something much desired: tolerance for constructive criticism.

Taking the opportunity to make clear where he stands, the Army chief said "most voices that might seem loud to you, come from a place of love, patriotism and trust and therefore must be heeded. We must listen to our people and apply corrections where needed; these voices are a proof that we are alive and well as a nation that is moving in the right direction." Indeed, things have changed for the better during the recent years. Until not too long ago, people avoided publically naming the military for real or perceived wrongs, there is no such hesitation now. Whether or not that leads to course correction may be debatable, but criticism is generally listened to with patience. It needs to be said though that some individuals tend to go overboard using harsh language whereas a temperate tone that is bereft of humiliation, perhaps, could be effective. Meanwhile, off on a tangent some in the government have been talking of bringing in a new law to completely insulate the military from any critique, there is little chance of its approval by Parliament, however. The Constitution forbids bringing the military and the judiciary into disrepute for the simple reason that they are not supposed to respond to any allegations. But criticism per se must not be connected with enemy narrative as the government spokesmen have been doing in recent days. The COAS rightly averred that positive comments need to be heeded. They must not be discouraged or disregarded.

Pakistan's arch rival, India, having an openly declared policy of keeping this country off balance by manipulating militant elements, undermining its economy, and using diplomatic pressure at the FATF to move it from the international financial action watchdog's grey list to the black list, as well as active hostilities on the Line of Control, hybrid war is a clear and present challenge. The government may have inadvertently played along the country's detractors when 41 top leaders of the opposition PML-N, including a three-time former prime minister, were booked in a sedition case. Hopefully, after the countrywide condemnation of the move better sense prevails, and the government will stand back during the upcoming opposition parties' protest events. Equally important, the opposition leaders need to stay focused on political issues at hand rather than resorting to a disruptive approach. But there can be no compromise on the core value of democracy: freedom of expression.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020