New Delhi: As Pakistanis around the world celebrate their ‘National Day’ it is more likely than not that jingoism will prevail with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan repeating rhetoric exalting the Armed Forces. This self-same rhetoric has been spoken by the prime minister on many occasions, the most recent being on Pakistan’s ‘Defence Day’ in September last year.

Khan will no doubt be joined by his fellow citizens in offering their congratulations to the military. But the irony here is that while the Forces are being lauded for protecting their motherland they are actually safeguarding and taking control over most of Pakistan’s land. It is already a known fact that Pakistan’s military owns much of the country’s prime land properties. Senior commentators like Shuja Nawaz in his book Crossed Swords and Ayesha Siddiqa in her book Military Inc. have detailed the process by which the military has indulged in land grabbing over the decades.

PM Narendra Modi sends message on Pakistan National Day, Imran Khan tweets

The extent to which the land grabbing goes comes as a shock. Statistics show that the military currently controls 12 million acres or 12 percent of state land. What is important to note is that only 100,000 acres of this land are owned directly by the military or its foundation, the rest is given at highly subsidised rates to Pakistan’s generals. It is thus no surprise to find that areas like Lahore Cantonment and other military areas in Pakistan are the most high-valued residential areas in the country.

If one converts this to monetary terms, one realises the true power of the military here. Statistics estimate that Pakistan foreign exchange reserves stand at an estimated U.S. $8 billion but the land value the military owns is believed to be much more than four times this amount. This clearly shows that Pakistan’s military is richer than the nation. Also, there is no shortage of the land that the military can lay its hands to. All they have to do is cite reasons of national security and under the Army Act prime agricultural land, especially from Pakistan’s Punjab province, becomes theirs. This practice which goes back to the time of General Ayub Khan has now become a matter of course in Pakistan.

The situation has now become even easier for the military with the coming of the Imran Khan government to power. Recently, the federal cabinet of the government stated that they would sell ‘assets’ and ‘properties’ of the ministries which were not in use. This was ostensibly done to help pay off Pakistan’s crippling debts which go into trillions of rupees.

But according to newspaper reports, there has been no proper liquidation process put in place. When Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chawdhary was asked about this he said the government would adopt a ‘uniform policy’ which would detail the ‘modus operandi to legally sell off the properties.’ What this effectively means is the government will make legal the selling of properties which were once illegal. Many commentators believe the selling of many of these properties and assets will ensure they once again land up in the hands of senior military officials.

While this issue of land grabbing by the military affects the entire nation, its effect is most felt in Balochistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). The United Kashmir People’s National Party chairman Shaukat Ali Kashmiri said that many instances of land grabbing are occurring across POK. In Balochistan, official documents show that 60,000 acres of land has been sought by the military from the Gwadar Development Authority from different parts of the district.

An article in the Pakistan-based Herald in September last year titled, ‘The mysterious case of land acquisitions in Balochistan’ showed that with the development of the Gwadar port, the land around that area was particularly valuable. This was subsequently acquired by the Pakistan Navy and transferred to senior officials at throwaway prices. This was incidentally not the first time that this had been done. In 2017, during a protest in Gilgit, thousands of acres of land were illegally allocated or sold at throwaway prices to the ISI and the Force Command Northern Area (FCNA).

Such actions by the military have not escaped the notice of human right groups. The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has detailed several instances of land grab by the army in its report and stated these actions could not be challenged in court due to reasons of ‘national security.’ The report also pointed out instances of forcible evacuation of villagers, an imposition of curfew and stopping the supply of food to villagers by the army in a bid to pressurise people to give over their land. But the army seems unfazed by such criticism. Commenting on one such case, the then Director General Inter Services Press Relation (ISPR) Major General Shaukat Sultan said, ‘the needs of the army will be decided by the army itself and/or the government will decide this. Nobody (else) has the right to say what the army can do with 5,000 acres or 17,000 acres.’

Clearly, national security in Pakistan seems to suggest financial security for a small number of generals. This fact is perhaps one of the major reasons why Pakistan is in such dire financial straits. What is worse is that fiscal bankruptcy will not matter to these military men who use the pretext of increased cross border tensions and national security to demand even money and land from their fellow countrymen. This is something that Pakistanis desiring the well being of their country should mull over as they celebrate their National Day.

This article was originally published in Strategic News International