Between the Barracks and the Ballot

A Beacon of Social Democracy’s Slow Swing Toward Ethnonationalism

By Sher M. Farouki

May/Jun 2024

The advent of the military taking up the role, not only as a mere player but also as a driving force in Pakistan’s political arena, evolved as a convoluted and twisted system of its own. The vacuum created by the early demise of the genuine leadership that had created the country quickly gave way to military and mafia clans masquerading as leaders, clans who very quickly understood where their personal interests lay. 

Soon enough, a vicious game of power and wealth began; power as a way to wealth and wealth as a way to more power, while the masses were left in the squalor of misery and downright deprivation. Owing to the cacophony emanating from the print, electronic and social media, it seems easy today to point fingers in one direction. 

Is the Military Solely Responsible?

There is no denying the fact that from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Imran Khan, the making and breaking of all political setups bears the same fingerprints. Perhaps Pakistanis need to pause and do a little soul searching as to whether they can hold the military responsible for all the evil, for there can be no panacea or remedy if they don’t identify where they first slipped. 

The genesis of this lies hidden in the promotions of two personalities in two institutions when seniority and merit were cast aside. What followed later was an intertwining relationship of the institutions that persists until now. A relatively junior man named General Muhammad Ayub Khan, whose name wasn’t in the original nomination list and who had too many strings attached, was cherry picked in 1951 to replace Sir Douglas Gracy, the first commander in chief. As a result, the then-civilian setup headed by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan suspended four seniors. 

The second incident occurred in 1954 at the time of Justice Abdul Rasheed’s retirement as chief justice of the Federal Court, the then-highest court. He was to be succeeded by Abu Saleh Muhammad Akram (d. 1968), an East Pakistani (Bangla-speaking) and the senior-most judge. But the West Pakistani establishment was prejudiced against him due to his ethnicity. The then-Governor General Sir Malik Ghulam Mohammad, a co-founder of the now Mahindra & Mahindra (one of India’s largest vehicle manufacturers), initially a civil servant, served as Pakistan’s first finance minister. His appointment of Mohammed Munir as chief justice vaulted him over the other four sitting judges. The die had been cast. 

Upon independence, the Government of India Act 1935 was the basic law of both India and Pakistan. Their respective Constituent Assemblies were also the legislatures. The Indian parliament produced a constitution by November 1949, but not its Pakistani counterpart. In September 1954 Pakistan was close to adopting a new constitution with the draft ready to be announced on Dec. 25, 1954. 

However, Ghulam Mohammad dismissed Parliament on Oct. 24, 1954, claiming that it had lost the peoples’ confidence and that the constitutional machinery had broken down. This was his second dismissal after Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin, also an East Pakistani, within 18 months. The real reason, though, was that the draft proposed curtailing the governor generals’ powers – Pakistan’s heads of state were governor generals — including the powers to dismiss governments and having elected prime ministers, to obviate the recurrence of the Nazimuddin case. 

Assembly Speaker Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan challenged the act in the Sindh High Court that, after a detailed hearing, ruled against Ghulam Mohammad and declared his act illegal and unconstitutional. The federal government challenged the decision in the Federal Court, headed by Munir, who not only accepted but also validated the governor general’s act under the pretext of the “doctrine of necessity.” This doctrine was used thereafter as a ready reckoner, paving the way for destroying democracy. Thus, the favor incurred by Ghulam Muhammad was returned, most honestly in equal coinage. 

In 1958, when Ayub Khan enforced martial law in a staggering coup d’état that removed President Iskander Ali Mirza and abrogated the 1956 constitution, there was neither a cogent reason for doing so nor any civil disturbance to be seen. Once again, the act was challenged in the Supreme Court (successor of the Federal Court). But the result was no different. Munir placed the stamp of legality on the first military regime. It is, however, interesting to read the concluding remarks in the verdict, “that the revolution, having been successful, satisfies the test of efficacy and becomes a basic law — creating fact.”

 It’s hard to see how, in a case that was heard within six days of the promulgation of martial law, Munir could contend that the new regime satisfied the test of efficacy. From that day onward, neither could the military remain apolitical, nor could the judiciary be termed independent. The combination of the two, duly assisted, abetted and supported by the civilian bureaucracy, brought the matters to the present ebb. The symbiotic relationship that evolved thereafter suited the stakeholders while alienating the masses. Over time, this subtle alliance got a “cover blanket” and much needed anonymity by the term “the Establishment,” which ensured impunity and freedom of action. 

The political parties, pundits and analysts also felt comfortable using this reference without having to step into the danger zone. With the dismissal of the last Nawaz Sharif government, followed by that of Imran’s, the term transformed into khalai makhlooq (aliens of Earth) and then simply the fauj (military).

In the wake of the Feb. 8 rigged elections, a significant shift occurred in this troubled nation, a shift whose magnitude the global community has yet to fully understand. Similar events unfolded in the stolen elections of 1971 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman secured a decisive victory, only to be opposed vehemently by the military establishment, led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who refused to accept a Bengali prime minister. Of the 300 constituencies, Mujib won an absolute majority of 160 seats, all of which were in East Pakistan; Bhutto won only 81 seats, all in West Pakistan.

They feigned negotiations but ultimately deployed General Tikka Khan, infamously known as the Butcher of Bangladesh — chief of the army’s Eastern Command and Governor of East Pakistan — to suppress dissent in what is now Bangladesh, following the populace’s defiance of the military’s desires. The military’s aim was a hung Parliament, which would allow them to manipulate affairs from the shadows. However, their tactics led to disastrous consequences — Pakistan was cleaved in two.

Is This Pattern Finally Changing?

Today, some feel a sense of déjà vu reminiscent of those who witnessed Pakistan’s dismemberment during the 1971 war. The country’s army has established a pattern over the years. Initially, they ruled directly for 30 years, then transitioned to operating behind the scenes for the next 45 years and orchestrating events from Rawalpindi — the military’s headquarters. This familiar playbook involves selecting a protégé, like Bhutto (the pioneer) under Ayub Khan’s tutelage. However, in 1971 the army’s failure to install the protégé led to a loss of prestige. Capitalizing on this sentiment, Bhutto became prime minister and attempted to diminish the army’s power by selecting General Zia ul Haq as army chief, who was as docile as a butler to him. 

Bhutto’s Islamic Summit Conference (1974) — an effort to create a platform of Muslim majority countries — greatly antagonized the United States, as did his pursuit of nuclear weapons and alignment with China. Zia eventually staged a coup, imprisoned and executed Bhutto, marking the end of democratic governance for a considerable period of time. This established a pattern that persists to this day.

The subsequent political leadership saw Nawaz Sharif emerge, groomed by a set of generals under Zia’s umbrella. Over the next three decades, power oscillated between Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League (N) and Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. Yet neither party managed to complete its full term in office. During his 1997-99 stint, Sharif grew some teeth and dared to challenge his mentor’s authority — the army — a grave offense for any politician. This led to his downfall, for Gen. Pervez Musharraf staged a coup, after which he imprisoned and subsequently exiled Sharif. Sharif’s political career seemed finished, until he returned in 2013 with the support of the same establishment that he had once opposed. 

In 2018, Imran Khan assumed power, albeit with accusations of being a “selected” rather than elected prime minister due to the military’s alleged interference. Over time, Khan’s attempt to assert his independence from the army caused Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to retaliate and eventually remove him from power. 

This upheaval marked a departure from the past, for it incited widespread civilian unrest akin to an Arab Spring, with nationwide protests and attacks on government institutions. Despite this, the army, aided by the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence agency), swiftly restored order and maintained its influence. However, the army’s reputation among the youth suffered a significant blow, coupled with growing political instability and economic turmoil, reminiscent of over-militarized states like Nazi Germany and the USSR, leading to a perilous economic situation for Pakistan. 

Political engineering has not stopped with manipulating the election results. It continues in the shape of “recounting,” voiding of PTI’s reserved seats and adding false cases on its members and leaders. Questioned by Rep. August Pflugar (R-Tx.) at the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia hearing entitled, “Pakistan After the Elections: Examining the Future of Democracy in Pakistan and the US-Pakistan Relationship” (on March 20) that “Do you believe that the recent election was free and fair?” 

Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, could only blurt out: “We have never used the term ‘free and fair’ in the characterization of this election.”

The interference from the barracks is pervasive. Six Islamabad High Court judges wrote to the Supreme Judicial Council convene a judicial convention over the matter of alleged interference of members of the executive, including operatives of intelligence agencies, in judicial affairs. The coercion to extract favorable decision has included physical intimidation and harassment of their family members. A PTI spokesperson said, “… no section of the society, including civil society members, journalists, government officials, judges and journalists, is safe from this interference” (Dawn, 

“Six IHC judges write to SJC over spy agencies’ ‘interference’”, Awais Yousafzai & Maryam Nawaz, Dawn, Karachi, March 27).

The nation now stands at a crossroads, requiring strong political leadership to navigate its way out of the economic crisis and debt trap orchestrated by years of military dominance. Whether the current political leadership can rise to the challenge remains to be seen.

Sher M. Farouki is a freelance writer.

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