Since 1958, Pakistan has seen the rule of four military leaders
ill the coups against elected governments continue to derail democracy in Pakistan? This is a question on many people’s mind because: 1) Pakistan has seen several military coups during its young history; 2) military is the most powerful and disciplined service (wrongly described sometimes as an ‘institution’) perceived by many as the lone saviour of the country; 3) every other government uses the possibility of a coup as a scare tactic even when the real threat to their rule is on account of feeble governance, corruption and mismanagement; 4) tension between the elected governments and the military top brass on issues ranging from foreign policy to economic management and from appointment/ extension in service of heads of the army or the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) make headlines; and 5) the people are not in agreement with regard to the kind of political system they would like to live under. Tracing the history and the causes of military takeovers in the country is necessary to answer the question.
Why did all these coups happen in Pakistan? To begin with, a combination of hostile neighbours (mainly India) and threats to internal security are among the major determinants of the national security. It has been claimed for long that Pakistan got its freedom from India. This is factually incorrect — both India and Pakistan got their independence from the British colonisers in August 1947.
The threat from India, a hostile neighbor, is thus exaggerated. The truth is that Pakistan lost its eastern wind, in 1971, in one of the four wars (1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999) it has fought against India. Besides, several terrorist groups, insurgents, separatists and extremists (some of them allegedly supported by foreign powers) pose a serious challenge to the national integration.
Secondly, the absence of an efficient administrative fabric leaves the underprivileged and unprivileged, even sometimes the privileged citizens, at the mercy of nefarious elements. Unfortunately, there is a vast administrative vacuum. Disasters, both natural and man-made, expose the inadequacies in our civilian setup quite frequently. This makes people dependent on the good work done by the military in times of emergencies like floods, earthquakes, fires and pandemics. This provides an opportunity to the military to build its image and to create authority that is deemed necessary to rule a developing country. This creates the impression that military is the lone messiah. When some adventurous generals overthrow a civilian government people remember and acknowledge their services and welcome them.
The demise of Quaid-i-Azam (1948) and the murder of Liaquat Ali Khan (1951) created a leadership crisis on one hand and triggered an endless power tussle among the politicians on the other. Their lack of capacity and maturity ceded space first to the bureaucracy and then the military.
Thirdly, political instability, erupting either naturally due to shoddy performance of elected leaders or engineered through covert means, invites the ‘saviours’ to fix the problems they are never trained for. For example, the demise of Quaid-i-Azam (1948) and the murder of Liaquat Ali Khan (1951) created a leadership crisis and triggered an endless tussle among the politicians. Their lack of capacity and maturity ceded space first to the bureaucracy and then the military. The ‘messiah’ the people had been waiting for turned up in October 1958. In 1977, the Pakistan National Alliance had launched a countrywide protest campaign against the Bhutto-led Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) alleging rigging in the elections. This resulted in the coup led by Gen Zia ul Haq.
Lastly, collusion between political leaders and the military also paves the way for a military takeover. Some politicians are opportunists and prefer personal gains over national interests. They consider politics a profitable business. That is why instead of holding elections at the end of their terms, they try to collude with the military.
Thus, instead of handing over power to their political opponents, such politicians prefer to invite the military to take charge. In a similar vein, those in the opposition also look for such collusion, even at the cost of becoming a king’s party. Such behavior is mainly due to lack of political training and the willingness to accept their opponents in government. The judiciary, too, has been providing cover to unconstitutional actions under the doctrine of necessity.
Have these causes been rooted out? No, they are still there. So, will the coups keep coming? One cannot answer this question with a plain ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. However, the chances of a military coup have been reduced by the following developments:
First, the PPP, supported by both coalition partners and the opposition, amended Clause 2 of the Article 6 of the Constitution that deals with ‘high treason,’ in the Eighteenth Amendment. Now the clause reads as “Any person aiding or abetting or collaborating the acts mentioned in Clause 1 shall likewise be guilty of high treason.” Anyone would now be afraid of being tried for high treason.
Second, two former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, after their ouster from the office, have launched massive campaigns against interference by external forces in political matters. This has not only created awareness among the youth but also mobilised them. The educated and charged youth can be a serious check on any (mis)adventure.
Lastly, a mature, active and strong civil society chiefly comprising lawyers will, unlike the past, vehemently resist any unconstitutional move.
The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @MazharGondal87