Pakistan: The Wages of Sin

Sumit Ganguly | 26 Mar 2020

It is far from clear if the present demonstrations against General Musharraf's regime will result in his departure from office. Even if General Musharraf is forced to step down because the protests render the country utterly ungovernable, it is by no means certain that the military will return docilely to the barracks and restore civilian and democratic rule. Since 1958, when the first military coup ousted a nascent, if unelected, civilian regime, the armed forces in Pakistan have remained first amongst equals.

For a few fleeting years, in the aftermath of an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Indian Army in 1971 and in the aftermath of the disastrous East Pakistan civil war, the military had licked its wounds. However, as the civilian regime of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto frittered away its political capital and legitimacy, the military not only had him executed in 1979, but dispensed with virtually all vestiges of civilian rule. Not until the mysterious death of General Zia-ul-Haq in the summer of 1988 was civilian rule restored. Even then it proved to be extremely fragile and subject to the vagaries of the military.

It is at least ironic that General Musharraf's dismissal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhury, has precipitated these nationwide demonstrations. Thanks to a lack of historical knowledge, no commentator on Pakistani politics has even mentioned that Pakistan's Federal Court under the aegis of Chief Justice Munir had provided the legal basis of the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 1954 thereby paving the way for the onset of military rule in 1958. The reasoning it had resorted to smacked of rather tortured judicial logic. It had asserted the Law of Civil Necessity, arguing that if the Governor-General deemed it necessary to declare a state of emergency, the constitution could be suspended. Subsequent military rulers have fallen back on this legal precedent to justify their dismissal of civilian and democratically elected regimes.

What explains the debility of civilian regimes in Pakistan and the extraordinary prerogatives of the Pakistani military? The answers are complex and rooted in the structure, organisation and ideology of the Pakistani nationalist movement. Unlike the Indian nationalist movement, which had undergone a process of democratisation in the 1930s, its Pakistani counterpart failed to develop a mass base and had remained woven around the charismatic personality of its principal leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Furthermore, the movement failed to internalise democratic norms. Consequently, in the aftermath of British colonial withdrawal and the partition of the British Indian Empire, it lacked the necessary skills of debate, compromise and negotiation. Faced with the extraordinary task of melding a state with ethnic, sectarian, religious and class cleavages, it quickly proved unequal to the task. Political turmoil, disorder and violence quickly came to wrack the land. A deeply conservative, post-colonial civil service, contemptuous of the rough and tumble of democratic politics, worked in concert with the military to quickly usurp political power. Even the highest elements of the judiciary proved complicit in this endeavor.

The military not only developed a taste for political office but sought to justify its hold on power through the exaggeration of the putative military threat from India. To that end, it pressed an irredentist claim to the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. It also successfully inveigled naive American policymakers into including Pakistan in an anti-Communist cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union. The inflation of the ostensible threat from India, and the American military nexus, greatly bolstered the status and privileges of the Pakistani armed forces. Over time, it steadily ensconced itself at the crux of the Pakistani state apparatus. Each military ruler, from Ayub Khan, to Yahya Khan, to Zia-ul-Haq and now, Pervez Musharraf, has managed to extend the scope and reach of the military's power. Today Pakistan's principal, non-religious political parties are in disarray, its normally feisty English-language press under attack, its bureaucracy under the thumb of the military and its highest judicial body under siege.

Ironically, despite its professions to the contrary, the military has done little or nothing to guarantee Pakistan's security whether internal or external. In 1965 it initiated a war with India which ended in a stalemate at best. In 1971, its brutal crackdown against East Pakistani dissidents resulted in Indian intervention and the break up of Pakistan. Even the much-heralded "tactical success" of the Kargil War of 1999 (albeit under the nominal authority of a civilian regime) failed to bring the country any closer to its cherished dream of wresting Kashmir from India.

Despite this infelicitous record the military continues to trumpet its achievements and insists that it alone can save Pakistan from a sure descent into perdition. Tragically, once again, those states that wield the greatest influence over the Pakistani military have remained spectacularly silent about the unfolding tragedy within Pakistan. The United States' government cannot muster the courage to press General Musharraf for fear of what may transpire in the event of his dismissal from office.

The government of the People's Republic of China, Pakistan's self-professed "all-weather" ally, could care less about vicious domestic repression and the shredding of judicial independence given its own exemplary record in those areas. Finally, the United Kingdom, which still commands some clout in Pakistan, now chooses to supinely follow the steps of its trans-Atlantic mentor. Given the array of these global forces, any meaningful alternative to military rule, whether drastic or otherwise, will necessarily have to come from within. Whether or not a demoralised, browbeaten and hapless civil society can rise to that important but difficult task remains an open question.


Sumit Ganguly is Professor of Political Science and the Director of Research at Indiana  University's Centre on American and Global Security. 

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