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Why the Pakistan Army Enjoys So Much Power in a Democracy

The Pakistan Army Chief calls the shots on domestic and international security and political affairs. Here’s why. 

5 min read
Why  the Pakistan Army Enjoys So Much Power in a Democracy
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In 2012, a leading national daily published a report on how army units moving towards Delhi had rung alarm bells in the Manmohan Singh government. Most Indians shrugged off the suggested coup bid, a luxury that our neighbours – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka – are not familiar with.

India and Pakistan’s armies were born out of the same British tradition, but in the 69 years since independence, they have come to occupy vastly different positions in their respective polities. 

How did the two Armies evolve post Partition and what positions have they come to occupy within their polity?


How do you Coup-Proof an Army?

In his book, Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence, Steven Wilkinson credits the Nehru-era for ‘coup-proofing’ the Indian Army through a series of budget cuts, replacing the office of commander-in-chief with separate army, navy and airforce chiefs, placing officers below civil servants, disallowing them from making speeches and keeping senior officers under surveillance. By the 1970s, the process of subordinating the Indian armed forces to civilian authority was complete.

“What’s in the third cabinet,” Nehru asked. Army Chief KC Cariappa responded, “Coup plans” drawing nervous laughter from the Prime Minister. (Photo Courtesy:

Compare this to Pakistan. By 1977, Pakistan had already witnessed two military coups and five more were in the offing.

In fact, for nearly half of its 69 years of independence, Pakistan has been ruled by its powerful military. Each democratic splutter has been followed by an extended period of military rule. In 2013, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, one democratic government completed its term and transferred power to another elected government.

Photo: Reuters

Democracy, Already Weak at Birth

1. Strategic Challenges

To begin with, Pakistan got a raw deal during Partition. Strategically, one part of the country was separated from the other by a 4000 mile long sea route. Financially, the country inherited a much smaller tax base.

2. Politically Weak

A strong political will could’ve strengthened democratic institutions, but the Muslim League was organisationally much weaker than the Indian National Congress. It represented a privileged minority in colonial India that created more instability by not listening to the concerns of the under-represented provinces in the east.

3. Ethnic Imbalance

It is this ethnic imbalance and high-handedness that led to the uprising in East Pakistan and ultimately the 1971 war with India.

“Pakistan’s Army especially under General Zia espoused the Islamic nationalism as its identity. The rhetoric was also employed by the civilian leaders as religion is thought of as a unifier in national discourse,” Raza Rumi tells The Quint. (Photo Courtesy: Dawn)

Unequal Relationship Between the Civilian Government and the Military

Speaking to The Quint, Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi says, “hostility towards India plays a major role as the country is reminded again and again of the external threat.”

After the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, the sense of insecurity grew further. Since the Afghan jihad against Soviets, the term jihad also found official patronage – in public narratives, school textbooks, etc. However, it would be simplistic to attribute any ideology to the Army as its prime motive is to maintain and reproduce its power and hold over policy. Exercise of power essentially is a secular process driven by institutional interests.
Raza Rumi, Pakistani journalist and political observer.

By the end of the 1970s, Pakistan had fought three wars with India, ‘Jehad’ had found official patronage, the country’s social and economic indices were flailing and political institutions drew little inspiration. Even the Judiciary failed to uphold the Constitution that held that the federal government has complete control and command of the armed forces.


Weak Judiciary Condoned Coups

But three successful and numerous unsuccessful coups also expose the Pakistan judiciary’s failure in enforcing the constitution. Even though the courts are supposed to uphold the constitution and separation of powers, they have often made way for martial law in Pakistan, on the ground of necessity or survival.

In 1954 the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Mohammad Munir reversed the decision of the Sindh high court and upheld the decision of the Governor General of Pakistan to dissolve the very first constituent assembly post independence. Relying on medieval jurist Henry de Bracton’s maxim “that which is otherwise not lawful is made lawful by necessity”, Justice Munir gave birth to the Doctrine of Necessity in Pakistan. The rarely used political concept is commonly used in criminal and bankruptcy law to excuse an act which would otherwise not usually be allowed by law.

It has also been invoked by as many as three Pakistan army chief – General Ayub Khan, General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf – to justify military takeovers of democratically elected governments in 1958, 1977 and 1999.

“We should not forget,” Raza Rumi says, “that the democratic ideal persists and military dictatorships, almost in every case, gave rise to popular movements leading to return of democracy.”

12 October 1999: Pakistan army soldiers climb over the main gate of state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) in Islamabad during General Musharraf’s takeover. (Photo: Reuters)

Ghosts of the Dictators’ Past

With serving Army Chief General Raheel Shareef’s term set to expire this month end, the Pakistan government is under considerable pressure to name a successor and with good reason.

Earlier this year, banners strung from lamp posts in Karachi proclaimed Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Shareef as the country’s ‘saviour’. He’s seen as having delivered on counter-terrorism, is playing an increasing role in internal affairs and is also running foreign affairs with Washington, London and Beijing. This has, according to Dawn’s Cyrus Almeida led to Nawaz Sharif’s complete isolation in foreign policy matters.

But the Prime Minister who still has two years in office is challenging the historic trajectory, says Rumi.

There has been some effort in Pakistan to change the India policy and delink it from Kashmir but the military has vetoed this view. Having said that things are different than they were say two decades ago and with the slow consolidation of civilian power, the policy shifts would take place. Not in the short to medium term. India’s approach to the bilateral relationship will also matter. Whenever the Indian government becomes more hardline, the military view is vindicated.
Raza Rumi, Pakistani journalist and political observer.

General Shareef had, on Twitter, made it clear that he will not be seeking an extension. If he leaves as per schedule, he would be only the second Pakistan army chief to do so.

Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif; Pak Army General Raheel Sharif (Photo: Reuters)

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