Dhaka Courier

Pakistan’s army, sixty one years after October 1958


Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, recently called leading Pakistani businessmen to a meeting where the country’s economic situation was reviewed. Prime Minister Imran Khan was not present. Perhaps he did not even know about the meeting. The question of what business the chief of the army has discussing his country’s economy with industrialists and economic experts has not been answered by the military. Whispers have been heard of a silent coup underway in Islamabad, perhaps to keep Imran Khan’s government on its toes or conveying to it the message that it has little relevance. After all, it was the army which arranged to have Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf ascend to power at the last elections.

Pakistan’s army remains Pakistan’s centre of political authority. Sixty one years ago this month, in October 1958, Pakistan’s army led by its commander-in-chief General Mohammad Ayub Khan commandeered the state of Pakistan through clamping martial law all across it. The tradition set by the military has remained, indeed has become increasingly insistent and sophisticated with time. The grave manner in which the soldiers have undermined every attempt to promote democratic politics and civilian government was once again made clear a few weeks ago when a good number of them pushed infiltrators into Uri, provoking a predictable Indian backlash and global disgust.

In these sixty-plus years, the Pakistan army has not only turned itself into the most powerful of Pakistan’s political institutions but is today in control of large swathes of business in the country. The process whereby the army would assume charge of the country, where politics would eventually come to be subsumed to its ambitions, was inaugurated within months of the creation of Pakistan in August 1947. Mohammad Ali Jinnah felt no qualms in sending soldiers of his nation’s new army, in the guise of tribesmen, into Kashmir in an attempt to secure the state for Pakistan. The plan was foiled by the Indians, though one-third of Kashmir fell into the hands of the Pakistanis. And thus it was that the Kashmir dispute took formal shape.

General Ayub Khan, having taken charge of Pakistan’s army from its departing British commander-in-chief, General Gracey, in 1951, swiftly moved to consolidate his hold on the force and at the same time insinuate his way into government. He was to serve as defence minister under civilian prime ministers. At one point he would reassure Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, when the latter served as Pakistan’s prime minister for a year between 1956 and 1957, that a military coup was out of the question, indeed would certainly not have his support. That reassurance would turn out to be a lie when Ayub Khan and Iskandar Mirza together sent the politicians packing on 7 October 1958. Twenty days later, Ayub would send Mirza packing and foist himself on the country for a decade.

It was a decade that would undermine all hope of a democratic order in Pakistan. For four years between 1958 and 1962, the army governed the country under martial law. For the remaining years of the Ayub regime, quasi-military rule as evidenced by the soldiers’ stranglehold on politics through such measures as Basic Democracy would be the norm. Pakistan’s army went all out to discredit the political classes. It was instrumental in thwarting democratic yearnings in East Pakistan, the culmination of which came through the Agartala Case against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and thirty four other Bengalis in late 1967. The army made it clear it was in charge of the trial proceedings, despite three civilian judges on the special tribunal constituted for the purpose. Mujib and his co-defendants were lodged in incarceration in Dhaka cantonment. The tribunal held its proceedings in the cantonment.

But that was nothing new. Back in 1953, when Moulana Syed Abul Aa’la Maududi and his Jamaat-e-Islami let murder and mayhem loose against the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore, it was not the civilian government which brought them to heel. That task fell to the Pakistan army. General Azam Khan proclaimed martial law in Lahore and had Maududi carted off to prison, tried in court and sentenced to death. Maududi did not of course die and would emerge free to commit far bigger sins in the future. But Azam Khan’s act was again an early sign of how Pakistan’s military was getting to be an integral part of Pakistan’s politics. Ayub Khan’s recollections in his memoirs were to corroborate this truth. He had, said Ayub, been contemplating a takeover since 1954.

Ayub Khan and Azam Khan were a hint of the future. They and those who came after them were to confirm the facetious statement that while every country needed an army, the Pakistan army needed a country. It has always had the country in its grip. It has always been that way. And along the way, its soldiers, with General Yahya Khan in the lead, also took upon themselves the role of marauders and murderers and rapists in Bangladesh in 1971. General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi made it known, even as his men threw themselves cheerfully into molesting Bengali women, that the Pakistan army would change the genes of the Bengali people. Hum un ke nasl badal denge (we will cause a change in their generations), he boasted to his happy fellow officers. Perversion was all. In the end, the Pakistan army successfully lost one half of Pakistan to Bengali nationalists and went off to prisoner of war camps in India.

Pakistan’s army has for decades applied harsh methods to bring Baloch nationalism to an end in south-western Pakistan. Tens of thousands of Baloch have perished, with little sign that the killing will end or that Balochistan’s struggle will ever draw to a close. The ferocity of the army was first noticed in the province in 1963, when General Tikka Khan ordered his soldiers to ravage the restive population. A decade later in 1973, it was a putatively democratic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s turn to unleash the army against the Baloch. In his time, General Pervez Musharraf did not think twice before setting the army after Nawab Akbar Bugti. The Baloch nationalist leader perished when the cave he was ensconced in collapsed over him through relentless bombardment by the soldiers.

Democracy has been anathema to Pakistan’s army. The coup d’etat of 1958 effectively put paid to plans for the country’s first general elections scheduled for February 1959. The soldiers in March 1971 repudiated the results of the general election held in December 1970. In July 1977, as soon as news came through that Prime Minister Bhutto’s embattled government had finally clinched a deal with the agitating Pakistan National Alliance over fresh elections, General Ziaul Haq struck with full force. The army swiftly pushed Pakistan into darkness once more, a condition in which it remained till Zia was blown up in the sky over Bahawalpur in August 1988. But the army was not yet done with Pakistan.

When projections began to be made about a sweeping electoral victory for Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, the new army chief, General Aslam Beg, and the army’s notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) cobbled a so-called Islamic political alliance into shape, the objective being to keep the PPP from power. But Benazir Bhutto won the vote nevertheless, barely. General Beg would not countenance a transfer of power to her for days after the election and would only agree to Bhutto’s assumption of office as prime minister after she agreed to compromise in certain critical areas. And, of course, the army made sure that one of its own people, retired general Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, who had been foreign minister under General Zia, would go on being foreign minister in Benazir Bhutto’s administration.

That the Pakistan army has arrogantly operated as a body beyond and above every other organization and outside the authority of the country’s elected leaders and beyond the pale of the law was demonstrated once again in 1999, when army chief General Pervez Musharraf sent his soldiers surreptitiously into Kargil and nearly caused a fresh full-fledged war between India and Pakistan. Musharraf did not deem it necessary to keep Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif informed of his move or to take his consent. When he came to know about it, Sharif was left in a state of shock. A few months later, in October, Musharraf had his troops scale the walls of Pakistan Television in Islamabad and announce a new takeover of the state. Sharif was sent off to Attock fort and then into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Pakistan army has since the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in September 1948 been de facto arbiter of Pakistan’s destiny. No one can touch it, no one dares to touch it, no one questions its operations. In the popular psychology prevalent in Pakistan, now as also in the past, the army remains the sole guarantor of the country’s integrity and unity. Despite all the shoddy behaviour it has demonstrated over the decades, despite the mess it has repeatedly made of politics in Pakistan, the army remains above criticism or scrutiny in the country. No serving chief of staff has ever been taken to task over his transgressions or failures. Today, while criticism of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan mounts, in Pakistan’s national assembly and outside, the army remains a holy cow. No one touches it and everyone praises it for reasons that defy the lessons of history, that do not stand on logic, that go against common sense.

The Pakistan army caused the military conflict in the Rann of Kutch in May 1965. In September 1965, through Operation Gibraltar, it sent infiltrators, in the way it did under Jinnah, into Kashmir and provoked a war with India it could not win. In March 1971, under the cover of Operation Searchlight, it presided over a pogrom in Bangladesh that would leave three million Bengalis dead. Kargil was the story in 1999. And now has come Uri.

Small wonder, then, that former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif lost his cool at a meeting of Pakistani government leaders with senior military officers a few years ago. With Pakistan getting increasingly isolated on the global stage owing to the actions of its military, behaviour that has put its elected civilian government in grave embarrassment, Shahbaz Sharif tore into the army over its consistent undermining of civilian government. The admonition could not have come too soon, but the Sharifs are now paying the price for their audacity.

A prominent Pakistani jurist was heard making the remark, soon after the soldiers seized power in October 1958, that it was indeed most revealing that an army had actually occupied its own country.

The occupation has gone on, in subtle and not-so-subtle forms, despite all those illusory, periodic images of civilian rule in Pakistan. The army remains Pakistan’s largest and most influential political party. It is beholden to no one.

  • Pakistan’s army, sixty one years after October 1958
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 14
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • DhakaCourier

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