Pakistan Army’s Domination Is Linked To Events Across Centuries

Any real challenge to the Pakistan army’s domination, which is linked to a series of events triggered after a new Tory party’s rise to power in London in the late 18th century, is easier said than done

Pakistan army has claimed Khan offered Bajwa a lifetime extension
Pakistan army has claimed Khan offered Bajwa a lifetime extension when the ex-prime minister faced a non-confidence motion in March 2022. Picture courtesy AFP via Getty Images

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Appointments of army chiefs are routine processes and often go unnoticed in most countries. But they are literally a matter of life and death in Pakistan and have often backfired there. In the 1970s, Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two decades later, thought they had covered all the bases by superseding officers to have army chiefs of their choice but ended up paying dearly.

Bhutto chose Zia-ul-Haq, a refugee from India, superseding seven officers in 1977, assuming the army chief from a non-martial farming community will be harmless. But Zia deposed Bhutto within a year of taking over as the chief. Bhutto was executed two years later in 1979 after a questionable trial on trumped-up charges.


Sharif would repeat Bhutto’s mistake by picking Pervez Musharraf, also a refugee from India, as the army chief in 1998. Musharraf superseded two officers to become the chief and deposed and jailed Sharif in 1999. Sharif went into exile after managing to cut a deal despite being sentenced to life in prison for endangering the lives of Musharraf and his co-passengers by refusing to allow their plane to land in Pakistan. Musharraf was away in Sri Lanka when Sharif dismissed the general and triggered the 1999 coup.

Tenures of Benazir Bhutto and most recently Iman Khan’s in April 2022 were cut short for displeasing Pakistan’s powerful military. Khan has vowed to rejoin a march on the capital Islamabad demanding snap polls after recuperating following a failed assassination attempt. He has blamed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, his internal security in charge, and an army officer for the attempt.

The march was seen as part of Khan’s attempt to prevent the Shehbaz Sharif-led 14-party coalition government from picking army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s successor. Khan vowed not to let him pick the new chief, insisting it will not be done on merit. The government has to name the replacement for Bajwa this month. In October, Bajwa denied speculation that he will seek a third term and announced he will retire a month later. 

The Pakistan army has claimed Khan offered Bajwa a lifetime extension when the ex-prime minister faced a non-confidence motion in March. Khan is reportedly wary of a particular general and has sought to ensure he does not become Bajwa’s successor. He is also believed to have pushed for Faiz Hameed’s continuation as the spy agency Inter-services Intelligence head amid speculation that he wanted him to subsequently become the army chief. This is believed to have been among the reasons for Khan’s falling out with the Pakistan army. 

Nawaz Sharif appointed Bajwa in November 2016 by superseding four officers. He later accused Bajwa of pressuring the judiciary when the politician was convicted of corruption in 2017 and disqualified from holding public office. Sharif also blamed Bajwa for helping Khan come to power. Khan is now blaming the Pakistan army for reinstalling the Sharifs. 

Khan has emerged as a tougher nut to crack than Nawaz Sharif, whom Zia handpicked at 31 as a minister in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab. Sharif rose to first become the Punjab chief minister and then a three-time prime minister. Sharif emerged as a bitter critic of the military’s role in politics after the 1999 coup. But hardly anything seems to have changed. Khan poses a much stiff challenge to the military’s domination as perhaps Pakistan’s most popular leader since Bhutto. His party is also Pakistan’s only national party unlike Sharifs, who are confined to Punjab. 

But any real challenge to the Pakistan army’s domination, which is linked to a series of events triggered after a new Tory party’s rise to power in London in the late 18th century, is easier said than done. The rise changed the way the British Empire looked at India, the jewel in its imperial crown.

India was critical to the goal of making Britain the world’s sole superpower and keeping rival imperial powers like the French under check. For Tories, the Empire’s expansion was key to realizing the dream of a new British century. Beyond expansionism, the Tories sought to pull out British subjects in Asiatic territories from the ‘darkness’ they thought they were long sunk in.

Missionaries used this as an opportunity in India to propagate ‘the rationality embodied in Christianity’ and to challenge what they thought was the ignorance and ‘superstition’ of Asian religions. The policy of the British in India of not just ruling but also redeeming and diffusing among Indians ‘the light of Truth’ through the imposition of British laws, religion and values’ helped the missionaries. The British sought to annul ‘local laws which offended Christian sensibilities’ as part of the redemption project.

The reformist zeal stoked anxieties among Indians about a threat to their religious and social norms. By the 1850s, fears created an explosive situation amid growing political and economic grievances. India was sitting on a powder keg when the British introduced Enfield rifles with cartridges c4greased with pig and cow fat in the army, sparking the 1857 rebellion.

The Indian soldiers saw the cartridges, which had to be bitten off before use, as confirmation of the British disregard for their religious beliefs. To make matters worse, the cartridges offended both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. Pigs are mainly scavengers and abominable for Muslims. Islam forbids pig meat. Hindus consider the slaughter of cows as sacrilegious as they are considered sacred. 

The British ignored objections to the cartridges. They added insult to injury by imprisoning soldiers who refused to use them. In May 1857, the anger boiled over in Meerut, where Indian soldiers attacked British officers to free their imprisoned colleagues before marching 60 km to Delhi. The soldiers hoped to end British rule under 82-year-old Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s guidance. 

As many as 7796 of 1,39,000 Indian troops revolted with civilians joining them at many places making it ‘the largest and bloodiest anticolonial revolt against any European empire in the nineteenth century.’ The British responded with brute force and 1400 unarmed people were cut down in Delhi’s Kucha Chelan alone. Delhi, a city of half a million, was left ‘an empty ruin.’

The revolt fleetingly threatened to end British rule before it was quelled. It also prompted a shift in the way India would now be governed with the transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown. The change in the British Indian Army’s composition was among the lasting changes the revolt led to.

Until 1857, a bulk of soldiers were drawn from the so-called upper-caste Hindu communities of what are now Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states in eastern and northern India. They were the mainstay of the rebellion while Punjabi and Gurkha soldiers remained loyal to the British and helped them recapture Delhi. This led to a major shift in how soldiers were recruited thereafter. 

The British would prefer soldiers from what they designated as ‘martial races’ of Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the modern-day Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Punjab, much of which is part of Pakistan now, accounted for fewer than 10 percent of British India’s population. It provided more than half of the army recruits in the post-1857 revolt and until 1947. 

With the NWFP and much of Punjab becoming a part of Pakistan in 1947, the newly-carved nation out of the Indian subcontinent ended up receiving one-third of the British Indian armed forces. It was by far the biggest share of resources Pakistan got from British India. Pakistan in 1947 accounted for 21 percent of British India’s population and 17 percent of its revenue base.

India’s armed forces were twice as big as Pakistan’s in 1947, making security the key concern of the newly-created country’s founding fathers. Pakistan’s founders feared an existential threat from India and would allocate as much as 75 percent of their first budget in 1948 for defence.

The size and resources allocated to Pakistan army helped it emerge as the strongest institution while the political leadership was weakened by the back-to-back losses of its founding fathers. In September 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah died over a year after Pakistan’s creation. His successor, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated three years after Jinnah’s death in October 1951. 

Pakistan’s civilian leadership floundered in the face of the leadership vacuum after Khan’s murder. The constitution of the nascent country could only be finalized almost a decade after its creation in 1956 as a weak political leadership ended up entrenching the Pakistan army in politics.

Yawning Gap

The military jobs remain the most attractive as it takes care of soldiers and their families while they are in service. It also offers retirees jobs, land grants, and pensions five times higher than civilians. Cantonments have services for ordinary soldiers and their families of a quality unknown to average citizens.

British author Anatol Lieven writes that no wonder the cantonment is the image of paradise for the Pakistan army ‘with its clean, swept, neatly signposted streets dotted with gleaming antique artillery pieces, and shaded by trees.’ He notes the contrast between cantonments and civilian areas can be starker in poorer parts of Pakistan. The contrast, Lieven adds, is like between ‘the developed and the barely developed worlds.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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