Punjabis Have Dominated Ranks But Not Necessarily Pakistani Army’s Leadership

That Punjabis have dominated Pakistan’s armed forces is common knowledge but this has not necessarily been true about its leadership with Pashtuns and Urdu-speaking Muhajirs having punched above their weight in leading the army

At least two of the top four contenders for what is arguably Pakistan’s top post are Punjabis like Bajwa.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa ended speculation last month about his extension and announced he will retire at the end of his second three-year term in November. One of the senior-most army officers—Asim Munir, Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Azhar Abbas, and Nauman Mehmood—is now most likely to succeed Bajwa even though there have been occasions when the post has gone to someone other than four top lieutenant generals. 

At least two of the top four top contenders for what is arguably Pakistan’s top post are Punjabis like Bajwa, a Jat who superseded four lieutenant generals to become the chief in 2016. Bajwa was the third successive Punjabi after Raheel Sharif and Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to become the Pakistan Army chief since 2007. 

That Punjabis have dominated Pakistan’s armed forces is common knowledge. But this has not necessarily been true about its leadership. Pashtuns, who account for 16% of Pakistan’s population and are the second most dominant ethnic group within the army, and Urdu-speaking Muhajirs have punched above their weight in leading the army. 

Pakistan got its first Punjabi army chief General Tikka Khan in 1972, 25 years after the country’s creation. Six Punjabis have since headed the Pakistan Army for around 34 out of 75 years of Pakistan’s existence. Seven out of 16 army chiefs, or less than half, have been Punjabis, who account for 56% of the country’s population. 

Only four of the 13 army chiefs until 2007 were Punjabis. Just one of four military rulers, Zia-ul-Haq, has been a Punjabi-speaking Muhajir.  Four army chiefs with combined tenures of 16 years have been Pashtuns. They include two of four military rulers – Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Punjab-born General Yahya Khan – who ruled Pakistan for 14 years. 

Zia, a Punjabi-speaking Muhajir from Jalandhar, was Pakistan’s third military ruler for 11 years in the 1970s and 1980s. Delhi-born Urdu-speaking Muhajir Pervez Musharraf ruled the country in uniform for nine years. Non-Punjabis helmed Pakistan for 25 out of 34 years of military rule.   

Punjabi dominance dates back to British colonialism. It began with the changes to the British Indian Army’s recruitment policies following the 1857 revolt, which has been described as ‘the largest and bloodiest anticolonial revolt against any European empire in the nineteenth century.’ 

As many as 7796 of 139000 British Indian troops revolted in 1857 and threatened to end British rule. The revolt led to a major shift in how India was governed. The power was transferred to the British Crown from the East India Company. The British also ended the policy of enlisting soldiers mainly from the so-called upper-caste Hindu communities of what are now India’s northern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states. 

Punjabi and Gurkha soldiers remained loyal to the British in 1857 and played a key role in recapturing Delhi. The British thereafter preferred soldiers from such so-called ‘martial races’ of Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which is now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in Pakistani.

At least 29 percent of British Indian Army soldiers were Muslims mostly from what is now Pakistan’s side of Punjab in 1939. The British preferred Punjabi Muslims as they were seen to be more loyal to them for ridding them of Sikh rule. North Indian Muslims, who were among the mainstays of the revolt, were perceived to be nostalgic towards the Mughal rule and hence disloyal to the British, who succeeded the Mughals as India’s rulers.

Punjab accounted for fewer than 10% of British India’s population but would provide over 50 percent of the recruits to the British Indian Army from 1857 to 1947. NWFP and much of Punjab in 1947 become part of Pakistan, which received one-third of the British Indian armed forces, by far the biggest share of resources it got. The areas which became Pakistan in 1947 accounted for 21% of British India’s population and 17% of its revenue base.

The higher proportion of Pashtuns in the Pakistan Army has also helped it repel Afghan claims over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Afghan regimes, including that of the Taliban, have refused to accept the British-era Durand Line, which divides Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Pashtun areas.

A bulk of about 30 million Pashtuns are Pakistanis and mostly live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where separatism predated Bangladesh’s creation. The lopsided Bengali representation is believed to be among the reasons for exacerbating tensions between East and West Pakistan. Bengalis constituted less than one percent of the Pakistani army until its cessation and Bangladesh’s creation in 1971. 

The elevation of Ayub Khan, a Pashtun, as the first Pakistani head of the army in 1951 coincided with the rise of separatism for the creation of Pakhtunistan. He would lead the first military coup seven years later and rule Pakistan for 11 years. Pashtuns acquired greater stakes in Pakistan during Ayub Khan’s rule and helped counter separatism in the country’s Pashtun belt. 

The language riots in East Pakistan over the recognition of Urdu as the national language on the other hand in 1952 sowed the seeds of Bangladesh’s creation. The one-language formula underlined Urdu-speaking Muhajir influence during Pakistan’s infancy. The Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, who comprise six percent of the population, dominated bureaucracy and backed the idea of a unitary state with theirs as the national language. 

Two Urdu-speaking Muhajirs Musharraf and Azamgarh-born General Mirza Aslam Beg led the Pakistan Army for 12 years. Bangladesh’s creation hugely impacted the two and they also tried to get even with India when they were at the helm. Beg is believed to have steered the insurrection in Kashmir in the late 1980s. Musharraf planned the 1990 Kargil war to internationalize the Kashmir dispute.   

General Muhammad Musa, a member of the minuscule Hazara community from Baluchistan, led the Pakistan army for eight years from 1958 to 1966 but no Sindhi or Baluch has helmed it so far. Author Shuja Nawaz has cited internal documents to conclude that just 15 percent of soldiers in the Pakistan Army belong to Sindh and Baluchistan. 

Sindhis are Pakistan’s second biggest ethnic group and account for 17 percent population while Baluchs comprise three percent. The British granted Punjabis land and settled them in Sindh in recognition of their military services. Soldiers from Sindh in the Pakistan Army may not necessarily be ethnic Sindhis.

According to author Anatol Lieven, Punjabi settlers contribute a disproportionate number of recruits from Sindh. Pakistan has sought to encourage the so-called non-martial Sindhis and Baluchs to join the armed forces by lowering fitness and educational requirements for them. 

According to Shuja Nawaz, a far smaller region of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control adjoining Punjab’s Pothwar region, a major recruiting ground, contributed six percent of the recruits. A bulk of soldiers or 65 percent were drawn from Punjab followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (15 percent). In Punjab, recruits are mainly drawn from Pothwar’s Jat, Rajput, Awan, Gakkar, and Gujjar communities. At least three army chiefs, Asif Nawaz, Tikka Khan, and Raheel Sharif have been Rajputs from Punjab.

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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