When Pakistan Army led by General Ayub Khan staged country’s first successful coup d’état in 1958, Punjabi poet Ustad Daman mocked it saying, “Mere mulk diyan maujan hi maujan, jidhar dekho faujan hi faujan [My country is having so much fun; there is army till as far as the eye can see].”
For decades, as Pakistani military remained the force that decided the country’s fate, Ustad Daman’s mockery stood the test of time; a subsistence of dry humour typical of two Punjabs of the Indian subcontinent, bitterly partitioned into present-day India, Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh after the British left in 1947.
But on May 9, 2023, when hundreds of enraged supporters of ousted Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan pushed through the gates of army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the army, unlike Ustad Daman’s poetic assertion, was nowhere to be seen.
Hours earlier, Khan, Pakistan’s cricket icon-turned-populist politician, was arrested from a courtroom in capital Islamabad, where he had sought bail for one of over 142 corruption cases filed against him through the Army-run National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
The army pulled its guards back, and let the looting of its officers’ homes take place, avoiding bloodshed near key military installations.
Divisions or rifts within the army are now emerging as the most plausible reason behind Rawalpindi’s refusal to formally take over Islamabad’s corridors of power.
The rift within the army has been evident since General Asim Munir took over as Army chief against officers like Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, who were seen as more sympathetic to Imran Khan.
“It would be unwise of the army to take over directly because the situation is so bad in Pakistan when it comes to not just the economy but also the terrorism. Whoever is directly in charge would incur further unpopularity,” Sharat Sabharwal, India’s former ambassador to Pakistan, and author of ‘India’s Pakistan Conundrum: Managing a Complex Relationship’, told WION.
Pointing towards the relationship of “mutual dependence” between the army and the civilian leadership, Sabharwal asked: “Why would they do it when they have a civilian façade from where they continue to operate?”
What lies ahead for Pakistan: Emergency or technocratic government?
Immediately after the events of May 9th, a proposal for the imposition of a state of Emergency was laid out in a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
A national state of Emergency will give the authority to the army without taking over directly. “A civilian government can declare Emergency and call the army out and the latter can do their bit,” Sabharwal told WION.
In the past, the moments of crisis in the chaotic relationship of mutual dependence between the Pakistan Army and the civilian government have led to the formation of technocratic governments.
In a technocratic government, individuals are appointed to the ministries on the basis of their expertise and are not necessarily career politicians. Most recently, between 2004 and 2007, Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf installed Shaukat Aziz, a former banker and financier, as prime minister in a technocratic government.
Pakistan has justified military takeovers and formation of such technocratic governments with a “doctrine of necessity”, which refers to extraordinary actions to restore order even if such actions contravene established laws.
“The Supreme Court is made to give an endorsement in making an exception to the constitution,” Sabharwal said, while cautioning that such an endorsement may not come easy during the tenure of current chief justice Umar Ata Bandial.
“The chief justices in the past have been browbeaten by the army and made to act in their favour. But this one so far has not done so. He would have known that the army was behind Imran Khan’s arrest and despite that he ordered his release. He’s a bold guy,” Sabharwal said.
A novel outburst against the army
Meanwhile, a number of Pakistanis have come out to cheer the way a section of their fellow citizens have brazenly rounded upon the armed forces. This, according to Burzine Waghmar, a member of the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at SOAS University of London, is a “novel outburst”.
But this does not, according to Waghmar, imply Pakistanis are reclaiming their agency or dignity.
Waghmar contends that eventually, Army chief General Asim Munir’s hand “may be forced into declaring martial law”.
“And this would be privately welcomed by the West, even if they publicly feign empathy, for the Pakistani populace,” Waghmar told WION.
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