Pakistan: A country where democracy has repeatedly stumbled

Bikash Chowdhury Barua

Religious fundamentalism and military rule have been Pakistan’s mainstay in politics since its inception. Before the partition of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah never spoke of creating Pakistan as an ‘ideological state’. The ‘Pakistani ideology’ or its concept was developed by his successors after the country became independent in 1947 and this ideology was principally based on Islam, hostility towards India and Urdu language. These three issues are identified as key factors of Pakistan’s new ‘national ideology’. Jinnah was a ‘western-educated’ and a ‘non-practicing’ Muslim, although he used religion as a convenient tool to unite the Muslim people.

The question that often arises is how the country’s military has been able to consolidate its position in governing and many a times dictating the country’s policy makers since it came into being? It also baffles the thinkers in framing the country’s foreign policy, the army playing a critical role even when the army Generals are not at the helm.

According to Pakistan watchers, the first factor is Kashmir, then creation of India phobia among its people and abysmal failure of its political leadership. Since the country’s independence, the Kashmir-dispute has provoked Pakistan’s rivalry with India. As a result, there was a need for a strong military establishment in a newly independent country and that is why at the start, 80% of the country’s first budget was spent on defense.

A situation is often created in which a large segment of the population assumes that a strong military force is necessary to deal with what they term ‘hostile and enemy India’. Since then, Pakistan’s military rulers have come to power not once, not twice, but repeatedly in an undemocratic way, overthrowing governments elected by popular vote. When the military or army General were not in power, they were found instrumental from behind the scene on many occasions.

It is indeed unfortunate that for the past 75 years, Pakistan has been ruled by its military rulers for almost 50 years. Those who were elected by popular vote or the political parties that came to power, bypassing the military establishment, were not able to stay in power for long. Those, who were in power, had to remain in power by negotiating with the military establishment. Despite being democratic governments, decisions on every issue of the country including the military, security and foreign affairs had to be taken in consultation with the military establishment. In short, their (military) words have always been the ‘last word’.

Pakistan’s fate is bad. Democracy has not been able to stand on its feet since the first Governor General of the independent country and later President, Mohammad Ali Jinnah died of tuberculosis less than a year later. Pakistan’s ‘infant democracy’, which was ‘tumbled’ at the very beginning, has not been able to heal till today.

Six years after Pakistan’s independence, the then Governor General, Ghulam Muhammad, not only ousted the then Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin in support of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, but also annulled the popularly elected parliament. This is because the parliament was planning to curb the power of the Governor General. General Ayub Khan, who studied at Bombay University, came to power in 1956 and left power in 1969 in the face of the people’s movement. He came to power by removing Sahebzada Ali Iskander Mirza in a military coup. After the fall of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, another military ruler, General Yahya Khan, came to power. As President of Pakistan from March 25, 1971 to December 1971, he not only ruled the country with an iron hand, but also committed genocide in 1971 in the then East Pakistan which is now independent Bangladesh. He is notoriously infamous as the ‘butcher Yahya’.

After Bangladesh became independent in 1971, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to power in (West) Pakistan. But again, this ambitious politician was ousted by another army chief, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, in a military coup in 1967. Not only was he removed from power but he was removed from the world by hanging in 1989. Since inception, the Pak army and its intelligence agency were able to inculcate ‘India-hatred’ among the people of Pakistan. They made the people of Pakistan convinced that their lone enemy was India. Hindustan has to be faced and the ‘Islamic flag’ has to be flown in Pakistan, at any cost. Consequently, instead of focusing on the development of the country, they used the country’s resources to enrich Pakistan’s military. Religious extremism flourished. So did terrorism. This extremist religious fundamentalism was instigated by another military ruler, General Ziaul Haq, when he came to power. He slammed the country’s large Muslim population against Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya minority. At the same time, he started giving all kinds of help to the Mujahideen against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. He started a nuclear program to counter India. He perished in a plane crash. Ten years later, in 1998, Pakistan detonated a nuclear test.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, could not finish her tenure after coming to power in two terms. She was Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister. General Ziaul Haq sent her to jail a number of times and in 1974 he went into ‘self-exile’ in Britain. After a couple of years, back in 1967, she took the helm of her father’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). As Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto faced stiff opposition from the country’s Islamist and Conservative groups, as well as highly powerful, the military establishment, as she wanted to ‘reform’ country’s politics. The then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan joined the anti-Benazir groups. She (Benazir) was accused of corruption and nepotism and was dismissed by Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Then came the election. The Conservative Islamic Democratic Alliance came to power. Political observers believed that military power was behind this change. Benazir took a seat in the opposition bench in the parliament. Newaz Sharif became the Prime Minister. Not unsurprisingly, General Musharraf, the then army chief had a greedy eye on the power of the country. At a time when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was thinking of removing General Pervez Musharraf from the post of army chief, he (General Musharraf) seized the opportunity and took over the power of the country. Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide bombing during an election campaign when General Musharraf was in power. Many are skeptical of the cause of her death, but Bhutto’s supporters pointed their fingers at General Musharraf.

This is not the end of the military’s rise to power. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s 10th President and four-star general, had to leave the country in 2008 after six years in power and was sentenced to death in 2019 for treason in his absence, although the verdict was later overturned by the Lahore High Court. Some thought that with the resignation of Imran Khan, the last PM of Pakistan, the army might return to power. However, this time the army said that they did not have any such ambition. However, political observers believe that the Pakistani military and military intelligence were instrumental in bringing Imran Khan out of power.

According to political analysts, the military’s dominance in Pakistan’s politics is unlikely to diminish in the near future. In order to make the military establishment ‘essential’ and ‘inevitable’ of the security of the country, they have kept the conflict alive with neighboring India. The Pakistan intelligence agency were alleged to have incited and supported terrorism around Kashmir and inside the territory of India. Apart from exploiting the Baloch minority in their own country, they have been using killings, disappearances, intimidation to suppress their movement, and forcibly converting the Hindu minority living in Pakistan. The Baloch, who are fighting for their self-reliance and independence, claim that their area is economically backward compared to other parts of Pakistan. Although rich in natural gas, oil, coal, copper, sulfur and gold, Balochistan is the largest and most backward province in Pakistan. This happened to the people of East Pakistan until 1971. Though ahead of West Pakistan in size, population and natural resources, the ruling class of Pakistan ruled, exploited and persecuted the Bengalis from 1947 to 1971.

The fact that Pakistan has not yet learnt from the mistakes that they (Pakistan government and the army establishment) had committed during that period. Otherwise, the situation in Balochistan would have been different today. Needless to say, the people of Pakistan must come forward to change its destiny. Otherwise, the ‘narrative’ that Pakistan is a ‘failed state’ will be there for the days ahead threatening its sheer existence.

(The author is journalist and columnist based in The Hague, The Netherlands. The views expressed are personal.)

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