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There are good reasons for the army’s popularity in Pakistan

The ideological origins of the Pakistan Army can be traced back to what is known in British histories as the ‘The Indian Mutiny.’ Its objective was to reinstate to power in Delhi the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah. This was India’s First War of Independence and was mainly fought by Muslims, although many Hindu troops also took part as a result of crude treatment by their British officers.

When partition came around in 1947, the formations, units and assets of the British Indian Armed forces were intended to be proportionately divided between Bharat (India) and Pakistan. The Indians refused to give up any worthwhile equipment, as had been agreed, but nearly all Muslims soldiers from the British Indian Army joined the newly formed Pakistan Army. Muslim identity was therefore embedded in Pakistan’s army right from the outset.

Pakistan versus Indian Armed Forces

The famous slogan in the struggle for Pakistan, coined by the Urdu poet Asghar Sodai, was ‘Pakistan ka Matlab kya, La Illaha Illallah. (What does Pakistan mean? ..There is no God but Allah). But in actuality, Pakistan was forged by Indian narrow-mindedness. Had ultra-nationalist Hindu leaders accepted the All-India Muslim League’s demands for Muslims to be given fair representation in legislative assemblies, India would not have been partitioned.

Over the years, Indian leaders have struck out at Pakistan but in doing so they have damaged India’s self-assurance and confidence.

India not only occupied Muslim majority princely states (Junagargrh, Hyderabad, Manvadar and Kashmir), it also dismembered Pakistan. In the absence of a central political party in united Pakistan, East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. Today, India is busy exploiting faultlines in Pakistan. It has started sponsoring separatist groups in Baluchistan. And again, with no political party able to command popularity in all provinces, many Pakistanis look once more to the army for answers.

Civilian bureaucracy is in decline, unable to withstand the malpractices of the country’s elite and prone to facilitating corruption instead of preventing it. Again and again, Pakistani society has looked to the army to undertake tasks beyond its domain. The risk of military overreach – albeit with the consent of ordinary Pakistanis – is real. But then again, institutions independent of elected governments perform outsized roles in plenty of other countries. Think only of the FBI, Mossad and India’s own security agency, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing).

In Pakistan, however, the army and security agencies come under constant assault by politicians. In previous decades, the Pakistani army has toppled ruling governments; it deserves some credit for resisting the temptation to do so with the current administration.

Pakistan has long been led by poorly-run political parties full of opportunistic and dynastic careerists. When parliamentary democracy and civil bureaucracy are found wanting, the military is often blamed for holding democracy back. Liberals even allege that the fathers of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, over-exaggerated the Indian threat in order to legitimize attempts at centralizing state power. However, Indian aggression in 1971, its sponsorship of insurgent groups in Balochistan and its ill-treatment of Muslim masses in Kashmir and other areas prove that in Pakistan we need to remain vigilant and keep our military strength up.

Pakistan’s army is popular throughout the country because it draws the bulk of its officers and men from the middle class. It has effectively restored law and order in Karachi and Malakand, and in tribal areas. It has deterred terrorists and managed to retain popular support among those with religious inclinations. There was no surprise when the army smoothly evicted the recent sit-in by extremists at Faizabad, after the civilian government failed to relieve the suffering of people in Islamabad for 17 long days.

Wary of its critics, the army is continuing to widen recruitment from all provinces and is contributing to sports, health and education at a national level.

Instead of throwing around blame and criticism, Pakistan’s politicians need to look at the planks in their own eyes. The more good governance takes root, the less demand there will be for the military to play a role in public affairs. Pakistani politicians must work for stability and Pakistani economists and bureaucrats must also fix their own domains.

The article first published at Asia Times

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