Civilian Coup: Imran Khan’s Ghulam Mohammad Moment

Civilian Coup: Imran Khan’s Ghulam Mohammad Moment
The Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, elected in 1946, and due to which Pakistan came into existence in August 1947, had finally completed the task of drafting a constitution of Pakistan on October 15, 1954. After years of political wrangling, several drafts, and numerous controversies, it seemed that Pakistan was finally going to become a parliamentary republic. The draft constitution was going to be presented to the Constituent Assembly for final approval on October 27, 1954, with the aim that it be enacted on December 25, 1954—the birthday of the founder of the country, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and of course also Christmas day. However, this plan could not come to fruition as at 2am on October 24, 1954 the Governor General of Pakistan, Sir Ghulam Mohammad, dismissed the Constituent Assembly. Pakistan had its first civilian coup that day, and sadly, nearly seventy years later, we have just had another civilian coup.

Historians often argue that history repeats itself, but at times it is simply chilling how often and how clearly it does. The events of April 3, 2022 so closely resemble those of October 24, 1954 that it is simply surreal. Winston Churchill sagaciously once said: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” and we are certainly following suit.

In both the civilian coups of 1954 and 2022, the work of the Assembly was thwarted exactly when it was about to complete its mandated task. In 1954, the Constitution was ready to be voted upon, and in 2022 the Vote of No Confidence was ready to be voted upon. Both times, the Assembly was dismissed to protect the interest of one person too, Ghulam Mohammad in 1954 and Imran Khan Niazi in 2022.

Furthermore, similar to 1954, the final decision in 2022 lies at the door of the highest court of the land. In 1954, the Chief Justice of Pakistan was Mohammad Munir who had distinguished himself as an excellent jurist. However, in the subsequent Maulvi Tamizuddin case, Chief Justice Munir invented a legalism to give cover to the brazenly illegal act of the Governor General. That judgment forever blotted the legacy of Justice Munir and was the beginning of the end of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan. Today too the ball is now squarely in the Supreme Court, but there is hope that Chief Justice Bandial would not want to be forever remembered as the modern day Munir, but this only time will tell.

Amidst the many similarities there is also one stark difference between 1954 and 2022, and herein lies the deeper rut which has befallen our country. Whereas in 1954 the President of the Constituent Assembly, Moulvi Tamizudddin, challenged the illegal dismissal of the Assembly, today the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker are hand in glove in the undermining of the constitution. This difference exhibits the journey we have made since 1954 where now there are even fewer people in government who actually believe in parliamentary democracy.

Speaking to the New York Times shortly after the civilian coup, the then Interior Minister and later Governor General and President of Pakistan, Major General Iskandar Mirza, said that ‘democracy needs to be controlled…we need to save people from themselves.’ Today Imran Khan Niazi and his followers would completely agree. For them democracy is a threat to personal ambition, the constitution an impediment to demagoguery.

The events of April 3, 2022 show how much distrust of the democratic process has grown in Pakistan. Where in 1954 it was a career bureaucrat Ghulam Mohammad and a military man, Iskandar Mirza, conspiring to undermine the constitution and democracy, today it is people from the political class itself who are at the forefront of destroying the constitution and the rule of law. We no longer need a military-bureaucratic nexus for a coup in Pakistan, so-called politicians are now enough for the purpose.

Since history is so distorted in Pakistan, many people simply do not know, and other are unwilling to know, that most of Pakistan’s problems emanate from the lack of democracy than due to it. They forget that Pakistan itself is a creation of the democratic process. If the All-India Muslim League had not won on the Muslim seats in British India in 1946, Pakistan would have never existed. They forget that for nine long years Pakistan did not have a constitution because we were looking for ways to undermine democracy through the constitutional document, rather than giving a voice to the people. We forget that in 1971 Pakistan split because we refused to accept the verdict of the people, rather than the machinations of an enemy country, and so on. It has always been the subversion of the democratic process that has plunged Pakistan into a crisis and nothing else.

Just as 1954 it was not only about Ghulam Mohammad v. Maulvi Tamizuddin, 2022 is also not simply about Imran Khan v. the Opposition. The names merely mask the deep unease of the elites of the country with the concept of democracy and rule of law itself, and this malaise will destroy our country and society as we feed our people lies, half-truths and grand conspiracy theories.

Professors Robinson and Acemoglu in their seminal work, Why Nations Fail, argue that the establishment of the ‘rule of law’ is central to the development of nations, where the ‘constitution’ is the ‘supreme national institution.’ Undermine the rule of law and the constitution and a nation will never develop. In previous decades we have suffered brutal dictatorships and the vivisection of the country by undermining the rule of law. Are we destined to repeat it again?

Today all eyes are on the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan. Will the full court restore the constitution and its processes? Or will another Munir and Ghulam Mohammad appear and thrive? The sheer survival of Pakistan is at stake.

The writer is a Fellow at the South Asia Institute at Harvard University and a legal historian. All views personal. He tweets at: @BangashYK