Do We Always Rule Out Martial Law Too Soon?

Do We Always Rule Out Martial Law Too Soon?
Those who rule out martial live in a promised land. Their opinion is predicated on the political scenes of 1971 and afterwards: The country had lost more than half of its territory (present-day Bangladesh). The military was seen as being responsible for it. A humiliating defeat had demoralised it. The charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) was the populist leader with an ideal manifesto. He had fired senior generals and there was no unrest in the military. The latter had accepted his supremacy. Martial law in the future was impossible.

To strengthen this hypothesis, ZAB ignored seven senior generals to handpick Zia as the army chief, thinking that he would not bite the hand that fed him. Yet, Zia imposed martial law – abrogating the Constitution. Then, through amendment after amendment, he proceeded to deform it. He promised to hold ‘free and fair elections’ within 90 days (from the day of the coup) and kept on postponing it till 1985. His ‘free and fair’ election was on a non-party basis. He did not shed the military uniform till his death. He ruled Pakistan for 11 years.

Nawaz Sharif’s heavy mandate of 1997 went to his head. After orchestrating an attack on the Supreme Court, he thought he was the Tsar. He ignored two senior generals and handpicked the junior Musharraf as the army chief, repeating the same move that checkmated ZAB. By then, Sharif had emerged as a prime minister more powerful than ZAB, because he had sent an army chief home (Jehangir Karamat). He was besieged by an army of sycophants and lifafa (paid) journalists who would croon day and night his most favourite lullaby: ‘Martial Law Impossible!’ He was projected as ‘Amir-ul-Momineen’ (Commander of the Faithful) and he was such an airhead to believe it. He proposed the Shariat Bill to anoint himself as Amirul Momineen. This made him believe that a goat in fact is a lion that can easily tear apart any wild animal in the jungle kingdom.

So, the mouse took on the cat on 12 October 1999. Not even the smallest fraction of the heavy mandate took to the street. However, we witnessed people welcoming the coup by distributing sweets. Amirul Momineen’s companions deserted him, declared Musharraf a Messiah and started dancing attendance on him.

The dwellers of the CITA Town (castles in the air) believe that the ‘historic yarn’ of 27 October (joint presser by the DG ISI and ISPR) has put the Army on the back foot.

The revolution has come – people can use filthy language against the Army in public, something that they did not do in private in the past. Azam Swati and Imran Khan can openly sling mud on the Army. Character assassination of the senior army officers and political opponents is the name of the game now. The youths have rote-learnt the Magna Carta. Long gone are the days when a grade-21 public servant could have slapped the 220 million people with military rule. This is the age of internet and social media. General Bajwa has become too controversial. He has brought a bad name to the Army.

Thus, we are told, martial law is out of the question.

Simply put: the fact is that the military can impose martial law whenever it wishes. The ‘sun of democracy’ never rose in Pakistan. The ‘monster of martial law’ has been covering it and we are witnessing a ‘democracy eclipse’ since 1947 – proclaimed or unannounced.

To be sure, Bajwa cannot and will not impose martial law. Fair enough! But who can stop his successor? He will bear no spots of controversies on his uniform. He will receive a clean slate.

Considering the crippled state of economy and the current political stalemate (a mess left by his predecessor), he can impose martial law – for “90 days” like Zia, or even without making any promise.

The masses might just welcome him. They will, by that point, have had enough: change, new Pakistan, revolution, freedom march, etc.

Mohammad Shehzad is based in Islamabad. He has been writing for national and foreign publications since 1992. He is the author of The State of Islamic Radicalism in Pakistan (Routledge Taylor & Francis) and Love and Fear: Poems Beyond Time ( He learns tabla and classical vocal music. He is a passionate cook and shares his recipes at Email: