Why is the 23rd of March celebrated in Pakistan? In school we are taught that the Lahore Resolution was passed by the All India Muslim League on this date in 1940, marking the League’s formal commitment to the pursuit of independence from colonial rule. It was also on this date that Pakistan promulgated its first constitution in 1956, meaning that the territory formerly known as the Dominion of Pakistan would now govern itself as a republic based on democratic rule.
It is perhaps ironic, then, that the 23rd of March is traditionally greeted with a massive display of military might as tanks, missiles, and rows of soldiers parade across Islamabad. This year, much like previous years, the parade was witnessed by local and foreign dignitaries, and speeches about the struggles involved in creating a separate homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims were interspersed with references to the country’s ability to defend itself from any external aggression, as well as the need to remain mindful of the possibility that sacrifices may still need to be made in pursuit of the national interest.
So far, so patriotic. On the surface, none of the official proceedings on 23rd March appear to be problematic but there is nonetheless a need to critically examine how the powers-that-be choose to celebrate a day that is ostensibly dedicated to the principles of self-determination and participatory politics. In a context where Pakistan has spent almost half its existence under authoritarian governments led by military dictators, and where the country’s ongoing consolidation of democracy appears to be beset by challenges arising out of both the incompetence and opportunism of the civilian political elite, as well as the machinations of the establishment, it is worth asking why the celebration of national identity in Pakistan is so militarised.
Evidence for the militarisation of Pakistani identity is easy to see. Venture into any cinema in the country, for example, and chances are that the video footage that accompanies the National Anthem when it is played before the show begins will heavily feature symbols of Pakistan’s military strength. Across the country, the urban landscape is dotted with reminders of the central role the military has played in Pakistan’s history; cantonments are the most obvious examples of this, but it is not difficult to find roundabouts adorned with old jets and replicas of missiles, and posters celebrating the achievements of the military as an institution. At a more general level, the public discourse is saturated with the notion that the military was and is the ultimate guarantor of Pakistan’s prosperity (a recent example being its association with the success of CPEC), even as voices critical of the institution largely remain silent and marginal.
Pakistan is not unique in this respect; even in democracies like the United States, there is almost universal and unconditional support for the country’s troops, and Bastille Day in France is always accompanied by a military parade similar to the one that happens in Pakistan. What is different, however, is that in these countries, the armed forces play a role that is limited to dealing with external enemies. Within the borders of these countries, the military is not expected to play a political role, nor is it likely that any attempt by it to do so would be tolerated. The concept of civilian supremacy and democratic rule is firmly embedded in these countries, with the military largely acting as an extension of civilian power, rather than an independent source of authority and policy. In these contexts, respect for the military does not impede the imposition of reasonable, constitutionally defined limits on its power.
The large imprint the military has on public life in Pakistan is not surprising given the outsized role it has played in the country’s politics. Indeed, there is a significant section of public opinion that would undoubtedly endorse the idea that some form of military rule might be preferable to democracy, and that the military’s domination of policymaking in areas such as foreign relations and internal security is eminently justified. However, if it is to be accepted that democracy is preferable to authoritarian rule, and that the consolidation of democracy is often a long and painful process that will often be punctuated with dysfunction and inefficiency, then it is also necessary to recognize that democratisation will, in the long run, necessitate a reduction in the role played by the military in areas outside of its specific arena of expertise.
Scholars who have researched military governments often point towards a simple fact; the very features that often make professional militaries so deceptively appealing as institutions – efficiency predicated on hierarchy, a fixed chain of command, and obedience – and which make them suited to carrying out specific tasks – fighting wars, organizing logistics – leave them fundamentally unsuited to the business of governance. Ruling a country requires interaction with a variety of stakeholders, and politics inherently entails flexibility and compromise. Military governments often prove to be unsustainable precisely because militaries fail to adjust to these realities (or, alternatively, compromise on their own professionalism in their attempts to do so).
At a time when civilian politicians are openly calling for ‘judicial martial law’ in the months leading up to this year’s general elections, and where there is some reason to believe that the current government is being selectively targeted as part of a broader plan to derail the democratic process in a way similar to what used to happen in the 1990s, it is useful to look back at Pakistan’s history and see how machinations of this sort in the past did not yield positive results. Instead, the country had to endure dictatorships that ended in ignominy and dysfunctional democratic regimes that were arguably never really given the space to develop and mature. Inasmuch as the militarisation of national identity in Pakistan is linked to a broader discourse that seeks to justify and legitimise the role the armed forces have played in the country’s politics, it is perhaps necessary to start moving on from this narrative.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.