WHEN General Qamar Javed Bajwa took over as Pakistan’s new Army Chief, superseding four Lieutenant Generals, it confirmed the Punjabi dominance over the country’s armed forces. A Jat from Ghakhar Mandi in Pakistan’s Punjab, Bajwa is the third successive Punjabi since 2007 to lead the country’s Army, which inherited the predominance of Pakistan’s largest linguistic group from the British.
In 1939, as many as 29% of soldiers in the British Indian Army, which was split between India and Pakistan after Partition, were Punjabi Muslims, mostly from Pakistani Punjab. Their ascendancy in the British forces is rooted in the Revolt of 1857 that made colonial rulers distrustful of men from the traditional recruiting grounds of modern-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The hardy Punjabi Muslims were seen to be more loyal to the British; North Indian Muslims, one of the mainstays of the revolt, in contrast, were seen to be nostalgic for the Mughal rule that the British had replaced.
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The Punjabi dominance, however, has not been absolute. Pathans, the second most dominant ethnic group within Pakistan’s armed forces, and Urdu speakers (Muhajirs) have punched above their weight when it comes to leading the Army. Pakistan got its first Punjabi Army Chief, General Tikka Khan, only in 1972, 25 years after independence. Five Punjabi generals, not including Bajwa, have headed the Army since then — Punjabis have occupied the top post for only 28 of the 69 years of Pakistan’s existence. Seven — fewer than half — of the 16 Chiefs so far have been Punjabis. Until 2007, only 4 out of 13 Chiefs were Punjabis, who account for 56% of Pakistan’s population and enjoy an upper hand in the military and bureaucracy. Just 1 out of 4 military dictators has been a Punjabi.
On the other hand, Pathans, who are 16% of the country’s population, have given Pakistan 4 Army Chiefs with a combined 16 years in charge. Two of the 4 military rulers, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Punjab-born General Yahya Khan, were Pathans who ruled for 14 years.
General Zia-ul-Haq, the lone Punjabi dictator, who was from Jalandhar and an alumnus of Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, ruled Pakistan for 11 years. The Urdu-speaking General Pervez Musharraf, who was born in Delhi, ruled for 9 years after overthrowing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a 1999 coup. Non-Punjabi dictators have ruled Pakistan for 25 of its 34 years of military rule.
The high proportion of Pathans in Pakistan’s armed forces has offset challenges to the country’s sovereignty. Successive Afghan regimes, including that of the Taliban, have refused to recognise the Durand Line that divides Pakistani and Afghan Pathan areas, where some 4 crore people live. Around 3 crore Pathans are Pakistani citizens who live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly Northwest Frontier Province), where separatism predated Pakistan’s breakup in 1971. Unlike Pathans, Bengalis were less than 1% of the Pakistani Army — this lopsided representation is blamed for exacerbating tensions between East and West Pakistan that eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh with India’s help.
Pathan General Ayub Khan’s appointment as the first Pakistani head of the Army in 1951 coincided with the rise of separatism in NWFP. He led the first military coup 7 years later, and remained at the helm for the next 11 years as President. Pathans acquired greater stake in Pakistan during this time, and helped counter separatism. On the other hand, the language riots in East Pakistan over the imposition of Urdu in 1952 turned out to be a slippery slope. The one-language formula reflected the Muhajir dominance over the bureaucracy and their idea of a unitary state. Bangladesh’s creation led to the demise of the two-nation theory that the Muhajirs had played a key role in propounding.
Pakistan’s humiliating dismemberment played a key role in shaping the young commando Musharraf, one of the two Urdu-speaking Mujahir Army Chiefs — the other being the Azamgarh-born General Mirza Aslam Beg. Between them, they helmed the Army for 12 years — while their community of Urdu-speaking immigrants from India comprises only 6% of Pakistan’s population. Beg steered the Kashmiri insurrection in the late 1980s, while Musharraf masterminded the limited war in Kargil to internationalise the Kashmir dispute.
General Muhammad Musa, who belonged to the minuscule Hazara community from Baluchistan, led the Army for 8 years (1958 to 1966). But no Sindhi or Baluch (3%) has ever taken what’s arguably the country’s most powerful post. The late Army chief General Asif Nawaz’s brother, the author Shuja Nawaz, has accessed documents that show that only 15% of soldiers belong to Sindh and Baluchistan. Soldiers from Sindh may not necessarily be ethnic Sindhis, who form Pakistan’s second biggest ethnic group (17%). The British had granted large numbers of Punjabis land and settled them in the province for their military services. Author Anatol Lieven has argued that Punjabi settlers “have contributed a disproportionate number of recruits from Sindh”. There has, of late, been an attempt to encourage the recruitment of the so-called non-martial Sindhis and Baluch by lowering fitness and educational requirements.
The far smaller region of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, whose demographic makeup mirrors Punjab’s Pothwar region where a majority of Pakistani soldiers are recruited from, contributes 6% recruits, as per Shuja Nawaz’s account. A bulk of the soldiers are drawn from Punjab (65%), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered (Pathan) Tribal Areas (15%). Even within Punjab, recruits are chiefly drawn from the Pothwar region’s Jat, Rajput, Awan, Gakkar and Gujjar biradris. At least three Army Chiefs — Generals Tikka Khan, Asif Nawaz and Raheel Sharif — have been Punjabi Rajputs.