Pakistan’s 21st amendment: national consensus or soft coup?

The attack on the school in Peshawar in December shocked the world. In Pakistan, the upshot is a growing military shadow once more looming over a fragile democracy.

Farooq Yousaf
6 January 2015

The next Pakistan strongman? General Raheel Sharif. Wikimedia Commons / Sherry901. Creative Commons.

For some it was a show of national solidarity in the wake of the horrific Peshawar school attack. For others, it was an iron-fisted response to terrorism in the country. But for political analysts and critics, the latest amendment to Pakistan’s constitution is nothing less than a soft coup in the making.

Pakistan’s parliament—the National Assembly and the Senate—today passed unopposed the 21st amendment and the Pakistan Army Amendment bill 2015, paving the way for military courts. Although the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, called it a bill representative of all parties, a number—including Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), Jamaat-e-Islami and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf—abstained in the vote.

The bill allows for military courts, under a military officer, to preside over terror-related cases for two years. In a country which only saw a renewed democratic transition in 2013, after long periods of military rule and premature government departures, establishing special military courts won’t do any good for the cause of democracy.

Raza Rabbani, a well-known democrat and member of the Pakistan People’s Party, broke into tears after casting his vote in support of the bill in the Senate. He called his vote a betrayal of his conscience but an obligation towards his party, and said he felt ashamed. Rabbani is not alone in his frustration. An editorial in Dawn, the country’s most-read English daily, called the event ‘a sad day’ as it would put the country indirectly under military rule.

The government led by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) has rationalised the move as an ‘extraordinary measure for an extraordinary situation’. The Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Public Relations said military courts were not the army’s desire but the need of the hour. While right wing religio-political parties, including Fazal ur Rehman’s JUI(F) and JI, did abstain as indicated, they said it was because the bill linked religion with terrorism and ignored violent elements in other parts of the country, including Sindh and Balochistan.

Complex narrative

The narrative following the Peshawar attack is complex. The bill does include reforms of religious seminaries—that too is unwelcome to JUI(F) and JI—of which some are accused of harbouring terrorists. Military courts could help protect judges and witnesses from intimidation and death threats. And, even with criticism from some parts of the country, the military, through the media, has succeeded in generating a pro-army sentiment, rooted in patriotism.

The visible post-Peshawar activity of its chief, General Raheel Sharif, and his expressed wish for the political parties to maintain consensus on anti-terror policies has been seen by many as a veiled dictation, indicative of the rise of his influence in national affairs. His participation in the major all-party conferences implied the political leadership was incapable of reaching agreement itself on Pakistan’s resolve to counter terrorism—in which context that leadership could find it easy to abdicate its responsibilities to the military once more.

From friends and family I have heard comments like these: ‘Finally some good can be expected, as the military has taken over from the incompetent and corrupt rulers.’ This could undo decades of struggle by political activists to restores democracy in the country.

With a six-year moratorium on the death sentence recently lifted, a number of convicted terrorists have already been executed. Though attracting global criticism—notably, most of those executed were involved in attacks on the military, rather than civilians—this has again received support from major sections of Pakistani society.


Pakistan’s need of the hour is not a knee-jerk reaction but substantive measures to eradicate the nuisance of terror in the country. Sharif should lead from the front and thus restore the public’s confidence in political leadership.

The military, with all its patriotism and determination to counter terrorism, cannot afford to slip irreversibly into a quagmire at this critical juncture.  And General Sharif must isolate himself from democratic matters and the governance of the country—to do otherwise would send a wrong message both nationally and abroad. 

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