Calling in the big guns

A timeline of all the times the Pakistan Army was called in by governments to maintain law and order.
Published May 12, 2023

Former prime minister Imran Khan's arrest from the Islamabad High Court premises on Tuesday triggered massive protests across the country. The backlash against the move came strongest from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with a number of protesters gathering outside military cantonments, the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, and offices of the Frontier Crops. On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry approved army deployment in Islamabad, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to address the deteriorating law and order situation in major cities across Pakistan.

While the army's deployment has been requisitioned for a variety of reasons over the years — ranging from general and provincial elections, the recent floods, earthquakes and during the Covid-19 pandemic — here's a timeline of all the major instances when governments have requested the deployment of troops for maintaining "law and order".

February 21, 1952: Language riots in Dhaka

One of the earliest recorded instances of the army being called in to maintain law and order took place in East Pakistan — now Bangladesh. Language had been a contentious issue since independence. When the then prime minister of Pakistan, Khawaja Nazimuddin, announced at the Dhaka session of the ruling Muslim League on January 26, 1952 that "Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan", it was the match needed to set the language controversy ablaze once again.

Proponents of the Bengali language movement wanted Bengali and Urdu to both be the state's languages. To curtail the protests, the provincial government banned English daily The Pakistan Observer that supported the Bengali language demand. On February 20, the state imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure that prohibits demonstrations and public meetings.

The protests in Dhaka — Commons Wikimedia
The protests in Dhaka — Commons Wikimedia

Students, mainly from Dhaka University, held protests in defiance of the ban. This is when the army was called in to "restore law and order". Consequently, several students were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested. The demonstrators set the pro-government Morning News office — owned by PM Nazimuddin's family — on fire. Since 1999, February 21 has been marked as International Mother Language Day by Unesco.

Major riots in Dhaka in 1950 and labour troubles in 1954 were other early instances when the army was called in to restore the authority of the civil administration.

March 5, 1953: Anti-Ahmadi riots

In West Pakistan, the army was deployed to control the public during the anti-Ahmadi riots that took place in Lahore in 1953. Led by the Jamaat-i-Islami and Majlis-e-Khatme Nabuwwat, a Sunni pressure group, the leaders demanded Ahmadis be declared a non-Muslim minority. They also demanded the removal of the then foreign minister Zafrullah Khan and a ban on the employment of Ahmadis in government service.

Violent demonstrations took place, with crowds setting Ahmadi-owned properties ablaze in Lahore, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Sahiwal. The rioters went on to burn two post offices, eight buses and a police station and kill a deputy police superintendent after which martial law was imposed in Lahore on March 5. Police firing resulted in 10 deaths and left 74 injured. Eleven more people lost their lives before the situation calmed down on March 9.

Three religious leaders who led the movement, including Maulana Mauddudi, then head of Jamaat-i-Islami, were tried by a military court and handed the death sentence, which was later converted to life imprisonment due to international pressure, especially from Muslim countries like Egypt.

March 25, 1971: Military operation in East Pakistan to restore control

When the Awami League received an absolute majority in East Pakistan in the national elections of 1970 — winning 167 of 313 seats — the then president, military ruler Gen Yahya Khan, refused to transfer federal power to East Pakistan. This resulted in widespread protests and a non-cooperation movement launched by the Awami League.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of Awami League, who had the support of most of East Pakistan at the time, said, “This struggle is the struggle for freedom, this struggle is the struggle for independence."

After Yahya postponed the convening of the National Assembly in Dhaka on March 1, hostilities between the West Pakistan-supporting Bihari community and the Bengali community in East Pakistan increased, with Bengali mobs allegedly killing a large number of Biharis in Chittagong. Using the "Bihari massacre" to justify a military operation, the central government of Pakistan initiated Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan.

The Liberation War — AFP
The Liberation War — AFP

Some other instances of the army's intervention between 1972 and 1977 include the Language Riots in Sindh in July 1972, labourers' protests in Karachi's Landhi and Korangi from October to November in 1972, conflict between civil administration and local tribal population in Dir, KP, in October 1976, trouble in Pat Feeder area and Lasbela, Balochistan, from December of 1972 to February of 1973 and regular counter-insurgency operations in Balochistan from February of 1973 to July of 1977.

An excerpt from a research paper by Najam Rafique, titled *Pakistan Army: Towards a New Professionalism* — JSTOR
An excerpt from a research paper by Najam Rafique, titled Pakistan Army: Towards a New Professionalism — JSTOR

May 29, 1974: Riots after the Rabwa Railway Station incident

On May 22, 1974, students from Nishtar Medical College in Multan stopped at the Rabwa train station on their way to the hill stations in the north for a school trip. It is reported that they chanted anti-Ahmadi slogans and when they returned from their trip, Ahmadi students allegedly attacked them.

The news spread like wildfire and the community's shops and homes were burned down. The riots were especially violent in Lahore and Faisalabad. To control the situation, in June, military units were called in.

In 1974, military assistance was also sought to reinforce the efforts of paramilitary forces to check smuggling of food grain to India and Afghanistan.

April, 1977: PNA protests against election rigging

After the elections were held on March 7, 1977 and the PPP was declared successful, the Pakistan National Alliance — a political alliance of nine political parties — accused Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of rigging. The PNA took to the streets in all major cities of the country to protest. Soon, the army had to be called in to maintain law and order and as a result, martial law was imposed in Karachi, Lahore and Hyderabad.

The PNA leaders — Khurram Dastgir Khan/Twitter
The PNA leaders — Khurram Dastgir Khan/Twitter

April 6, 1985: Bushra Zaidi and the mini-bus incident in Karachi

Between 1984 and 1985, road accidents reportedly claimed the lives of two people on average every day in Karachi. One such accidental death led to violent riots in 1985. A mini-bus driver reportedly jumped a traffic light while racing with another driver and hit a group of Sir Syed College students in Liaqatabad, killing an Urdu-speaking student named Bushra Zaidi.

The students organised protests and were met with brutal suppression by the police — who were also accused of molesting young female students after entering Sir Syed College. This triggered a wave of anger among the Urdu-speaking and Punjabi populations and violence spread across the city in subsequent days. Thus began the first wave of ethnic clashes between the Pakhtun and Mohajir communities.

Students protesting near Sir Syed College — Zahid Hussain
Students protesting near Sir Syed College — Zahid Hussain

Young activists, led by Islami Jamiat-i-Taleba, the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, set buses and minibuses on fire. As a result, the army was deployed to diffuse the situation in Liaqatabad and Nazimabad, the Urdu-speaking-dominated middle class areas where the violence had first occurred after Zaidi’s death. Dozens were killed on both sides of the conflict.

November to December, 1986: Aligarh/Qasba Colony massacre in Karachi

In the months following the Bushra Zaidi incident, ethnic clashes spread to several areas of Karachi, with the Aligarh/Qasba Colony massacre becoming a major flashpoint, the army was called in to restore law and order in Karachi.

February, 1990: Clashes between PSF and APMSO

The breaking down of the MQM-PPP accord after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister led to increased hostility and tension between Sindhis and Mohajirs in Sindh. In February, the student wings of both political parties, heavily armed, committed widespread violence against each other in Karachi and Hyderabad. There were multiple reports of kidnappings and torture of student leaders on both sides.

As a result, Benazir dismissed Sindh's chief minister and its police inspector-general in March for failing to maintain order. The violence, however, continued unabated and culminated in the May 26-27 incident in Hyderabad where the security forces of the provincial government opened fire on a crowd protesting against the 16-hour-a-day curfew in the city.

The formation of All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization (APMSO) by Hussain — Dawn
The formation of All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization (APMSO) by Hussain — Dawn

Among the 45 to 60 people killed and 250 wounded, a majority were Mohajir women and children. In reaction, armed Mohajir gangs attacked Sindhi neighbourhoods, killing dozens. The violence spread to Karachi and over 130 people were killed in a five-day period.

Ultimately, more than 15,000 troops were deployed in Karachi in June to prevent further violence. The army was also called to other parts of the province to maintain law and order.

June 1992: Operation Clean-up or Blue Fox in Karachi

In 1992, then PM Nawaz Sharif launched Operation Clean-up that was subsequently converted into Operation Blue Fox under PM Benazir Bhutto. The military operation — which ostensibly sought to bring peace and eliminate all terrorists irrespective of their political affiliation — began in June. But the target of the army operation was MQM.

As a result, MQM founder Altaf Hussain was forced into self-exile and the party that had been sweeping elections since 1988 and was the third biggest in Karachi at the time, went underground.

Altaf Hussain — Dawn
Altaf Hussain — Dawn

July 4, 2007: Army troops deployed around Lal Masjid

The Lal Masjid incident was a major event during which armed militants faced off with the authorities in the country's capital. The siege was the deadliest battle between the army and local militants since Pakistan entered into an alliance with the United States following the 9/11 terror attacks in the US.

The fighting began when persons affiliated with the madrassah attempted to occupy a nearby government building. Soon, a fierce clash broke out between the armed seminary students and security troops.

Lal Masjid — AFP
Lal Masjid — AFP

A high-level meeting of top government, security and intelligence officials chaired by then-president General Pervez Musharraf reviewed the situation as clashes continued in and around Lal Masjid. Soon, the army conducted a large-scale military operation that left more than 100 persons dead and claimed the lives of 11 armed forces personnel.

December 28, 2007: Troops called in response to bloody protests after Benazir's assassination

After former PM Benazir was assassinated at a rally in Rawalpindi, the country fell into chaos. The violence following Benazir's assassination cost Pakistan approximately $2 billion dollars in lost tax revenue, foregone production, and infrastructure damage, according to a 2008 report.

Three days of unrest left at least 38 dead across Pakistan with most casualties being reported in Sindh, the PPP's main power base. In Karachi, rioters caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, the interior ministry said in a first rough estimate, by torching hundreds of shops, offices and banks, along with railway stations and more than 70 trains.

Around 100 prisoners escaped when mobs broke open several jails, the then ministry spokesman Brig (Retd) Javed Cheema said.

In Hyderabad, police and witnesses said protesters set fire to around 25 banks, 100 vehicles and international fast-food chains. An order had been given to the police and paramilitary forces to shoot violent protesters on sight.

Armed forces were deployed in various parts of Sindh, officials said, and banks and schools were closed across the country.

A candlelight vigil held by Benazir's supporters — Reuters
A candlelight vigil held by Benazir's supporters — Reuters

May 7, 2009: Government orders army to eliminate Taliban in northwestern areas

After the government ordered the army to launch an offensive against militants in Swat, the armed forces carried out a major operation. Then president Asif Ali Zardari assured US President Barack Obama in Washington that the country was committed to defeating al Qaeda and its allies. Security forces used jets and helicopters to pound Taliban positions in Swat, while thousands of civilians fled the area.

“Decisive steps have to be taken,” then PM Gilani said at the time. “In order to restore honour and dignity of our homeland and to protect the people, the armed forces have been called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists.”

August 1, 2014: To secure Islamabad

The government deployed the army in Islamabad under Article 245 of the Constitution to aid civilian law enforcement agencies in securing the capital for the next three months.

It was believed that the deployment was to deal with PTI's upcoming long march that was supposed to be held on August 14 that year. Prior to the decision, the then information minister, Pervaiz Rasheed, downplayed the impression that the decision had anything to do with the upcoming march.

An interior ministry spokesperson had said that the capital was not being "handed over" to the army, and in fact, a contingent from the military would assist the police and civil administration at sensitive installations and serve as a rapid response force.

September 8, 2017: Army's deployment in Islamabad extended

The government decided to extend the army’s deployment in the capital for three more months under Article 245 of the Constitution in order to extend the authorisation of deployment of 350 troops to aid civil law enforcement agencies.

November 25, 2017: Against protesters at Faizabad Interchange

After a day-long operation against TLP protesters camped at the Faizabad interchange on the outskirts of Islamabad since November 8 proved to be unsuccessful, the federal government ordered the deployment of the army under Article 245. The troops were called in to aid civilian law-enforcement agencies to secure main offices of the judiciary, Parliament House, Presidency and Prime Minister Houses, foreign missions, foreign office and other important installations.

The protesters burned cars on Rawalpindi's Sawan Bridge and shut down markets. Announcements were also made from nearby mosques, reportedly calling on people to join the protest.

Policemen in riot gear chase protesters from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah during a clash — AFP
Policemen in riot gear chase protesters from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah during a clash — AFP

According to military sources, the army chief opposed the use of force against its own people since the population's trust in the institution of the army "[couldn't] be compromised for little gains".

Negotiations were undertaken with protesters again and the government accepted a number of their demands in return for ending the protest. The agreement document bears the signatures of then interior minister Ahsan Iqbal, TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, and then ISI chief Maj Gen Faiz Hameed, among others.

May 10, 2023: To control protests in Islamabad, Punjab and KP after Imran Khan's arrest

This bring us to this week, the Interior Ministry deployed the army in Islamabad, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Wednesday to address the deteriorating law and order situation in major cities across Pakistan.

PTI party activists and supporters of former Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, clash with police during a protest — AFP
PTI party activists and supporters of former Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, clash with police during a protest — AFP

According to the the Interior Ministry’s notification, a copy of which is available with, the federal government was “pleased to authorise the deployment of army troops and assets for maintaining the law and order situation across Punjab in aid of civil power”.

The ministry added that the government took the decision to exercise the powers conferred under Article 245 (functions of armed forces) of the Constitution and Section 4 (3) (ii) of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 (to discharge such functions as specified in the said act).

With special thanks to Badar Alam, former editor Herald, for his invaluable input.

Header image: Shutterstock