Undertones: Anti-army hashtags gain rare visibility in Pakistan

Illustration by Global Voices featuring Pakistan's army logo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory's newsletter. Find out more about our missionmethodology, and publicly available dataSubscribe to Undertones.

Pakistan is reeling from the most devastating floods in its history while it also battles with political instability following the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan earlier this year. In this context, a rare trend continues to gain strength on Twitter: the proliferation of anti-army hashtags, memes, and op-eds.

Khan supporters, journalists, lawyers, civil society actors, and the public at large are openly discussing the role of the military in politics. This is an unexpected occurrence in Pakistan, as any criticism of the country’s powerful military is met with censorship and arrests

Despite the state’s repression of this behavior, Khan supporters are generating thousands of tweets, calling for Army chief General Bajwa to resign after ostensibly meddling in politics and orchestrating Khan's ouster in April 2022. Popular hashtags are #باجوہ_استعفی_دو (“#Bajwa resign” in Urdu) and #GoBajwaGo.

Pakistan’s powerful military

Ever since Pakistan gained independence in 1947 — after its partition from India — the state has oscillated between military rule and short-lived democratic governments. Throughout the decades, the military has prized itself on being a stable institution that is able to protect the country from neighboring threats, particularly from India. International military rankings, which place Pakistan among the ten most powerful militaries in the world, are often proudly evoked in the local press. A large number of Pakistanis see the military’s control over politics to be irrefutable, and until now, not many have dared to voice their criticisms out loud.

Despite some growing discontent over his economic governance, Imran Khan has remained popular in Pakistan. Yet, on April 10, 2022, Pakistan’s parliament ousted Khan in a no-confidence vote after a few of his allies flipped allegiance. Many analysts and Khan supporters see the military as the primary actor who orchestrated his deposition. According to Khan, he was a victim of an “international conspiracy.”

For decades, top generals were blamed for meddling in politics. Imran Khan, a former cricket champion, was brought in as their latest prodigy in 2018 but their “same-page” politics eventually fell out of line.

Khan’s influence grew by tapping into religious conservatism, anti-corruption narratives, and anti-U.S. sentiment. For many analysts and critics, Khan is a populist who has successfully further polarized the country and muzzled the press. For Khan’s supporters, he is an honest leader fighting corruption and U.S. interference

Now that Khan has been replaced by a coalition of opposition members, he is vociferously campaigning against the army’s “lack of neutrality,” taking his supporters with him. He is also blaming the U.S. for this regime change.

Although criticism of the army had been initiated earlier, Khan took the narrative further and emboldened his followers to follow suit. Now, thousands are openly criticizing the military – a first in Pakistan’s history. Yet, it does not come without consequences; the government has retaliated by arresting several activists.

Despite the crackdown, the trend continues to gain visibility online. Khan supporters are relentlessly tagging the Inter-Services Public Relations, the military's media wing on Twitter, condemning its “unneutral” stance on politics and for enabling the ouster at the behest of the US government, parroting Khan’s narratives.

In a nutshell

Criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military has always been voiced in hushed tones, but since the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan back in April, Pandora’s box has been flung open. Anti-army hashtags, with tens of thousands of tweets, run daily on social media platforms, defying the reprisal of state agencies.

How it shows up on Twitter

Not all tweets against the military are born equal. Our researchers have ranked some positively based on their impact on civic society, while not others. Most users share the narrative “Pakistan's military must stop meddling in the country's politics,” while others are spreading Khan’s incendiary line: “Imran Khan was ousted by a foreign conspiracy.”

Some media items are reflective and insightful op-eds, like this in-depth essay by lawyer Salahuddin Ahmed exploring the military’s role in Pakistani politics.

He explains how the military's protégé led to further polarization in Pakistan and also discusses how the courts and the military escape accountability for their political meddling by using the “neutral” card.

Our researchers have positively ranked this media item’s impact on society by giving it the Observatory’s top score (+3) for its quality of information. 

“This is a precious piece of writing as it details how the military has meddled in politics in recent years. The viral piece not only provides a chronological account of events but also provides extensive insight into why anti-military narratives have become popular and more importantly, visible, in Pakistan recently,” our researcher writes. See this item's full analysis here.

Neutrality — a hot topic

The term “neutral” was popularised by Imran Khan after his ouster from office. He called out the military in his public speeches for not staying “neutral” and equated the establishment to animals. The military, on the other hand, has publicly denounced claims of meddling in politics and maintains its neutral stance. Today, a running joke in pro-Khan circles is to sarcastically call top generals “neutral.”

Yet, other media items have been negatively ranked by our researchers due to their nefarious impact on civic debate and society. For example, this widely-shared meme portrays Pakistani politics as an action movie and instigates online violence. 

The meme, posted by an anonymous account on Twitter, shows Army chief Bajwa and chief justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial as “criminals” starring in “the most terrifying” film since 1947, the date of the India-Pakistan Partition. “NRO-2” refers to the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a rule that granted amnesty to thousands of officials and politicians between 2007 and 2009. In this meme, the author insinuates that the army would like to continue benefitting from corruption.

For our researchers, this viral meme encourages abusive behavior on Twitter, as people sharing the tweet and the meme are tagging the military, hurling insults at them, and calling for the resignation of the army chief. Labeling individuals as “enemies” does not amount to democratic criticism. They ranked this item as “-3”, the lowest score in the Observatory’s ranking system. See this item's full analysis here.

The online trend of questioning Pakistan’s military is far from over – and might actually pick up even more as the date to replace the military’s chief of staff approaches. The current chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, will retire in November, and our researchers predict that we might see an uptick in Khan’s narratives.

Meanwhile, General Qamar Javed Bajwa does not appear to slow down his diplomatic activities. On the contrary, journalist Mosharraf Zaidi pointed out on Twitter that Bajwa had recently met with European Union leaders, and asked why Pakistan’s foreign and economies ministries were left out of these meetings.

The majority of the reactions agree with the author and some have come to see the army's overreach. For this reason, and because the tweet rightly criticizes the military for acting outside of its mandate defined in the constitution, our researchers have ranked this item +1 in the Observatory ranking system. See the full analysis of this item here.

The Civic Media Observatory scorecard

Each item — such as a meme, a tweet, or a Facebook video — in the Observatory's data is analyzed and ranked according to our scorecard to evaluate its impact on civic discourse.

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