Martial Law- A threat to democracy


Martial Law is the law administered by military forces that are invoked by a government in an emergency when the civilian law enforcement agencies are unable to maintain public order and safety. Even though the constitution has not given any specific definition, this is the best understanding of the concept. When the people in an area cannot be controlled by the local authorities, the government imposes martial law as a sense of emergency. When martial law is imposed the military takes complete control of the state. They maintain curfews and other functions based on the country’s rules and regulations. Now even though the concept of martial law seems farfetched a lot of countries have already experienced this. An analysis will help understand the various effects of martial law.

In the year 1916, Ireland who was under the rule of the United Kingdom launched the Easter rebellion to make Ireland an independent state. The rebellion, for the first time, was an armed rebellion headed by the Irish Republicans. The fight started in Dublin and the United Kingdom’s army began the fight against the Irish. Heavy casualties were experienced on both sides until finally, the Irish leader surrendered. After that, martial law was set up in Dublin which spread throughout the whole country. Strict curfews were set by the military and if any violation of these curfews were to be seen, a direct order of shoot on sight was given.

Even the United States of America has faced martial law a few times. One of those instances was in the year 1963. Civil rights movements were finally getting noticed. The Cambridge Non-Violent Action Committee was discussing the desegregation of public accommodations, equal employment opportunities, and fair housing for African Americans. But these demands were not met which led to large protests in the city. Seeing the situation only getting worse Governor Tawes deployed the Maryland National Guard and declared martial law. The guardsman remained in the city for 25 days while gun violence between the blacks and the whites continued. Even after martial law was lifted the situation only got worse which forced the Governor to redeploy the Maryland National Guard. Even after 53 years the country still faces the same problem and the President threatens to impose a countrywide martial law if the protests did not end.

The Tiananmen Square protest is one of the most infamous freedom movements in the world. It was the year 1989, students from different universities in China were tired of the country’s one-party ruler. They wanted a more open democratic government, better reforms for the poor and working-class, and freedom of the press. The students stormed Tiananmen square and started protesting. With the increase in strikes and protests, the government declared martial law on May 20, releasing 250,000 soldiers. At 1 a.m. on June 4th, soldiers marched into Tiananmen square and started firing at all the people present there. Those who retaliated and tried to flee the scene were massacred. This incident was one of the worst uses of military power and condemned to this day. The country to this day still lacks proper freedom of the press.

Not long ago in the year 2003, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was gaining popularity in Indonesia. GAM was a group hoping to gain independence for the Aceh region of Sumatra located in Indonesia. The war between the group and the government lasted for a long time with over 15,000 casualties in the process. On the 28th of April 2003, the Indonesian government offered an ultimatum to the GAM group but was rejected. This led to the president giving complete military control on 18th May 2003 and imposed martial law. The six-month period of martial law led to the defeat of the GAM group. But even after the six-month period military operations still continued. Over 2000 individuals were killed. Majority of who were local citizens.

It is clear that the concept of martial law in theory works. The idea of allowing the military to take control to protect the citizens on the surface makes sense. But which citizens are they protecting? Who makes sure that the military doesn’t misuse their power? What guarantee do we have that once martial law is ended the power returns back to the government? It is clear from the above examples that initially military troops are deployed to reduce casualties.  But the reality is the number of casualties seems to rise after the imposition of the troops and a lot of civilian lives are lost. The major reason such protests become violent is because of the government’s refusal to cooperate with the protestors. Most of the time the demands of the protestors are to receive basic human rights that everyone already possesses.

Martial law and India

The constitution of India has certain articles that give power to the military in the time of an emergency. India to this date has never deployed the military service or declared martial law in any state. Article 33 and 34 of the Constitution of India gives the right to the parliament to declare martial law and suppress a few fundamental rights of the people. Articles such as 19 (freedom of speech) get suspended. This is done by Article 359 which gives the president permission to suspend certain rights. But even Article 20(protection in respect for offenses) and Article 21 (Right to life and personal liberty) cannot be suspended by the above-mentioned article.


Martial Law is set to be used at the time of emergency. But as seen from the above examples it is clear that martial law is used as an excuse by the government to suppress protestors from overthrowing the government. What starts off as a request for basic demands turns violent because the government elected by the people refuses to help them. We as a society must stand for what we believe is true. Our ancestors taught us that peaceful protests can bring down even the greatest opposition.


Author: Ben Jose Jose,
IFIM Law College, 1st Year

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