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Our Systemic Perversities

The story of a society that has been going round and round in aimless circles for the last 64 years. Absence of democracy, rule of law and good governance is its continuing hallmark

For any state in the contemporary world, its constitution is its solemn and inviolable ‘social contract’ which guarantees fundamental the freedoms and basic rights of its citizens, including their inalienable right to choose or change their government through independently cast ballots. That, in turn, establishes the power and duties of the government and provides the legal basis for its institutional structure. Since our independence, the people of Pakistan have had no role in determining the direction of their country’s political, economic and social policies.

At the time of our independence in 1947, we inherited the Government of India Act, 1935, which remained our constitutional framework, with necessary adaptations and modifications in the form of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, passed by the British parliament. Seven years of debate failed to produce agreement on fundamental issues such as regional representation or the structure of a constitution. This impasse prompted Governor General Ghulam Mohammad to dismiss the Constituent Assembly on Oct 24, 1954, in what was the first coup of our history, though a civilian one.

The question of provincial autonomy in particular remains the key to addressing the issues of federalism in our country. There is a strong underlying resentment in Balochistan (and in other provinces also) against what is seen as continued “Punjabi dominance”, inequitable distribution of power and resources, and exploitation of the province’s natural wealth.
The new Constituent Assembly produced the first Constitution of the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ which came into force on March 23, 1956. It provided a parliamentary form of government with a president elected by the members of the National Assembly and the two provincial assemblies of East Pakistan and West Pakistan and a cabinet of ministers headed by a prime minister appointed by the president. Each province was effectively administered by a governor assisted by a small team of ministers. This constitution remained operative for about two-and-a-half years. Even with the abrogation of the constitution and declaration of martial law in October 1958, no change was made in this federal setup in the second constitution adopted in 1962.

Those of us who witnessed the early days of Pakistan nostalgically remember the late fifties and early sixties when this arrangement was in place, as perhaps the only period during which the bulk of the population of this country lived in peace and relative prosperity with nominal unemployment. Other than constant political wrangling and intrigues among our politicians, we used to be a peaceful, tolerant, contented, liberal and law-abiding society till the 1971 tragedy, after which successive domestic and regional events tearing apart our social and political fabric, disrupted Pakistan’s progress as a model for Third World countries.
Just before the elections of 1970, Gen Yahya Khan, the self-proclaimed president and chief martial law administrator, ordered the restoration of the four provinces of West Pakistan. At that time there was no popular demand for this break-up except for some “nationalist” elements and feudalised vested interests. This decision was a surprise for the common man who was only interested in a more democratic presidential system based on adult franchise instead of Ayub’s small number of basic democrats electing the president.

Since then, Pakistan has remained afflicted with endemic crises and challenges that perhaps no other country in the world has experienced. In the process, we witnessed a continuing cycle of government changes by non-political means. Frequent political breakdowns followed by long spells of military rule disabled our institutional framework unleashing a culture of political instability, endemic corruption, and general aversion to the rule of law.

Besides military and the civil bureaucracy which wielded real authority, we saw a number of politicians being ‘cycled’ through those political and economic crises. Invariably, the politicians proved to be corrupt, interested only in maintaining their political power and securing their own interests or those of their elite fraternity. As ‘elected’ leaders, they never inspired hope for a democratic state that could provide socio-economic justice and fair administration to all Pakistani citizens.

In the 1970s, we also tried a half-baked version of socialism, the outcome of an arbitrary, personalised approach of an elected prime minister, who nationalised in one stroke our banks, schools and colleges and major industries. The whole systemic perversity had to be reversed at a cost still being paid by the nation. At the moment, we are stuck with another systemic perversity, with an elected president undemocratically also remaining the head of his party while virtually using head of government’s powers that do not belong to him. It is neither a parliamentary nor presidential form of government.

If any further changes are needed in our Constitution to redress provincial grievances, they should be made before it is too late to remove the underlying causes of injustice and socio-economic deprivation of the people of smaller provinces. These are exceptional times warranting exceptional responses to our problems. We must avoid reaching points of no return.
The story of Pakistan one of remorseless tug and pull between the civilian and military rulers on the one hand, and liberal and religious forces on the other. In the process, the country has failed to develop a sustainable democratic system based on constitutional supremacy and institutional integrity. The main casualties have been the state institutions and the process of national integration. It is the story of a society that has been going round and round in aimless circles for 64 years. Absence of democracy, rule of law and good governance is its continuing hallmark.

Pakistan’s quest for survival has been as compelling as it has been uncertain. The country has been engaged in a precarious struggle to define a national identity and evolve a political system for its ethnically and linguistically diverse population. Pakistan is known to have over twenty languages and nearly 300 distinct dialects. This diversity contributed to chronic regional tensions and provincial disharmony, which not only impeded the process of constitution-making but also remained a potential threat to central authority.

The question of provincial autonomy remains the key to addressing the issues of federalism in our country. There is a strong underlying resentment in Balochistan and in other smaller provinces against what is seen as continued ‘Punjabi dominance’ and inequitable distribution of power and resources. In the former East Pakistan too, the problems started with a similar deep-rooted sense of deprivation and a feeling of political and economic alienation, which over time became a politico-constitutional crisis culminating into demand for larger autonomy and leading eventually to the break-up of the country.

Our Constitution has been amended umpteen times for furtherance of political power and expediency. If any further changes are needed in our Constitution to correct the systemic anachronisms in our federal structure and to redress provincial grievances, they should be made before it is too late to remove the underlying causes of injustice and socio-economic deprivation of the people of the ‘smaller’ provinces. These are exceptional times warranting exceptional responses to our problems. We must avoid reaching points of no return.

We need to crawl out of the parliamentary marshland in which we have remained stuck for nearly half a century and look for an alternative form of government, preferably an adult-franchise-based presidential system. We need a new federal setup and a reordering of our national priorities. Our Constitution becomes the real ‘social contract’ enabling the citizens of Pakistan to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from fear, want, hunger, disease, illiteracy, corruption, violence, oppression and injustice.

In seeking this change, we will in fact be seeking to recreate the State of Pakistan as envisioned by the Quaid. This warrants a people’s movement for a new, strong and stable Pakistan, free of exploitation of the people, capable of levelling the inequalities inherent in our corrupt, feudalised, elitist system. With our dismal record in democratic tradition, we as a nation now are on a crucial trial to determine how we restore Pakistan’s guiding principles and cope with the challenges of our times. We cannot afford to remain complacent spectators any longer.

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