Dr. Haider Nizamani
Why should there be a concern with the constitution in a country where the military regimes have suspended, tampered with, and, in one case, drafted constitutions? The modern day constitutions are user-manuals for states. User Manuals are enclosed with electronic and other mechanical products for good reasons-they are to become the document to be consulted from the setting up of the product to trouble shooting.
States are far more complex entities than an automobile or a mobile phone. Leadership that puts effort into the drafting a robust user-manual contributes in providing much needed stability to the polity. Another enduring quality of a good constitution is its ability to trouble-shoot when the state managers of the state run into problems. Above all, a constitution would be no more than just a piece of paper if the very people who are supposed to uphold it, flaunt it. Unlike Pakistan, leadership in neighbouring India following independence, for the most part, created and abided by the Constitution, whereas in Pakistan this path was avoided. These varying choices had far-reaching consequences for the two countries.
Pakistan and India gained independence in 1947 and the delegates selected from the pool of those elected in 1945 provincial elections formed the Constituent Assembly for united India in 1946. The 1935 Government of India Act served as a user- manual for the new states at their birth in August, 1947. The Indian leadership wasted no time and started to work in earnest to frame a constitution for the country. It was by no means an easy task but the leadership did not use difficulties as an excuse to put constitution making on hold. Towering figures like Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, brilliant legal minds like Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a dalit who was vocal opponent of M K Gandhi, among others put in countless hours for next two years and by November 1949 they were able to submit to the Constituent Assembly the draft constitution. The Constituent Assembly in India passed the new constitution for the country on January 26, 1950. India’s first general elections based on universal adult franchise were held a year later under the new constitution. Ninety-six amendments down the road, the Indian Constitution remains an agreed upon user-manual for a country with population of over one-billion. Ramchandra Guha, popular historian and commentator, is of the view that thanks to the genius and hard-work of India’s early leaders even mediocre people are able to run the republic without fear of being taken over by unelected institutions.
Leaders who were at the helm of affairs in Pakistan chose to avoid the adoption of the constitution in true letter and spirit. The Government of India Act of 1935 in essence remained the user manual for the new republic. Instead of legislative complexity and compromises, Pakistani leaders chose executive fiat to govern the heterogeneous society. The political leadership in Karachi, Pakistan’s first capital, increasingly leaned on civil and military bureaucracies in order to stay in power. This was an easy and preferred arrangement for Pakistan’s mostly unelectable and unimaginative leadership that ran the show in the centre. The first constitution of Pakistan promulgated in 1956 had a short lifespan. The armed forces staged its first coup in 1958 and suspended the constitution. The 1956 constitution came on the heels of the One Unit through which four provinces in the western wing were merged into one administrative unit to create parity between the eastern and western wings of the country. The imposition of the One Unit negated the principle of federation as political foundation for the country. Bengal, now re-branded as East Pakistan, was put on parity by merging four provinces of West Pakistan into a single unit. The 1962 constitution was a product of the military regime of Ayub Khan and was tailor-made to strengthen and perpetuate the rule by junta in Pakistan. Federating units were made subservient to the diktat of the centre and parliamentary form of government was dropped without due process in favour of presidential form of government. During first twenty-five years of its existence, Pakistan had two arbitrarily drafted constitutions backed up by authoritarian rule which led to political alienation in East Pakistan. The unrepresentative nature of the country’s peculiar constitutional trajectory was a contributing factor in the break-up of the country in 1971.
The 1973 Constitution was the truncated Pakistan’s first agreed upon user-manual that was adopted on the 10th April 1973. It was held in abeyance, euphemism used by General Zia-ul-Haq, four years later. Thirty-seven years later in the same month, the Parliament passed the Eighteenth Amendment to revive the much-battered user-manual for Pakistan.
The 1973 was a step forward but its drafting should be placed in the context of the separation of East Pakistan where the Awami League had campaigned from the platform for maximum provincial autonomy that echoed views of Sindhi nationalists. The military regimes of Zia from 1977 to 1988 and later Musharaf from 1999 to 2008 altered the 1973 Constitution to the extent of being unrecognizable making Pakistani more of a centralized state with unitary features than a robust federation.
The chequered history of constitutional politics and politics of constitutions in Pakistan has led to a political culture where the constitution is viewed by significant sections of political forces, both civilian and non-civilian, more as a nuisance than a vibrant and robust user-manual of political arrangements for an ethnically and linguistically diverse polity. Violation of the constitutions by the military has contributed to a milieu where political forces such as militant Islamists denounce the existing constitution and deem it fit to make the demand of altering the constitution through use of force. In order for the constitution to serve as an effective user-manual for Pakistan it is vital that the elected politicians treat it as such and abide by it in letter and spirit.
[Dr. Haider Nizamani is an academician based in Canada]