The centre cannot hold

- Zulfiqar Shah
The centre cannot hold

May 1, 2013-

Federations around the world have adapted political systems to the foundations of their socio-political and cultural realities so that proclamations of identity, the trickling down of the fruits of governance to the grassroots level and the unfurling of even patterns of development based on parity become a tangible reality.   

Two federations around the world—Pakistan and the US—are peculiar examples of federal systems with a relatively very short history of nation-making and statehood. Both of these countries were never a sovereign homogeneous state before becoming republics. However, they are polar opposites in terms of federalism and the sovereign autonomy of the federated states. Unlike the US, Pakistan has an extremely centralised political system, which, despite being a federation constitutionally, is a unitary form of governance in practical terms. Although it has reached the highly mature age of sixty-five years after waging three direct and two proxy wars on the Indian and Afghanistan borders, Pakistan has not learned lessons from its own history. The bitter realities of federalism, the political system and state-building have always created a political ecology unsuitable for the strengthening of substantive democracy in Pakistan.   

Art of unitary federalism

Pakistan’s democratic system is a microcosm of its federalism. Pakistan emerged from the 1940 resolution adopted by the All India Muslim League, which demanded the creation of a country consisting of the Muslim majority states of undivided India and ensuring maximum autonomy and sovereignty to the federated states. This was in reaction to the British India Act (the constitution) of 1935, which created a highly centralised political system. A few weeks after the creation of Pakistan, the very basis for the country was negated by the dissolving of an elected legislative assembly and the government in Pakhtunkhuwa, followed by the dissolution of the Sindh assembly and government. The ‘sovereign states’ of undivided India, which were independent countries before the British invasion, were downgraded to the status of provinces, going against the spirit of the 1940 resolution. Later on, in 1951, the status of provinces was undone and a unitary province of West Pakistan was created to counter the demographic majority of Bengal, which was East Pakistan. Education, writing, publishing and printing in Sindhi and Bengali languages were banned. Pakistan adopted a unitary political system in the name of ‘parity federalism’ under the shadow of the country’s first military rule of General Ayub Khan. This was ultimately meant to keep Bengalis out of power despite being the demographic majority so that the interests of the East Pakistani majority ethnic group, the Punjabis, an overwhelming majority in the military, could be protected. After the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 under the second military rule of General Yahya Khan, a new constitution was adopted, which turned the country into a virtual unitary system based on the democratic monopoly of the ethnic majority of Punjabis. Even today, 65 years after Pakistan’s creation, the seats of the Sindh, Balochistan and Pakhtunkhuwa provinces together do not form a two-thirds majority in the federal legislature, which means they cannot legislate according to their will against the vast share of the Punjab in the federal parliament.       

Political ecology of democracy    

The democratic system in Pakistan has hidden strings of demographic interest as well as numerical contours. It doesn’t offer equal space to the ethnicities of the federated provinces and neither does it translate governance into qualitative democracy. A democratically elected government has never been given space to decide the country’s foreign policy or make political interventions for sustainable internal security and development.

Human engineering within the political culture of the country was always aimed at upholding the rite of the omnipresent security establishment. Issues like the freedom movements in Sindh and Balochistan, which could only be resolved through political dialogue and engagement by ensuring more federalism, were left to the decisions of the trigger-happy security regime, which always preferred an eyeball-to-eyeball stance against dissenters to crush it through militarisation.

Unfortunately, the domination of the security paradigm of statecraft over development has shrunk the quality of life and socio-economic growth of the common people, particularly in Sindh, Balochistan and Pakhtunkhuwa. The process has converted Pakistan into a security state, where the unwritten constitution outlines privileged ethnic groups like Punjabis and the Urdu community and Islamic schools of thoughts like Salafism and Devband as the core patriotic demography. This has given an edge to these ethnic and sectarian groups in statecraft and internal and external policies and has resulted in unending conflicts along the Afghanistan and Indian borders, promoted the Talibanisation of Pakistan and secessionism in the Sindh and Balochistan provinces.

Statecraft of fragmentation

and militarisation

As an all-time military republic, statecraft in Pakistan has always tried to fragment, divert and pervert social ethos, cultural composition and political discourse. The chronic ailments of Pakistani society, bearers of the historical secular traits of the Indus civilisation, are fanaticism and radical Islamisation, tribal fiefdoms and feudalism, as well as ethnic chauvinism and the fascism of those dominating the state apparatus. These are the outcomes of the divide-and-rule policy of the military establishment, which preferred unitary federalism, non-substantive democracy and the ethno-sectarian monotony of the state apparatus.       

Social and state fragmentation in Pakistan is the result of the decades’ long practice of the upholding grip of non-civil actors so that the interests of privileged ethnic groups and the non-civil class, which has emerged in Pakistan as a separate social entity, are ensured, protected and furthered. This has led Pakistan to the militarisation of society and civil spaces.

Possibilities and the pathway   

As a result, Pakistan is swamped with fragmentation, chaos and anarchy. It is trying to fight issues of political, state and social chemistry in

conventional and naïve ways. The failure of the political system is deeply rooted in its deviation from its foundations, which were the socio-cultural ethos of the Indus civilisation and the spirit of the 1940 resolution. In the blind alley of state failure and socio-political anarchy, it has to choose one nation over the much abated two-nation theory. The adaptation of the latter has already resulted in the break-up of the country. It also has to shape a substantive democratic system, provide maximum autonomy and sovereignty to the federated states, undo the militarisation of the Pakistani state and finally de-Talibanise Pakistani society.

Shah is a research scholar affiliated with the Central Department of Political Science, Tribhuvan University


Published: 02-05-2013 09:25

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