PRO-ESTABLISHMENT politicians are demanding a review of the 18th Amendment. This law devolved power in an ethnically tense state where the strong urge to centralise has often given tragic results, as in 1971. Clearly, undoing devolution deviously sans popular mandate will only raise tensions.
Global lessons show that devolution is crucial for large or ethnically diverse states. It makes rulers more accountable and reduces conflicts by giving political space to diverse ethnicities. The value of devolution is clear regionally too. Within Saarc, only Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives are unitary states without provinces, but for good reasons. Bhutan and the Maldives are tiny. Bangladesh is area-wise small and 98 per cent Bengali and 90 per cent Muslim. Among large Saarc states, it is the only natural nation-state, like Western European ones where most people belong to one race, faith and ethnicity.
Such states, less hit by internal conflicts, usually progress faster. Bangladesh too is fast becoming Saarc’s economic star. But given large numbers, it too may adopt federalism eventually. Despite non-devolution, these three have faced much less conflict due to small sizes and/or homogeneity and seen some progress too.
Diverse states only do well with devolution. Unlike Bangladesh’s natural nationhood, the other large Saarc states have cultivated nationhood, ie where multiple ethnic groups live in a larger state due to perceived mutual benefits. Such states have to devolve power to the ethnic groups to keep them happy with the union.
Diverse states only do well with devolution.
This hasn’t always happened in Saarc. Afghanistan, at war for 40 years, has had no chance to develop constitutionally. Sri Lanka was a unitary state till 1987, causing huge grief among its Tamil minority and a long civil war. The war has ended but not Tamil complaints as it remains centralised with no Senate and largely dummy provinces. Nepal was a unitary state with three main ethnicities and saw a long Maoist civil war along class lines. A pact in 2015 on devolution with seven provinces ended the war and political impasse. But it remains to be seen how well it is implemented.
That leaves the two Saarc behemoths and arch-rivals. The 1940 Lahore Resolution, with its reference to autonomy for regions, shows that the Muslim League two-nation appeal to Muslims was based on the notion of cultivated nationhood with a promise of devolution.
Muslims had invitations to two nations — the Congress one based on Indian cultivated nationhood and League’s one based on Pakistani cultivated nationhood. Congress spoke of a centralised state. The 1940 resolution promised devolution. In the 1946 polls, Muslims chose the League invitation, reasoning perhaps that with one of the two major bases of division (religion) gone, the emerging state would be more cohesive and deal with ethnic divisions by giving them political space via devolution.
Meanwhile, after Partition, India devolved powers to ethnically formed states. This along with the lack of sway of any one ethnicity allowed it to blend its ethnic diversity well into cultivated nationhood. But it failed to integrate religious minorities across India, leading to much violence. Pakistan mistreated both ethnic and religious minorities. The latter are too small and dispersed to protest, and suffer silently. But ethnic minorities chafe loudly about non-devolution and often face repression by autocratic forces. Thus, Saarc’s lessons show the perils of centralisation. Diversity sans democracy and devolution leads to destruction and deaths.
Pakistan took major steps towards devolution during 2008-2018, its best decade politically and even overall. These included the 18th Amendment; the NFC award; relative tolerance towards opposition, civil society and media; and peaceful civilian transition after fair polls in 2013. But most of those gains have been lost since then. Many say the 2018 polls were rigged by agencies and there is now a crackdown on media, opposition and civil society by a weak regime controlled by unelected forces. The 18th Amendment is the last bit of political evolution still surviving. Undermining it would end our last vestige of democracy.
What makes matters worse is the vague nature of complaints against devolution without solid analysis or proof and false claims that federalism has gone too far and is weakening the federation. But compared with strong federations globally, Pakistani devolution even on paper falls short, and is further reduced by the action of the judiciary, agencies and centre. So we need more devolution, and not its rollback.
Global lessons show that when those trained only in handling bombs and guns start handling complex state matters, centralisation and conflicts emerge. To avoid conflict, Pakistan desperately needs civilian supremacy and devolution.
The writer is a Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2020