FROM the Pakistan Resolution of March 23, 1940, there flowed a number of streams of thought. Frustrated by the rejection on the part of Congress of all the proposals made by the All-India Muslim League (AIML) and its astute leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah within the framework of a united and federal India, the Muslims of the subcontinent now came up with a proposal, and got it endorsed by the annual session of AIML, that went beyond the confines of a federal scheme. It was more of a confederal scheme or a zonal federation, i.e., a federation within a federation.

Second, Jinnah who had hitherto referred to the Muslims as a minority for which he had been asking for what in political science terms is called affirmative action, a representation more than what a community deserves by virtue of its proportion in the overall population, now designated the community as a nation.

Third, in his presidential address he went further ahead in invoking the principle on which he grounded his demand. Till that point, he was claiming for a better deal for the Muslims of India in order to resolve the ‘communal issue’ which to him was not a religious but a political issue.

Giving a spin to his hitherto position now, he said: “The problem in India is not of an inter-communal nature, but manifestly of an international one, and it must be treated as such.” He further added: “The only course open to us all is to allow the major nations separate homelands by dividing India into ‘autonomous national states’.” Of these autonomous nations, Muslims of India were one; and it was only the Indian Muslims he was referring to as a nation.

The federating units of might have raised a voice if they knew that the principles cited in the Pakistan Resolution were not actually meant for the proposed country.

As he explained to Gandhi in his famous correspondence with him later that Muslim nationhood he was talking about had been couched in the Indian context; Muslims in other lands across the world were excluded from it, implying that Jinnah categorically was pursuing a political objective — creating a political community while employing a cultural/religious identity in a given context, and was not on a religious mission.

Fourth, and finally, the terms and ideas of independence, autonomy and sovereignty — which the resolution carried, had significant value for the post-partition politics and statecraft. It was rightfully argued that the principles that were highlighted time and again, particularly in 1940 and thereafter, should not be forgotten after independence. The Muslim-majority provinces which served as the federating units of Pakistan would not have agreed to create the new federation if they knew that the principles cited above were meant only for the united Indian milieu.

Unfortunately Pakistan started drifting away from the idea of federalism right from the beginning. It happened mainly because of the administrative and military institutions created under colonial rule to ensure its control over its subjects, and sections of their cohorts in the political class, a highly centralised system of governance was established in the country. The objective was realized through the facilitation provided by the Government of India Act 1935 that had been adopted as Interim Constitution. The interim arrangement was allowed to operate for nine long years which helped in the consolidation of authoritarianism in the country for a long period. The constitutions of 1956 and 1962 continued the centralised scheme of the 1935 Act, to the utter frustration of not only the smaller provinces in the western part of the country but also the most populous of all the provinces, East Pakistan.

It was only after the breakup of the country in 1971 that the country could acquire a constitution which enshrined the federal scheme but without ensuring any significant autonomy to the provinces. The constitution did fulfil major federal principles, like a bi-cameral legislature and a scheme of division of powers between the centre and the provinces, but the federal arrangement to a great extent was devoid of a federal spirit. Consequently, smaller provinces all along asked for a space wherein they could exercise their initiative and could benefit from their resources in the manner in which they liked.

The 1973 Constitution, adopted in the post-dismemberment crisis situation, needed reforms in the subsequent years. Instead, it met bad fate. It was suspended by Gen Ziaul Haq during which, its parliamentary character was changed under pressure through the 8th Amendment. It was again put under abeyance by General Pervaiz Musharraf, who again changed, through the 17th Amendment, its parliamentary character that had been restored earlier by the civilian regime in 1997 through the 13th Amendment.

During the above two military rules, spread over 19 years, constitution in general and the federal system in particular remained almost redundant. An important institution of the federal system, the Council of Common Interests (CCI), met only once in 19 years. Another very important body, the National Finance Commission (NFC), failed to give its awards in time and according to the manner prescribed in the Constitution. The National Economic Council (NEC), meant for harmonising the economic policies of the provinces, was not allowed to perform its function in letter and in spirit.

It was in this background that the smaller provinces constantly raised voice for the implementation of the federal system as enshrined in the Constitution. The political class also committed itself to the restoration of the Constitution and its federal character, as evidenced in the Charter of Democracy signed between the Pakistan People’s Party and the Nawaz faction of Pakistan Muslim League in 2006.

It was in 2010, after the restoration of the civilian regime, that the parliament took the initiative to reform the Constitution, restore its original shape, and make necessary amendments as highlighted over the years. This resulted in the 18th Amendment, which not only restored the original Constitution, but also made significant changes regarding the federal scheme.

The NFC Award was made more assuring for the provinces, the CCI was enlarged with enhanced functions and was made to have meetings at least once in 90 days and submitting its reports to parliament and provincial assemblies. The Concurrent Legislative List was abolished, making most of its subjects available to the provinces. Resultantly, 17 federal ministries were abolished and their functions were devolved to the provinces. The financial rights of the provinces were increased and were given constitutional cover.

The amendment changed the organic federalism of the Constitution to cooperative federalism, called consociational federalism by a few political scientists. It was a correction of historical magnitude.

Pakistan’s constitution was thus made more devolved than it had ever been, and more democratic-federal than the constitutions of many federal states, like India or Malaysia. But a leap forward in the federal arena did not have an easy sailing in practical terms.

Almost 11 years down the road, Pakistan’s federalism has demonstrated numerous failures in terms of its realisation. In the first place, it soon appeared that the historical forces of centralisation were quite intact and had not learned any lesson from the past crises. Not only the major state institutions of both civilian and non-civilian backgrounds, but also a good number of political elite, had not accommodated their thinking to the new parameters of federal arrangement.

The mistrust of the provinces was so pronounced that right from the beginning it was announced that the system would not work. Therefore, transition from the previous to the new system was made difficult. Resources were shifted in a very slow manner, and that, too, not fully. Besides, a few defunct ministries in the centre were restored with new nomenclature. Taking advantage of the federal role in standardisation, full-fledged ministries were created, suggesting that they would standardise the provincial initiatives. Soon it appeared that health, education and a couple of other areas were fast reverting to the centre.

The provinces’ own performance was also not reassuring. Instead of demonstrating a pro-active role, their work was marked by the traditional lethargy and red tape. Provinces also failed to further devolve the system to the local government, a function that was solely in their own competence. Provinces’ performance in revenue-generation and moving along development projects was also not as firm and successful as it was expected. Lack of political will on the part of provincial political class enabled their respective bureaucracies to affect the system according to their will and mindsets. The ordinary people could not become the beneficiaries of the whole exercise of devolution.

Since 2018, we are in the midst of a new experiment in statecraft in which the pivotal source of power has largely remained beyond the civilian regime. This ‘hybridity’ has had quite adverse implications for federalism.

The handling of the statecraft is done in total disregard of the cooperative federalism we had attained after much effort. The centre has gradually taken to itself the major areas of, say, education. And then, among several other things, the Covid-19 crisis almost totally exposed the fault-lines.

Crisis situations in fact provide an opportunity to test the latency of the constitutional institutions and the viability of their mechanisms. But this happens only if the constitutional mechanisms are invoked to address the crisis situation. In Pakistan, throughout the crisis the centre and the provinces, especially Sindh, were at different wavelengths. The differences were not tried to be settled in CCI or even in parliament, which would have sent the message that the constitutional bodies were intact, viable and working.

Looking at the state of affairs and the docile role practically given to the constitutional institutions, one wonders if we are not drifting away from the cooperative federalism we had attained after much effort. Is it not that we are making, if we have not already made, our system a showcase federalism?

The author is Director, Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi.

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