Illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque
Illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque

The nascent state of Pakistan inherited the concept and practice of centralised power from its British rulers. It is with this approach that the three provinces of West Pakistan — Sindh, Punjab and North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) — several states, tribal areas and Balochistan were consolidated to form the One Unit on October 14, 1955.

The One Unit scheme was dissolved on July 1, 1970, and the provinces of West Pakistan which were amalgamated into one province were restored by General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, the then president and chief martial law administrator of the country. But, even today, attempts are being made to consolidate power at one place. Just recently, there were talks to reverse the 18th amendment, to adopt the presidential form of government, and to have a single-party system in the country. All of these weaken the federation and subjugate the provincial autonomy. One of the motives to bring the One Unit scheme was to undermine the majority of the East Bengal province, which was later called East Pakistan until it became an independent country, Bangladesh.

Some of Pakistan’s leading intellectuals are organising talks, seminars, symposiums and discussions to celebrate the golden jubilee of the dissolution of the One Unit this year as they could not gather to mark it in 2020 because of Covid-19. They are deliberating on what the country has gained and what opportunities did it miss after the dissolution of One Unit in 1970.

In 1953, Mumtaz Muhammad Khan Daultana, the then chief minister of Punjab, put forward the proposal of a unitary state. He believed that the federal type of government is not suitable for Pakistan. It was this very thought that made the creation of One Unit possible. However, Field Marshal Ayub Khan writes in Friends Not Masters that he was the first person who put forward the idea of One Unit.

After being in the works for years, the One Unit finally came into being in 1955. The decision had vocal opponents at the time and is still remembered as a dark chapter in Pakistan’s history. Why was the One Unit conceived and implemented, and what relevance does it hold in today’s politics?

The question that we are trying to investigate here is: why was the One Unit conceived and implemented, and what relevance does it hold in today’s politics?


Mumtaz Daultana, the then chief minister of Punjab, put forward the proposal for a unitary state in 1953
Mumtaz Daultana, the then chief minister of Punjab, put forward the proposal for a unitary state in 1953

The simple answer to this question is that the Central Government of Pakistan wanted a unitary rule and a strong hold by having only two provinces in the country so that they can be easily controlled and managed. The civil and military bureaucracy had already planned to get the political support and collaboration of powerful people and the feudal classes from all the provinces and smaller states, and in return they offered them many incentives, rewards and better positions to rule the country jointly as a kind of compensation. The military also wanted to hasten the process.

The other major reason was that the bureaucracy also wanted to terminate the resistance gathering in East Pakistan and send a message. It was believed by those in the power corridors that they were dissenting too much and that the smaller provinces would always support the dissenters.

The creation of One Unit was also meant to be a message to everyone else for the purpose of intimidation and control of power so that it would be easier for the West Pakistani leadership to create their protégés in these areas. Some East Pakistani leaders, including Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Mohammad Ali Bogra, sided with the West Pakistani leadership in formulating the single province. Since Governor General Malik Ghulam Muhammad had declared a state of emergency and dissolved the constituent assembly while announcing that the constitutional machinery had broken down, he also set about a plan for the One Unit scheme. Dr Sarah Ansari in her book Life After Partition: Migration, Community and Strife in Sindh, 1947-1962 quotes William L. Richter and Paula Newberg:

“A balance to the more populous and politically argumentative East Bengal, the government portrayed this move as an administrative convenience and a political imperative to fulfil the romance of unity for the country. Bahawalpur, Khairpur and Balochistan states lost their autonomy, and the provinces of Sindh, Punjab and Frontier were merged into West Pakistan...Many politicians had outlined schemes for zonal federations of various sorts for several years and a similar plan had been percolating in government circles for some time; most other plans however, had retained the basic structure of existing provinces that one Unit now proposed to erase”

Dr Khalid Bin Sayeed, in his book Politics in Pakistan: The Nature and Direction of Change, writes:

“Civil military oligarchs in the centre, who until this time were only partly aware of the dangers that most radical representatives from Bengal armed with a new mandate for maximum provincial autonomy could pose for them, jolted into making the same quick calculations. Until this time, they had talked of the sub zonal federation of West Pakistan. A more united Bengal delegation could exploit the ethnic and political divisions in West Pakistan and mobilise enough support for a constitution that would weaken the centre by offering the alluring prospect of maximum provincial autonomy for Bengal and smaller provinces of West Pakistan. The net result of such an outcome would be a weak centre which could threaten national unity, retard economic development, and deal a crippling below to national security by weakening and dividing the arm forces. It was for this reason that the ruling elites in Pakistan had to devise the One Unit plan integrating West Pakistan.”

The democratic forces in the country never supported an amalgamation that would diminish the individual identity of the federating units. A step towards a unitary and presidential form of government was in favour of the civil and military elite. This set the stage for Ayub Khan to later take over the country.


The Sindh Legislature Assembly session where the One Unit resolution was carried on Dec 11, 1954
The Sindh Legislature Assembly session where the One Unit resolution was carried on Dec 11, 1954

Barely a year or two after the creation of Pakistan, the political scenario became very toxic. There was a clash between the politicians and the civil bureaucracy in East Pakistan. This clash initially surfaced between Hamidul Haq Chowdhury, the minister of finance, commerce and industries in East Pakistan, and Aziz Ahmed, the then chief secretary of the province. The conflict arose on multiple various appointments made unilaterally by Chief Secretary Aziz Ahmed on whom Hamidul Haq Chowdhury and other ministers raised forceful objections.

Bin Sayeed writes, “Unfortunately, there was no meeting of minds. The chief secretary was a Punjabi and all the key posts in the East Bengal secretariat were in the hands of Punjabis or Urdu-speaking civil servants from outside Bengal. All this was bound to create considerable resentment among local Bengalis.”

Dr Naazir Mahmood, in his book Politics, Pictures, Personalities, observes that the shuffling of many ministries in various provinces had become highly common, creating an environment of instability. From time to time, the governor general blamed the chief ministers, governors and the prime minister for various issues. He removed and reinstated them repeatedly for farcical reasons. The political scenario of the country from 1947 to 1956 was highly volatile and constantly fluctuating. Between 1947 and 1955, 22 provincial cabinets were dismissed or forced to resign, sparking off the centre-province antagonism that shattered the dreams of a stable democracy.

In 1953, violent riots took place in Lahore, as well as the rest of Punjab, against the Ahmadiyya community. These resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 people. In response, Governor General Ghulam Muhammad declared martial law, a drastic action imposed in March 1953.

Daultana resigned as chief minister of Punjab and Khawaja Nazimuddin, the prime minister, was removed by the governor general. This is how the political process of the country continued. One may also cite the example of the first constituent assembly which was indirectly elected in 1947 by members of various provincial assemblies and was dissolved by the governor general in 1954.

The conflict between the politicians and the bureaucrats not only continued in East Pakistan but in West Pakistan too. The new ministry, which was sworn in after the dissolution of the first constituent assembly in 1954, included the same people as before.

Maj Gen Iskander Mirza, the then interior minister, after the new regime came into power following the dissolution of the constituent assembly, said, “Some undeveloped countries must learn democracy and until they do so they must be controlled. With so many illiterate people, politicians could make a mess of things. There was nothing undemocratic in declaring the state of emergency because 95 percent of the people welcomed it.”

Mirza further said, “They [illiterate peasants] elected crooks and scallywags who promised the moon. Scallywags make a mess of everything and then I must clean up the mess. Democracy requires education, tradition, breathing and pride in your ability to do something well.”

The centralised control over power does not let diversity become a strength. Empowering a few individuals and certain small groups does not augur well for long-term prosperity and inclusive growth.

The quote above by Mirza displays the approach and mind-set of the British trained Pakistani civil-military bureaucracy which was ruling the country from the very inception of it till 1970. Following the example of Mirza, Gen Ayub Khan, Gen Yahya Khan, Gen Ziaul Haq, Gen Pervez Musharraf and some of the protégé politicians have continued treating common people as the creation of some lesser God.

During this time, the constitution of 1956 was abrogated, the 1935 Act was amended and repealed from time to time and martial law was imposed several times. Democracy came to Pakistan in the intervening period between 1971 and 1976 for just a few years, but was reversed soon after from the civilians in favour of dictators.

Read: I was handcuffed and tied but it was worth my fight against One Unit


Muhammad Ayub Khuhro, the then chief minister of Sindh, who moved and piloted the One Unit resolution in the Sindh Legislature Assembly
Muhammad Ayub Khuhro, the then chief minister of Sindh, who moved and piloted the One Unit resolution in the Sindh Legislature Assembly

The first constituent assembly was dissolved by Governor General Malik Ghulam Muhammad after which he set up compliant provincial governments that would agree with him. He then promulgated an ordinance that would allow him the power to initiate One Unit and establish West Pakistan. A second constitutional assembly was indirectly elected in June 1955 and thus, most of the assemblies of all the provinces and the councils of the states, along with the second constitutional assembly passed the resolutions in favour of One Unit until it finally came into being on October 14, 1955.

This was all done on the forceful behest of the power centres. Here, it is pertinent to declare that the governor general pressured, threatened and blackmailed influential members from the provincial assemblies of the smaller provinces from time to time to support the One Unit scheme, or otherwise Public and Representative Office Disqualification Act (Proda) proceedings in a legal court would be started against them.

Mian Muhammad Iftikharuddin said in the constituent assembly of Pakistan in 1955:

“So strained became the relations between them that many meetings of the constituent assembly had to be postponed and, at times, the Bengalis and others used to sit alone here while the Punjab members whiled away their time on tea in the room of Chaudhry Muhammad Ali.”

Meanwhile secret documents on One Unit prepared by Daultana were floated in various assemblies and the constituent assembly members carried various reasons and techniques for the formation of One Unit.

Some members of the assemblies and politically awakened people said and repeated that the document was a combination of forcefulness and cunning in the way it was prepared on the basis of Machiavelli’s discourses. The document makes it clear that West Pakistan is in conflict with East Pakistan and must speak as one entity. The politicians of East Bengal had often resorted to the “‘small brother’s big brother’ role of west disruption,” according to one of the One Unit documents.

“The first necessity of the present context, therefore, is that we must clear the decks before we launch our political campaign. In other words, we must keep silent and render inoperative all opposition of which we are morally convinced that it is not motivated by evil,” says paragraph 2 of ‘Document B’ from the One Unit documents.

The document had also recommended the dismissal of Abdul Sattar Pirzada, Sindh’s chief minister, who was able to muster the support of 74 members of the Sindh Assembly against One Unit. After clearing him of Proda, Muhammad Ayub Khuhro was installed as the new chief minister. The document also describes that such people should be supported who are in favour of One Unit.

The sanction for Feroz Khan Noon and the full support for Abdul Rasheed Khan is also described in the document. The author of the document was of the view that we need more unity as Muslims. They proposed developing smaller provinces more, and stated that a propaganda in favour of integration should be organised in a highly skilful manner through all members of the of various spheres and stakes of life including small zamindars [landowners], technicians, labourers, tenants, clerics, etc.

Ayub Khan, the then army chief of Pakistan, writes in A Short Appreciation of Present and Future Problems of Pakistan, quoted in My Chief by Col Mohammad Ahmed, that during his visit to London in 1954, he was staying at a hotel when the idea of One Unit occurred to him and he decided to write the scheme for the integration of Western Pakistan.

After his return from London, he met Governor General Malik Ghulam Muhammad, Mirza and Chaudhary Muhammad Ali, all of whom were staunch supporters of the scheme. From a review of facts, the West Pakistani leadership, including Daultana, Mushtaq Gurmani, Feroz Khan Noon, decided to do something about that. The task of preparing the documents was given to Daultana, first for close friends and then for the entire political leadership of Pakistan.

It is also generally found in many political histories that Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah was also suggested this, but he had declined.

After the passing of the resolution against One Unit in 1957 in the constituent assembly of Pakistan, Mirza threatened that he would see how One Unit will be undone. Similarly, Ayub Khan, while visiting Sindh immediately after the resolution, also said that One Unit would be retained at any cost. Both of them declared this publicly.

Both Mirza and Ayub, with the connivance of each other, invoked martial law in 1958 and saved the scheme.


Field Marshal Ayub Khan writes in Friends Not Masters that he was the first person who put forward the idea of One Unit | Courtesy The Tahir Ayub Collection
Field Marshal Ayub Khan writes in Friends Not Masters that he was the first person who put forward the idea of One Unit | Courtesy The Tahir Ayub Collection

The movement against One Unit had started from the very day it was voiced in 1954. Leaders, students, writers and civil society members from Sindh, NWFP (now KP) and Balochistan continued their struggle for 15 years.

GM Syed from Sindh was incarcerated in prison or restricted to his house for more than 30 years. In Sindh, other prominent leaders such as Hyder Bukhsh Jatoi (a great haari leader) remained confined in different prison cells of Pakistan, specifically Mach Jail in Sibi, Balochistan. Other leaders who opposed One Unit from Sindh and were thrown into jail, included Shaikh Abdul Majeed Sindhi, Kazi Faiz Muhammad, Ghulam Muhammad Leghari, Yusuf Leghari, Masood Noorani, Yousuf Talpur, Suleman Shaikh, Amanullah Shaikh, Rasul Bux Palijo, Jam Saqi, Iqbal Tareen, Shah Muhammad Shah, Madad Ali Sindhi, young Abdul Khaliq Junejo, Dr Mahboob Shaikh, Ashfaq Memon and many others.

Likewise, from NWFP the incarcerated leaders included Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Khan Abdul Wali Khan and Ajmal Khatak. From Balochistan there were Ghous Bux Bizinjo, Attaullah Mengal, Akber Bugti, Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai and many others.

In Punjab there was less support. The lone and strongest voice in Punjab belonged to Mian Muhammad Iftikharuddin, originally associated with the Unionist Party. Some other progressive elements also supported the disintegration of One Unit.

Bengali leadership, which was in power, was fully in favour of one province in West Pakistan. Later, Sheikh Mujeeb supported the case of smaller provinces.

Sindh was, in fact, at the forefront in the entirety of Pakistan and sought the support of Pakistan as a whole. In the late sixties, GM Syed formed the Sindh Muttahida Mahaz for the sole purpose of getting the One Unit dismembered. He invited the leaders from all over Pakistan to lend him their support.

Eventually, the movement became so strong that Gen Yahya Khan announced the break-up of West Pakistan and restored the original constituent units of Pakistan as they had joined the newly formed country in 1947 as per 1940 resolution.


Dr Ansari writes, “responses in this part of Pakistan [Sindh] to the prospect of One Unit therefore need to be seen against the backdrop of realities of local political life, which was longstanding, underlying antipathy that many people fell towards Punjab. One Unit for them represented the latest in the lengthy catalogue of grievances compiled by Sindhis as far as Punjabi intensions towards their provinces were concerned. During this time, many refugees also came from west Punjab along with Urdu-speaking refugees from India.”

In 1950, with the construction of Kotri Barrage, “the land allocation became politically very sensitive” observes Ansari. The lands were being distributed to the refugees coming in from Punjab and other provinces and it was during this time that the Khan of Mamdot, Nawab Iftikhar from Punjab, was appointed as the governor of Sindh. Prior to this, Deen Muhammad Sheikh, a retired judge from Punjab was appointed the governor of Khairpur.

Some people saw this as a progressive step forward but many of Sindh’s politicians considered it to be a tyrannical step backward, and an assault under One Unit since they had been led to believe that the lands would be designated to the farmers of Punjab and the Frontier instead of local Sindhi haaris [farmers]. Their apprehensions came true when the land was allotted to military personnel — retired and serving, local Sindhi jaagirdars [feudal landholders], and rich and small farmers from the Frontier, Punjab and Balochistan.

GM Syed, Hyder Bukhsh Jatoi and Sheikh Abdul Majeed Sindhi came out in big gatherings and addressed the people throughout Sindh. Their writings against One Unit were distributed in all the districts and in all the small villages and towns. Small groups of like-minded people were formed to propagate against the One Unit as many people were migrating to Sindh from Punjab, NWFP and Balochistan to purchase lands, acquire jobs and start their businesses. This was thought to be a great injustice to Sindh.

The general unease that existed in Sindh against One Unit compelled the government to launch a vigorous campaign and ensure that its message spread everywhere.

The main Sindhi leaders who favoured the new integration included Muhammad Ayub Khuhro and Pir Ali Muhammad Rashidi who travelled throughout Sindh to inform the public of the benefits of One Unit, and said that their opponents were big and exploitative landlords only looking out for themselves. Rashidi was at the forefront of this and informed the public that under the new system, feudalism will be abolished and the working class will get a lot of benefits such as reduction in poverty, better education and accessible health facilities. HS Suhrawardy also travelled in Sindh and addressed the people in various places, telling them about the benefits of the unification of the provinces.

In 1957, GM Syed and Raees Ghulam Mustafa Khan Bhurgri moved a resolution to break the One Unit in the West Pakistan assembly. The resolution was passed with the support of the republicans from Punjab. Muslim League members abstained. Still, many believed that the One Unit was not bearing fruit and therefore considered to undo it.

Daultana and others stood with the movers of the resolution. But, as fate would have it, the One Unit was saved by Ayub Khan’s martial law in 1958 which continued till 1969 and succeeded by another martial law of General Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan dissolved the One Unit in 1970 but the insurgency and chaos started in East Pakistan broke the country into two.


The present-day federation would be strengthened with the equitable distribution of resources amongst the provinces. The National Finance Commission (NFC) award needs to be institutionalised and more resources should be allocated to the underdeveloped and poverty-stricken areas. Inter-provincial harmony can only be attained if the grievances of small provinces are addressed. It is important for the federating units to engage with each other in a meaningful manner.

Today’s leadership needs to have political and economic programmes for the federation, provinces and the local governments. The Council of Common Interest (CCI), for example, is a constitutional body which has only meet twice in the last four years. This forum needs to be capitalised for continuous dialogue amongst the provinces.

Provincial governments should also take ownership of service delivery of the subjects devolved to them under the 18th amendment, including education and health. For a strong federation, the administrative, financial and legislative powers need to be dissolved to the local governments.

The nexus of big landlords, industrialists and civil-military bureaucracy has always served a very small section of the population. This has harmed the country’s poor in a very structured manner. The power elite, by design, hinders upward social mobility for the marginalised communities and keeps them in the poverty trap in order to rule their generations to come. The centralised control over power does not let diversity become a strength. Empowering a few individuals and certain small groups does not augur well for long-term prosperity and inclusive growth.

Pakistan will have a more promising economic future, political stability and social harmony when its federating units are empowered and have their own source revenues. This will also lessen the fiscal burden on the centre.

The country’s One Unit experience has taught us the true value of diversity and the importance of respecting smaller units. These lessons must not be forgotten.

Nadeem Hussain is an economic policy researcher. He is co-author of The Economy of Modern Sindh (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Agents of Change (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Aijaz A. Qureshi is a professor of research, an economist, and a political historian. He is co-author of The Economy of Modern Sindh (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 3rd, 2022



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