Short-changing Provincial Autonomy

President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto chairing a session of the National Assembly in Islamabad with an ongoing heated debate prior to the passage of the 1973 Constitution. The 1973 Constitution was passed by consensus. (Courtesy: National Assembly Collection Archives Islamabad)
President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto chairing a session of the National Assembly in Islamabad with an ongoing heated debate prior to the passage of the 1973 Constitution. The 1973 Constitution was passed by consensus. (Courtesy: National Assembly Collection Archives Islamabad)

MORE than anything else, it was our inability to manage the provincial aspirations for autonomy which resulted in the break-up of the country in 1971. Even today, despite having undergone a major constitutional makeover in the form of the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010 leading to an altered centre-province equation, the debate on provincial autonomy continues.

It had been a part of our political lexicon ever since the British Raj had introduced elected central and provincial legislatures in 1937. Although the demand for provincial autonomy by the All-India Muslim League (AIML) was meant to protect the Muslim-majority provinces from undue interference by a Hindu-dominated centre, the demand for a federal system acquired its own momentum and it became a highly desirable feature for the post-independence political system because of the geographical vastness and huge diversity of the subcontinent.

The operative part of the Pakistan Resolution had demanded that “… the areas in which Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of India, should be grouped to constitute independent states, in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.” The key words here are “independent states” that were expected to be “autonomous and sovereign”. The resolution manifested the political consensus over the texture of the constituting units in the future homeland.

The promise of provincial autonomy, however, suffered a series of setbacks soon after independence. The first such action was the expansion of already elaborate powers of the central government in the Government of India Act, 1935, which served as the interim constitution. The governor-general, according to the interim constitution, had enormous powers of control over the provincial governments, such as the authority to choose, summon, and dismiss provincial ministers.

The centralisation of power and the denial of provincial autonomy resulted in the secession of the eastern wing. Despite the enactment of the 18th Amendment in recent years, the question of political devolution is as yet largely unresolved.

The dismissal of the Congress provincial government of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), led by Dr Khan Sahib, on August 22, 1947, under the instructions of the governor-general using the powers of the interim constitution set an unfortunate precedent in the context of provincial autonomy. The Khan ministry was dismissed while it still enjoyed the majority in the house and a new chief minister, Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, was imposed who swayed seven Congress members to join his party and mustered the required majority in the assembly.

The then Sindh chief minister, M.A. Khuhro, was dismissed on April 26, 1948, by the provincial governor under directions from the governor-general on charges of maladministration, gross misconduct and corruption. It was reported that the differences had arisen when the provincial governor reallocated some provincial cabinet portfolios without the chief minister’s knowledge.

Declaring Urdu as the only official language of the country by the central government provoked a strong protest from East Pakistan where the majority of Pakistanis lived and most of them spoke Bengali as their native language.

The first draft presented by the Basic Principles Committee of the Constituent Assembly on September 28, 1950, also evoked a strong protest from East Pakistan. The draft proposed a bicameral legislature with equal powers for both houses. The upper house was to have equal representation of all the federating units. East Pakistan, with majority population, felt that its representation would be one-fifth in the upper house and that would considerably dilute its numerical superiority in view of the equal powers of both houses.

In the second draft of December 22, 1952, the powers of the House of the Units were considerably slashed and the principle of parity was introduced by allocating equal number of seats to East Pakistan on the one hand, and all the federating units in the western wing on the other, in both houses. This time the negative reaction came from Punjab which saw no logic in allocating the same number of seats to one federating unit as to all the other units put together in the western wing. Punjab also demanded equal powers for the two houses.

An attempt was made to break the constitutional deadlock through the ‘Muhammad Ali Bogra Formula’, which proposed a House of Units with equal representation to the five federating units, including East Pakistan. The House of the People was to be composed of 300 members divided among the five federating units on the basis of population. Equal powers were proposed for each house and provision of a joint session of the two houses was made to ensure parity between the eastern and western wings in the joint session. The draft constitution of 1954 died an unnatural death when the Constituent Assembly was dissolved by the governor-general on October 24, 1954.

One Unit is born

The second Constituent-cum-Legislative Assembly, which came into being on July 7, 1955, passed an act on Sept 30, 1955, to unify all federating units and territories in the western wing into One Unit, called West Pakistan. The job was accomplished after the dissolution of provincial governments in Punjab, the NWFP, Sindh and Bahawalpur state — apparently to overcome the resistance to One Unit.

The new prime minister, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, who was heading a coalition government, unveiled a new draft constitution on January 8, 1956. Unlike the previous drafts, the latest draft constitution provided for a unicameral legislature consisting of 300 members, with 150 to be elected by East and West Pakistan each on the basis of parity despite the fact that East Pakistan had more than 55pc of the population, and, based on the population, it should have been allocated 166 seats.

The 1956 draft provided for greater provincial autonomy compared to the interim constitution as it slashed the Federal Legislative List to a bare 30 items, and the Provincial List was expanded to 94, with 19 items placed on the Concurrent List. The powers of the president were enhanced in the 1956 draft compared to the ones provided in the earlier versions.

Despite the objections by Awami League and certain other parties in East Pakistan, the draft was passed on February 29, 1956, and the country was declared an Islamic Republic on March 23, 1956.

Martial law imposed

Provincial autonomy and the entire federal structure of Pakistan took a major hit on Oct 8, 1958, in the wake of which General Ayub Khan abrogated the Constitution, imposed martial law, dismissed the central and provincial governments and dissolved the three legislatures. The federal character of the state suffered a further setback when he gave the country the 1962 Constitution which had concentrated most powers in the office of the president.

Even the provincial governors, who were supposed to be the chief executives of the provinces, were to be appointed by the president and would hold office during the “pleasure of the president”. The provincial governor could not appoint or remove a provincial minister without the concurrence of the president. It was also provided that the governor of a province should, in the performance of his functions, be subject to the direction of the president.

Unlike all the drafts and constitutions, the 1962 Constitution had just one Legislative List; the federal one having 49 items. The residuary powers were vested in the provinces, but the central legislature was empowered to legislate on any matter concerned with a provincial subject on the grounds of national interest.

Besides the periods of direct military rule, the era of centralised governance under the 1962 Constitution will be known for the lowest quantum of provincial autonomy in the country’s history. Although Ayub Khan’s rule is credited for political stability and rapid economic development, it is important to understand that the denial of provincial autonomy during his time directly contributed to the public disillusionment with a united Pakistan which ultimately led to the separation of East Pakistan in 1971.

We should never forget that the Constituent Assembly elected in 1970 on the basis of universal adult franchise, giving representation to the two provinces in proportion to their population, was unable to meet and frame the new constitution because the talks between the elected representatives from East and West Pakistan prior to the formal convening of the session broke down owing to the differences over provincial autonomy.

The 1973 Constitution was framed by the first directly elected National Assembly of Pakistan. Chastened by the separation of East Pakistan, the truncated legislature representing the remaining four provinces and territories of Pakistan unanimously passed the 1973 Constitution. In the context of centre-province relations, the most important feature of the 1973 Constitution was the creation of a Council of Common Interests (CCI) to formulate policies regarding water, power, railways, industrial development etc., and to supervise the related establishments.

A legislative landmark

The 18th Constitutional Amendment, a landmark in the journey towards greater devolution and signed into law by the president of Pakistan on April 19, 2010, enhanced provincial autonomy by omitting the Concurrent List and retaining just a Federal List divided into two parts. Although the Federal List expanded to include 71 subjects, 18 of these items were placed in Part II of the list which came within the jurisdiction of the CCI.

By all accounts, Pakistan’s journey in quest of the elusive balance in centre-province relations has been a turbulent one. Although constitutional provisions are certainly important, it is the sincere implementation of these provisions in a democratic environment which becomes critical once the basic law is in place. Constitutions are not static documents and the journey for improvements in them continues, but we seem to have achieved some reasonable balance in centre-province relations after the 18th Amendment; at least for now.

We must now focus on implementation of the agreed constitutional provisions dealing with centre-province relations. CCI and the National Economic Council (NEC) are two important institutions created under the 1973 Constitution and further strengthened through the 18th Amendment. Article 154(3) of the Constitution requires the CCI to meet quarterly, or four times every year, but on average, the CCI has met three times a year over the last 12 years since the passage of the 18th Amendment.

Similarly, the NEC, which has the representation from both the centre and the provinces, is supposed to meet twice a year, according to Article 156(4), but only one meeting has taken place per year on average during that time.

The 18th Amendment also requires that the CCI should have a permanent secretariat, but it was only at the end of 2021 that the permanent secretariat was established after a delay of 11 years.

These facts and figures indicate a non-serious attitude towards very clear constitutional requirements dealing with the sensitive subject of centre-province relations.

Besides faithful compliance with the constitutional provisions dealing specifically with centre-province relations, it is extremely important that the rule of law and democratic governance should be ensured in the true spirit of the Constitution.

It may not appear to be directly linked, but the phenomenon of forced disappearances has been around for quite some time and it is no secret that there is a disproportionately higher percentage of cases from two smaller provinces, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The central government would do well to initiate a process of dialogue and reconciliation in the two provinces which will definitely improve the critical centre-province relations.

The writer is President of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (Pildat).

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