In Saki’s short story ‘The Jesting of Arlington Stringham’, the politician of the same name remarks in parliament that ‘the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.’
The people of Pakistan would doubtless agree: we have, in the words of another commentator, "a superabundance of the unresolved past." Take these few spring days in March, when we mark Pakistan’s dawn (March 23, 1940), when we repress any memory of its dusk (March 25, 1971), and when we pick between a republican guard and an actual republic.
It shouldn’t have had to be a choice. By rights, this was a day about the Constitution, about the soaring notes of its preamble, about the sanctity of the vote. In an alternate universe — where Ayub never got his extension and Ghulam Muhammad was turfed out of the civil service — perhaps it could have been.
But whatever our unhappy history, the unresolved past is now returning as nightmare: this latest ‘23 March’ resembles few that have come before. The social contract is unravelling, the Constitution is in peril, a coalition of slack-jawed dynasts is driving us to default, and the deep state fumes as the walls of its coercive apparatus – a pyramid built on fear and silence – start to wobble under the weight of Imran Khan’s populist revenge.
Yes, we are awash in more history than we know what to do with. But the tragic optics of this Pakistan Day must prompt a change in course: when we celebrate our bankruptcy with a string of tanks, turrets, and all manner of big, pointy appendages.
Because, central to any Republic Day — a name we’ve long stopped calling March 23 — is the health of our democracy. This year, however, it’s accompanied by mass revulsion; by a sense that at the highest levels of state, the worst possible decisions are being taken with head-banging constancy.
Consider just this week: the finance minister deals with his moneylenders by screaming support for our nuclear arsenal. The ruling party’s chief organiser calls to declare the previous ruling party a terrorist outfit. Elected representatives are ready for anything except elections. ‘Ehtesab pehlay, intikhab baad mein,’ they roar, a cry straight from 1978. (Time is indeed a flat circle: the PML-N lion has gone back to being General Zia’s house-kitten). Thrown out of an assembly they refused to lead for three years, the opposition is now being brutalised; arrests and abductions carry on apace.
As for the party-less, their political compass has found a North Star of its own: KP’s caretakers say elections are impossible in light of such poor security — a conceit never once afforded to the Awami National Party or its massacred leadership — while Punjab’s are too busy doling out 45,000 acres of farmland to the military.
In sum, the democratic project is coming undone. And yet, to paraphrase a deeply flawed democrat, ‘to a crisis of the spirit, there must be an answer of the spirit’ — it is now even more vital to understand why we have a Republic Day at all, what its genesis was, and how it can guide us back to the light today.
We make a start 83 years ago, when the greatest leader this country has seen threw down the gauntlet in Minto Park: there was to be a separate state for the Muslims of India, come what may. The Lahore Resolution remains Pakistan’s opening act, despite the rather absurd theories it spawned later — that the resolution was a bargaining chip (it wasn’t), that it didn’t rule out a united India (it did), and that it was passed on the 24th instead of the 23rd (petty hair-splitting, for a three-day event).
Less remarked upon, however, is that Jinnah linked March 23 to the need for a constitutional compact. During his speech the day before, the Quaid said, “Now, what is our position with regard to the future Constitution? It is that […] immediately after the war at the latest, the whole problem of India’s future constitution must be examined de novo and the Act of 1935 must go once and for all.”
The resolution was passed two days later, and its text appeared along the same lines: "that no constitutional plan would be workable in this country or acceptable to Muslims" unless the Muslim-majority areas were made "autonomous and sovereign"; and that "adequate, effective and mandatory safeguards should be specifically provided in the constitution for minorities in these units…"
What this means is that the very genesis of Pakistan was rooted in a constitutional promise: if there is a minar that stands in Iqbal Park today, it as much marks the dream of a new country as it does the need for a supreme text.
It was thus no service to history that the Pakistan Movement — a legal, peaceful struggle, led by the leading constitutionalist of the day — was retold as a blood-and-guts epic going back to Ghori and Ghaznavi.
Besides, this republican theme carried on well after freedom: whatever the uncles may say, the new state was premised on a parliamentary system. As Jinnah remarked the week of independence, the Constituent Assembly was "functioning as a full and complete sovereign body as the federal legislature of Pakistan…Remember that you are now a sovereign legislative body, and you have got all the powers. It, therefore, places on you the gravest responsibility."
And unlike today’s goofy ideas — of presidential systems and dead-eyed technocrats — the founding fathers were clear. "… There is no question taking away any powers from the Constituent Assembly," said prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan on the floor of the House on March 2, 1948, "The Constituent Assembly will continue to enjoy all the sovereign powers that it does enjoy."
Abdur Rab Nishtar agreed in earthier terms on May 18, "This Assembly is a sovereign body […] it can extend any rule. It can omit, or it can do anything else. As a matter of fact, it can do everything excepting making a man a woman or a woman a man." Though ironic to read now, it was the assembly’s doomed speaker, the great and good Tamizuddin Khan, who also piled on, "I agree entirely with those Members who have referred to the sovereign character of this body."
This was also Pakistan’s promise. The members that Tamizuddin was referring to made up what historians call the Long Parliament: Muslim League diehards, joined by a Hindu opposition from East Bengal — the Congress remnants that had opposed the new country tooth and nail, only to end up on the wrong side of the republic. That first assembly chugged on from 1947 to 1954, until Ghulam Muhammad, himself in the throes of death, sent it home.
In retrospect, the first assembly does indeed come off as flawed and noisy; the majority’s treatment of its Congress colleagues is too often laden with sarcasm — the kind reserved for old ideological enemies that could not yet be perceived as equal members of the Pakistan project, which they now of course were.
And yet the assembly persisted. When it passed the Objectives Resolution — as much a bugbear for weepy leftists as it would be for the religious right (a conversation for another time) — it nonetheless laid down a preamble that would form a part of all three constitutions, as well as be pressed into service as a people’s document against almost every dictatorship of the future. While sovereignty rested with God, said Liaquat, "the Preamble fully recognises the truth that authority has been delegated to the people, and to none else, and that it is for the people to decide who will exercise that authority."
For similar reasons, the preamble spoke of federalism, of fundamental rights, of free play for minorities, of a new kind of progress. "The state of our dreams shall not be sovereign without limits," scholar-member Mahmud Husain told the assembly the week of its passage. "[…] The words 'through the people' […] is a sure guarantee that this State will be based not upon the will of a single individual, autocratic and absolutist, but upon the will of the people themselves, which is the essence of modern democracy."
And however slow and sedate it was, the Long Parliament was also demonstrating a capacity to learn from its mistakes. Despite constant casualties at the top — Jinnah’s death, Liaquat’s assassination, Nazimuddin’s dismissal — it was going about the business of a country’s creation. After its first attempt at a Constitution — the Basic Principles Committee Report — ended in uproar, the second draft in 1952 papered over the gaps: a better power-sharing formula between the East and West, a bicameral legislature, reserved seats for minorities, and a prime ministerial system.
But that last feature also marked the end of the beginning: Ghulam Muhammad’s coup against the Nazimuddin ministry in 1953 scarred parliament beyond measure. When our lawmakers rushed to cut the unelected centre down to size, Ghulam Muhammad swooped in for a second coup — this time backed by army chief Ayub Khan — and sacked the assembly on October 24, 1954. What was once informal became formal: the establishment was now in charge.
To some, this was hardly bad news. As Time Magazine sang, "Bloodlessly, Pakistan changed from an unstable, pro-Western democracy to a more stable, pro-Western military dictatorship […] Casually next evening, handsome Ghulam [Muhammad] relaxed at a private showing of a movie called Love in Venice. He is also an ardent Marilyn Monroe fan. Thus, last week, a new regime was established in Asia." (Bear in mind all of this was happening at least four years before the first full-blown military coup.)
But such violent delights have violent ends; the promise of a new republic began flaking away. One Unit ate up the provinces; the new assembly had zero women and even more obese landlords than the last; and the judges bowed to power in their decisions. Pakistan’s first decade came to be known for its seven prime ministers, a circus of revolving doors that nonetheless misses the wider point: that there were only two PMs for over half that period — Liaquat and Nazimuddin — and the first fell to an assassin’s bullet. As one commentator rightly pointed out, parliament only became a den of intrigue after Ghulam Muhammad padlocked it and Justice Munir stripped it of its sovereignty.
Even here, however, the civvies carried on. Though it was a weaker draft than the one in 1952 (for reasons obvious), the second Constituent Assembly still pulled off a consensus document four years later. With several strongmen breathing down its neck, the Constitution of 1956 was cautious enough to afford the president broad powers, do away with the upper house, and put paid to the parliamentary system the founders had once dreamed of.
And yet it spelled hope: a text that could well have navigated Pakistan’s choppy waters, given time and patience. On the occasion of its passage (again on the eve of March 23), prime minister Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, one of the more competent members of that truncated assembly, said, "I was fortunate in being the leader of a brave band of men who with faith in God, with courage in their hearts, with singleness of purpose, with an inflexible devotion to duty, marched forward to their cherished goal of giving the Constitution to the country."
Here again was a beginning, and here again it was stomped to death by Ayub’s jackboots just two years later. How much we were set to regress is clear from the field marshal’s own monster, the ‘Constitution’ of 1962; handcrafted by just one man — Ayub’s favourite lawyer and wit, Manzur Qadir (assemblies of elected reps were perhaps thought ill-suited to drafting such a thing). Its powers read, in any event, like a Garcia Marquez novel — a gushing tribute to the generalissimo. Even so, Ayub knew to pay the past some respect: he promulgated his Constitution in March, and it was in March again, in 1969, that his man Yahya shoved him aside and binned it.
Hence the text we have today; one that a traumatised people gave themselves two years after 1971. Its author, the 15th Assembly, got off to a rocky start: whereas 1970’s elected prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had held a fresh round of elections in Bangladesh, also-ran Zulfikar Ali Bhutto held onto the rump parliament in what was left of Pakistan. That said, the Constitution of 1973 did indeed restore the founders’ spirit from 1952: an upper house returned in the form of the Senate, the locus of power shifted back to parliament and the prime minister, and a Council of Common Interests was meant to smooth over provincial tensions.
No less, this was a document written by the people’s directly elected representatives (if one in which fundamental rights were suspended by Zulfikar just four hours after passage, and Jinnah’s promise to secure the country’s minorities corroded just a year later). By dint of its treason button, it was also able to outlast Zia and Musharraf, and it has, in the time since, been vastly leavened and improved by the 18th and 25th Amendments in 2010 and 2018.
And that’s also the whole point: a Constitution, any Constitution, is only as good as the life it has lived and the respect its people continue to repose in it. As the American legal scholar Michael Lind writes, there’s long been an idea "that citizens of a republic must be taught that their constitutions are perfect and were handed down by superhuman lawgivers or 'Legislators' — Solon in Athens, Lycurgus in Sparta — and must be preserved without alteration as long as the republic endures […] But Latin American republics have been afflicted by dictatorship and civil war for generations in spite of having formal constitutions modelled on that of the United States."
To hear Lind tell it, "[…] The true security for freedom is a culture of constitutionalism, not a particular constitution, or any written constitution at all."
That’s more or less what Wali Khan said when the current Constitution was being passed: "This country has never been without a Constitution. The trouble with this country has not been that we have had no Constitution, the trouble in this country was that we had no constitutional governments here. We did not have a constitutional rule here. I think Pakistan can safely claim that in the shortest period of 25 years, we had as many as six constitutions.’
The response to Wali Khan was to sack his government in two provinces, and then ban his party via the Supreme Court forever. The National Awami Party never recovered, and nor did Pakistan’s left. Today, rumours again swirl around the country’s largest opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and another disastrous ban.
Hence, also, the present moment. We are, all of us, welcome to the usual parades and parachutes — a Pakistan Day as well as a Republic Day. But for this March 23, it would also help us to think of the state of our democracy for a spare second, and its most basic principles.
In the same vein, there can be no clearer demonstration of faith in those principles than elections within 90 days. As columnist Umair Javed recently wrote Dawn, no reason can justify otherwise, including if the party you hate might win them. "Doesn’t matter if you think the dissolution was done on a whim. Or you think elections are not going to solve one issue or another. Or even if you think the Constitution will be undermined by the opposition in the long run […] Without upholding what it says, we’re in the all-too-familiar territory of stick-wielding power.’
That stick first came down in 1953; we now salute a whole parade of them — ballistic or otherwise — on March 23. On this Republic Day, we could try and pick up the little green book for a change.
The writer is a barrister
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