THE vulnerability of a federal polity to the thrust of internal diversity is a worldwide phenomenon except in well-established federal polities, such as the US, which are sustained by durable institutions, foolproof mechanisms and crystallised conventions that delimit the powers, obligations and boundaries of the state and federal governments.

Hence it is not surprising if Pakistan’s polity is today plagued by internal diversities. Even so, the thrust of diversity wouldn’t have assumed such gigantic proportions had Pakistani rulers attempted periodically, on a continuing basis, to resolve diversity-based challenges.

Both India and Pakistan started out as federal as well as centralised states, governed by the Government of India Act, 1935 until the promulgation of their respective constitutions. But 64 years down the road, they have developed along different, indeed divergent, paths. Over the decades, India has been able to develop a centre (federal polity) that holds it together, even strengthens it. It has been able to control the narrative determining the core aspects of the state’s identity.

And its identity has been entrenched in the people’s consciousness. Also, the centre has periodically accommodated diversities, except in India-administered Kashmir.

Vertical diversities such as the demand for linguistic provinces have been accommodated even in problematical states and the process continues. So have horizontal diversities, as represented by split mandates. Thus accommodation on political diversity is the rule rather than the exception, in the evolving Indian political system.

In contrast Pakistan has failed to get the core values/aspects of its identity internalised in the people’s consciousness. Let alone the 1962 constitution, some of the core values of even the 1956 constitution were in dispute. Lack of recognition and accommodation of demands led united Pakistan to a sticky end in 1971.

That sticky end, compounded by the Bangladesh euphoria, provided ballast to centrifugal forces in post-1971 Pakistan.

But, fortuitously, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was there, at the helm of affairs, and he saw to it that the regionalist forces had their wings clipped and the federal polity was sustained and strengthened beyond measure, especially by the crafting of the 1973 constitution by consensus. He also introduced a series of measures which strengthened the federation and crystallised the Pakistani identity. Today, 40 years down the road, Pakistan is home to a string of commonalities and a host of diversities. Briefly stated, the major commonalities which provide common space, whether or not it leaves enough room for diverse cultural practices and ethnic identities to exist and develop, are as follows:

— An agreed upon 1973 constitution which has stood the test of time, especially after the 18th Amendment which provides for the devolution of power and more equitable opportunities for the provinces.

— The 2009 NFC Award which provides for considerable fiscal autonomy to the provincial units.

— Urdu as the national language and English as lingua franca for the elite, business and entrepreneur classes. In tandem, Urdu has also served as the link language for the masses. Urdu’s claim and clout are also buttressed by its ubiquity and universality; hence Bhutto called it “a common denominator”. Even if all the languages are designated as national languages, we would still need a link language for the masses across the regions.

— The emergence of two major, though dynastically oriented, political parties, the PPP and PML-N, on a national level besides strong sub-national parties within the constituent units including the MQM, ANP and the JUI-F. MQM’s endeavour to shed its linguistic and urban Sindh origins, and getting itself transformed incrementally into a Muttahida Qaumi Movement avatar and inducting itself into mainstream politics, though generally misconstrued, is still a positive development. So is its sponsoring non-Urdu-speaking candidates against Urdu-speaking ones in some dominant Mohajir constituencies. However, the PPP has failed to accommodate a split mandate in Punjab. Otherwise, the Governor House in Lahore wouldn’t have been turned into a PPP den.

— Parties from various provinces have been conceded more or less equal opportunities to stake their claim for power at the federal level. For instance, the Sindh-based PPP heading more than 13 out of 18 years of civilian rule since 1970. At another level, the presidential office has seen occupants from various provinces except for Balochistan. Most groups and/or territories are also accommodated in the federal cabinets and decision-making bodies. The provincial quota in the services ensures representation of backward or less developed areas in the services. So does the rural-urban quota system in Sindh.

On the other hand, the major problems representing the thrust against a viable federal polity are: (i) Balochistan with its demand for full jurisdiction over powers relevant to its ethnic survival, economic uplift and control over its resources; (ii) Karachi with its mayhem and lawlessness, and the lack of political will on the provincial government’s part; (iii) executive-judiciary confrontation for the past two years; and (iv) the fault lines in ethnic federalism spawning the burgeoning demand for new provinces.

Other than long-standing tensions, there is an immediate need to recognise differences and to respect them while promoting unity, trust and solidarity among citizens and groups. In essence, this means that there is little need to assimilate or get assimilated in other cultures but to respect them for what they are. Although the endeavour to balance diversity with unity is a continuous process, there is a dire need to develop multiple identities. Whatever one’s racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious identity, everyone inhabiting Pakistan is first and foremost a Pakistani, and his Pakistani identity comes first.

The writer is HEC National Distinguished Professor.


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