By Afrasiab Khattak
The Senate of Pakistan which is the house of the federation celebrated its 44th Foundation Day on August 5. It was on this date 43 years ago that the Senate was founded in which all the federating units have equal representation irrespective of the size of their population.
The Upper House of Parliament was meant to provide space for the inclusion of smaller federating units faced with dominating majority of the one federating unit in the National Assembly. It was the most important pillar of the new federal democratic system envisioned by the Constitution of 1973. This was also a constitutional development of historical proportion in a country that had lost its biggest province, the former East Pakistan in 1971 in a tragic dispute on the quantum of provincial autonomy and on the question of creating a genuine, equitable and participatory federation. The evolution of a constitutional and political consensus in 1973 on creating a democratic state system providing for both vertical and horizontal democracy just two years after the painful experience of the disintegration of the country also represents the superiority of democracy over despotism of all shades. The Intent of the framers of the 1973 Constitution was quite clear. They wanted to recognise the fact that Pakistan as a state was created by provinces and not the vise versa, and the federating units have an important role in the project of state building.
Credit goes to Senate Chairman Mian Raza Rabbani, all the Senators and Senate Secretariat for organizing, for the first time, substantial ceremonies and functions inside the Senate and out side it spread over two days. Participation of the National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq in the Senate’s celebration of the day has definitely strengthened unity and solidarity between both Houses of Parliament which is a good omen for democracy in Pakistan. But indifference shown by the federal and provincial governments and most of the political parties to the Foundation Day of the House of Federation has once again proved the fact that major players of Pakistani politics have yet to internalise the principles of federal democracy despite its being one of the fundamental characteristics of the country’s Constitution.
There is a long history of the violation of federal democratic system under military dictatorships imposed by General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervaiz Musharraf. The distortions and deformations inserted in the Constitution under dictatorial pressures had practically turned Pakistan into a unitary state. As some of the learned speakers in Foundation Day seminar rightly pointed out militaries as institutions all over the world are based on principles of regimentation and stringent regulation. After usurping political power militaries tend to impose these principles on the entire spectrum of state and society. They fail to make distinction between unity and uniformity. Enforcing uniformity becomes the main thrust of state policy under military dictatorships, wiping out pluralism. It creates new socio-political polarisations and fault lines. The 18th Constitutional Amendment unanimously passed by Parliament in 2010 has gone a long way in not only restoring the original letter and spirit of the federal democratic structure of the Constitution but it has also further strengthened it by substantially reinforcing provincial autonomy. If properly implemented it can be a win-win situation for both the federation and the federating units. The federating units can have power over the use of natural resources under their control and can enjoy autonomy in taking initiatives for socio economic development. At the same time a greater responsibility also comes with enhanced autonomy. The provinces can’t blame Islamabad for their underdevelopment and deprivation. They have to perform and deliver.
But on the ground Pakistani federalism is facing the following three major challenges. One, Muslim League (N) voted for the 18th Amendment because it needed support of other political parties for taking out 17th Amendment that among other things had banned the third time prime ministership, a clause meant for blocking the path of Mohtarrama Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. After the death of Benazir Bhutto Shaheed the clause hurt only Nawaz Sharif. But soon after the passage of 18th Amendment leaders of PML (N) started expressing ifs and buts about it. After coming in power they created ministries in the names of health and education and health, subjects that are already devolved to the federating units. Sitting WAPDA chairman, a Punjabi bureaucrat lording over the water and power resources of the country from his headquarters in Lahore (and not Islamabad), is flouting the unanimous resolutions of the three out of four federating units of the country. The previous NFC Award has lapsed but the government has failed to frame a new one. The Constitutional provision for holding mandatory meetings of CCI are constantly violated. Two, the worsening civil-military balance of power in state system is seriously undermining the federal system provided by the Constitution. Prolonged existence of the military dominated Apex Committees in all the four provinces is seriously diluting the concept and character of the autonomous provincial governments. The constant tussle between Sindh provincial government and Rangers epitomises this problem. In Balochistan Commander of the Southern Command calls the shots in all matters of governance and the Frontier Core is the main handler of law and order in the province. Last but not the least, in this regards the growing militarisation of the state system as a whole leads to its growing Punjabisation for obvious reasons.
The rise of religious extremism is resulting in the growing trend of enforced uniformity. History of indigenous civilisations has been taken out from education curricula in the post-Zia era. The younger generations have no knowledge of the Indus Valley Civilisation, Meher Garh Civilisation and Gandahara Civilisation. Instead of recognising and celebrating ethnic and cultural diversity, which is a strength of the country, it is denied and suppressed. Religious and ethnic minorities are struggling for survival in the face of daunting odds. The ever-intensifying ideological retrogression is reinforcing a patriarchal order and women rights have suffered in the process. National Action Plan had a number of provisions addressing some of these problems but unfortunately the state has not been able to muster the required political will to implement those provisions.
It is indeed an irony to see pressures against federalism in a country that was created mainly to ensure provincial autonomy and had to face disintegration for its failure on this front. One hopes we shall not wait for learning our lessons the hard way again.