Finally, power shifts away from Punjab

July 1, 2011, was declared ‘Provincial Autonomy Day’ by Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani. The importance of this day in Pakistan’s history is as important as the abolition of One Unit by General Yahya Khan on July 1, 1970. One Unit was basically devised in the ’50s by the ruling elite of West Pakistan (now Pakistan) who did not want to give a fair share to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This was one of the reasons the people of Bangladesh were alienated from Pakistan.

When the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came to power after the 2008 elections, it promised to return the 1973 constitution to its original form. The 18th Amendment was passed by the Pakistan parliament last year. This amendment has brought back the spirit of the 1973 constitution. Among other things, the concurrent list has finally been abolished through the 18th Amendment. It has strengthened the federation by meeting the demands of the smaller federating units to a considerable degree.

Given that the original intent of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and the Muslim League, was provincial autonomy in pre-Independence India to safeguard the rights of the Muslim minority, it is quite ironic that in post-Partition Pakistan, none of these conditions have been fulfilled until now.

The adoption of the Lahore Resolution (passed on March 24, 1940, but celebrated as Pakistan Day on March 23) bears relevance to the situation Pakistan is now in, which demands the same commitment and sincerity of purpose by our political leaders, to put Pakistan on the road to peace and prosperity. The resolution talked about “‘independent states’ in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign”. The resolution also demanded “effective and mandatory safeguards” in the constitution for minorities, “for the protection of their religious, cultural, economic, political, administrative and other rights.”

The idea behind these demands was to strengthen the foundations of the “independent states” and the institutions in the future. If we look back and compare the spirit of unconditional commitment to the cause of constitutionalism and what happened later, it did not turn out to be a promise fulfilled. To begin with, the treatment that the centre meted out to the federating units, especially East Pakistan, speaks volumes of our ruling elite’s disdain for the rights of the federating units. Provinces had been waiting for the rights that, according to the 1973 constitution, were mentioned in the concurrent list and had to be transferred to them 10 years later.

Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s promise of abolishing the concurrent list thus could not be fulfilled as he was ousted from power by the military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, in 1977. Bhutto was subsequently hanged in 1979.

No government, military or civilian, was able to do away with the concurrent list for decades. In fact, many amendments were made by the governments, especially the military rulers, to impinge on the democratic spirit of the constitution. The incumbent PPP-led coalition government has finally delivered on a historic pledge made by the founders of Pakistan and that of the framers of the 1973 constitution. Seventeen federal ministries have been devolved to the provinces. This is a huge step given the sense of alienation the smaller provinces felt as far as the Punjab-dominated ruling establishment is concerned. Punjab is the most populous province in Pakistan, therefore, the majority of parliamentarians come from Punjab. The other three provinces — Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan — have always complained of Punjab’s high-handedness. After Bangladesh got its independence from Pakistan in 1971, it was hoped that the Punjab-dominated ruling elite (both military and civilian) would have learnt its lesson. Unfortunately, it did not.

The insurgency in Balochistan is a glaring example of how the Punjabi establishment deals with voices of dissent. Thousands of Baloch have been killed and/or abducted by our intelligence agencies in the last few years. The “crime” of the Baloch: asking for their due rights. The response of the state: a military operation in Balochistan.

Now that the federal government has taken the first step towards ending its dominance over subjects that rightfully belong with the provinces, it is hoped that some of the grievances of the smaller provinces will be addressed.

There will of course be some hiccups when it comes to the implementation of the devolution process under the 18th Amendment but they can be overcome with time and some help from the federal government.

It is time to celebrate this historic achievement. Provincial autonomy is what our forefathers fought for; let us hope the people of Pakistan finally fulfill their vision.

(Originally published in The Indian Express)

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