Pakistan and provincial autonomy in the light of Lahore Resolution

By Professor Sharif al Mujahid


Since her inception, Pakistan has been hostage to provincialism. It has ever since bedevilled her development along healthy and democratic lines. Once out of power and in political wilderness, most politicians have found it a convenient stick to beat the government with. They invariably couch their demands and grievances in provincial strains.
Even the somewhat justified grouse of the (Pakhtun and Baluchi) NAP leaders against the Bhutto regime (although it was itself a “minority” province oriented) in early 1970s was often cast in provincial terms; so were the “grievances” of G.M. Syed, Mumtaz Bhutto, Rasul Baksh Palejo, Qadir Magsi and other Sindhi nationalists against the inherently Sindhi-oriented Benazir regimes during 1988-90 and 1993-96, and the Zardari regime (2008-12).

So endemic has been the curse of provincialism that a provincial demand was raised even before the emergence of Pakistan. The Red Shirts’ demand, powerfully buttressed by the Congress, for the inclusion of a provincial option in the Frontier Referendum of July 1947 was meant to disrupt Pakistan even at the moment of her birth. According to Nehru, Dr Khan Sahib, the Congress Premier of NWFP, had planned “to join the Union of India at a subsequent stage” (Leonard Mosley. The Last Days of the British Raj, pp.131-32, quoting Government of India Records). But this “conspiracy” came to be nibbed in the bud, if only because the number of valid votes cast in favour of Pakistan were not only about 51 percent of the total electorate (572,980), but also more than those cast in the 1946 general elections (379,982). (Hence Michael Brecher’s (Nehru p.251) contention, based on information obtained from Indian sources, that “the consensus of opinion was that a majority would have favoured Pakistan even if Red Shirts had contested the issue”.)
In subsequent decades, although backed by both New Delhi and Kabul, and raised from time to time, “Pakhtunistan” lost its steam, both as a slogan and as a political demand.

During 1950s and 1960s, East Bengal/East Pakistan provided a fertile ground for provincial slogans and demands. Incredibly though, Suhrawardy, who had been wantonly stripped of his Constituent Assembly membership, presumably on political grounds, and Mohammad Ali Bogra were in the forefront of the provincial campaign initially. The (Bengali) language movement (1952) endowed it with an emotional streak. The “demands” got multiplied with the years, and took a crystalline shape in the Jugto Front’s 21-Points (1954).

Interestingly, the major signatories to these Points (including Fazlul Haq and Suhrawardy) would later become closely associated with the Central government (as Interior Minister and Prime Minister respectively), and Suhrawardy even stoutly defended the 1956 constitution in terms of provincial rights, arguing that it contained 98 percent of provincial autonomy. But the progress in terms of national integration made during 1955-58 when the East Pakistani regional elites were accommodated in the structure of power and in (Central) decision-making came to be wiped out in the aftermath of Ayub’s ascension to power in October 1958. The imposition of the 1962 constitution, with its credo of central authoritarianism, was obviously galling to the East Pakistani political elites, and Ayub’s “management” of 1965 elections, resulting in the “defeat” of Fatima Jinnah, who represented the last hope of a return to democratic politics and an East-West consensus in the middle 1960s, led East Pakistan to a point of no return. The resultant Six-Point “charter of survival”, set in strident strains, was, however, initially a bargaining counter.

Professor Umar Hashim (Rajshahi University), son of Abdul Hashim, one-time a close associate of Suhrawardy, told me in 1966 that the Six-Point formula was not authored by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Mahmudul Haq Usmani, NAP’s General Secretary, disclosed that it was authored by a high-ranking (West Pakistani) bureaucrat, close to Ayub, and that it was an offer to NAP initially. On its refusal, it was offered to the Awami League, which pounced upon it as a windfall, to invest its regional demands with an institutional structure.

The idea was presumably to divide and discredit the Opposition, since, it was evident, the West Pakistani Opposition would not take it, giving the regime, which stood discredited in the wake of the 1965 “rigged” elections and the Tashkent Declaration (January 10, 1966), a breathing space. The Opposition, of course, became divided and discredited, with the West Pakistani Opposition, then headed by Choudhry Muhammad Ali, distancing itself from the Awami League, when Mujib chose to present the Six-Points at the Kashmir Conference, called at Lahore on February 6, to discuss the “sell-out” at Tashkent. Although the regime did get the wanton breathing space, the price that Pakistan had to pay was costly, much too costly. To make the story short, the regime’s mismanagement and “repression” led to the tragic denouement - viz., the traumatic dismemberment of Pakistan.

If the Ayub regime had led to regionalisation of politics, the Bhutto regime (1971-77) led to ethnicisation. The Urdu-Sindhi controversy (1972) and the imposition of a rural-urban quota (1973) in Sindh (endowing the Sindhi-”Muhajir” divide a statutory dimension), the dismissal of the Mengal government and army action in Balochistan, the imposition of “minority” PPP governments in Balochistan and the NWFP, and the outlawing of the NAP - these precipitate moves stoked the fires of ethnicism and gave point and force to the concept of “nationality”. At one time, Kausar Niazi, the Information Minister, even went to the extent of talking in terms of “four nationalities”. Interestingly, Bhutto’s diabolical policies conspired to give birth to a fifth one, which, in good time, began to claim centre-stage status in Pakistan’s politics, having won overwhelmingly in the local bodies elections (1987), and six general elections, to become the third largest party, next only to the two major national parties - the PML and the PPP. The birth of Pakistan National Party (PNP) (1980s) under Ghaus Bux Bizenjo out of the bosom of NAP indicated that the regionalist groups wished not to be hostage to the dominant leadership from a kindred region, but to have full blooded ethnic leadership of their own dominant in their regional party. By the same motivation was the MQM’s spectacular rise under “Muhajir” leadership was inspired.

In a multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural country like Pakistan, nationalities as linguistic units are admissable, but when they claim to be “nations”, the situation is bound to cross manageable limits of political bargaining and accommodation. Parties and leaders in political wilderness, frustrated at being denied a place in the corridors of power, are tempted to raise their claims and demands a notch higher periodically, if only as a bargaining counter, and this is what has been happening in Pakistan. Thus the nationalities have tended to become “nations”, and a Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONAM) was launched with a good deal of fanfare.

Before discussing PONAM leaders’ posture and demands, it would be appropriate to dispose of their claim that their basic demand for a “confederation” comprising five “sovereign” political units or “homelands” (with Seraikistan included) stems from the Lahore Resolution. I have dealt with this issue at some length in my earlier writings, and the main points may be summarised as follows.

The controversy about the Resolution stems from two points: (i) the Muslim majority areas “should be grouped to constitute Independent States”; and (ii) “the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign”.
However, the key phrase in the original Lahore Resolution, “should be grouped to constitute”, suggests that what was envisaged was a union of the two “Independent States of the North-Western and Eastern zones”.
More important, the resolution adopted by the Madras session in April 1941 inserted the word “together”, after the word, “grouped”. It said that “the areas in which the Mussalmans are numerically in a majority, as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India, shall be grouped together to constitute Independent States as Muslim Free National Homelands in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign”.

Since the Lahore resolution was not incorporated as the supreme objective of the All India Muslim League (AIML) in its constitution till after the adoption of its revised draft at the Madras session, the Madras version (and not the original Lahore Resolution) must hold good as the basic document for the AIML’s demand for Pakistan.
Furthermore, the statements and speeches of the League leaders on the one hand and the comments and criticism evoked by the “Pakistan” resolution among the British and the non-Muslim circles on the other during 1940-47 indicate a basic assumption that Pakistan would be a single state. The position was further clarified in Jinnah’s letter to Gandhi dated September 17, 1944 wherein he said that the two zones would form “units of Pakistan”.

The position was further clarified and buttressed by the resolution, moved by Suhrawardy and passed by the League Legislators’ Convention on April 9, 1946. It said, inter alia, “... That the zones comprising Bengal and Assam in the North-East and the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan in the North-West of India, namely, Pakistan zones, where the Muslims are in a dominant majority, be constituted into a sovereign independent State...” (italics ours)
In view of the above, the controversy whether the Lahore Resolution envisaged one or two Pakistans becomes redundant. The resolution must be interpreted in the light of the Madras resolution, the interpretations offered by Jinnah, the League’s election manifesto, the League leaders’ election speeches, and the League Legislators’ Convention resolution. The last pronouncement overrides everything else, since it represented the consensus of the newly elected Muslim representatives in the central and provincial assemblies during 1945-46, with a fresh mandate to strive, struggle and establish Pakistan.

As indicated above, after the Madras (1941) resolution and more particularly the League Legislators’ Convention resolution (1946), the original Lahore Resolution (1940) has no locus standi as the foundation document in the constitutional lexicon. But for the sake of argument, if it is still given that status, then what it envisaged was two “Independent States” in the “North-Western and Eastern zones of India”. And with the hoisting of East Pakistan as Bangladesh on the world’s map in 1971, the two “Independent States” concept has been translated on the ground. The controversy must end once and for all, at least now.

About the status of the constituent units they could be autonomous but not sovereign. As both Ambedkar and Coupland point out the Lahore Resolution meant the States to be independent but the constituent units were not to be “really sovereign” - for the simple reason that constituent unit status (i.e., a federation of the units) and sovereignty of units do not go together. This, however, does not mean that the constituent or federated units are bereft of a juridical personality. They indeed do have. And as Jinnah told the APA in an interview in 1945, they are entitled to “all the autonomy you will find in the constitutions of the United States of America, Canada, and Australia”.

In fact, the provinces in Pakistan have had greater autonomy than in most other states in the Third World countries. The thrust in the Indian Constitution, for instance, has been towards the centre whereas in the Pakistani Constitution, it has been towards the provinces. Thus, residuary powers under the Indian Constitution have been vested in the centre; in Pakistan they were assigned to the Provinces under the 1956 and 1973 constitutions. That explains Suhrawardy’s assertion in 1957 that ninety-eight per cent of (regional) autonomy had been conceded in the 1956 constitution.
While the recent Eighteenth Amendment (2011) shredding the Concurrent List provides for devolution of power to the provinces and concedes joint ownership of the centre and the province over the resources in a province as well as in the territorial waters adjacent to the coastal areas of the province, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) has been entrusted the task of settling the issues concerning such rights. Thus, the paradigm shift in Pakistan’s federal structure has opened up new opportunities and posed new challenges to the provinces. Besides constitutional provisions relating to inter-governmental relations, other criteria/provisions - such as supremacy of the constitution, a judicious division of powers between the three pillars (Executive/Administrative, Legislature, and Judiciary), judicial review, a bi-cameral legislature and emergency provisions - also tend to tilt in favour of more accommodating inter-governmental relations. At least seventeen ministries came to be abolished and devolved to the provinces after the Eighteenth Amendment.
But what’s surprising is that even after such large scale devolution of power to the provinces, the Sindhi nationalists have been spitting venom against the federal government. And this because what’s at the bottom of the regionalists’ outcry is not so much the centre-provincial relations but the problem of accommodating regional elites in the power structure and inducting or enticing the regional parties into mainstream politics. For instance, since the NAP was accommodated in the oppositionist UDF alliance in March 1973, and its successor, the NDP, in the PNA in January 1977, and its later successor, the ANP, first (1988-89) in the PPP governmental power structure and later (1989-90) in the COP, and, still later (1990-98) in the PML power structure, its centrifugalist tendencies and ethonocentricism had abated a bit. Indeed, the only antidote to curb these tendencies is to get the regional and inward-looking parties into the political mainstream and to accommodate them both in the national and regional power structures. Instead of raking up old controversies, a serious attempt should be initiated to build bridges of cooperation between various regional oriented parties and between the regional and national parties. Such an approach is bound to lead to an abatement of a sense of alienation, build up a sense of belonging, and strengthen national integration.

Fortunately for Pakistan, the Zardari regime has, since its inception, gone in for accommodation of four regional parties, and this has obviously blunted some of their extremist fringes. It would, however, take some time for the parties to shed off their erstwhile posture and turn a new page. But the fall out of this conciliatory policy is already evident, especially in the case of the ANP and the MQM. For one thing, the MQM rallies now feature national flags, besides the party ones, and it talks more in terms of Pakistan instead of mere urban Sindh. The ANP, confronted with the take-over of the tribal and adjoining areas by the Taliban, and comfortably enconsced in the federal structure is close to the central government, closer than it ever has been with any government, although it is still stuck with its ethnic rhetoric and orientation. Given time and opportunities, hopefully, it will come to the mainstream Pakistani orientation. After all, Rome wasn’t built overnight. 

And once the accommodation of regional parties and regional elites is institutionalised in the national power structure and they continue to remain inducted into mainstream politics, confidence is bound to be built up, and a propitious political climate created, which would be conducive to meeting their provincial aspirations, resolving federal-provincial disputes and put their relations on an even keel. Pakistan’s future, it needs to be emphasised, lies in accommodation, not confrontation. And accommodation necessarily leads to integration, not disintegration. - (The writer, HEC Distinguished National Professor, has recently co-edited Unesco’s History of Humanity, vol. VI, and The Jinnah Anthology (2010) and edited In Quest of Jinnah (2007), the only oral history on Pakistan’s founding father.