Federalism in Pakistan

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Federalism in Pakistan

A Chequered History:

Zakir Ullah

Federalism, according to Tekena Tamuno, is a political phenomenon in which the constituent units of a political organization (state) not only share powers but also participate in making key decisions. Raffaele Bifulco is of view that “federalism refers both to a plurality of historical experiences, and features both a static-structural and a dynamic-procedural dimension.” A.V. Dicey, the famous British jurist and constitutional theorist, defines federalism as a political contrivance intended to reconcile national unity with maintenance of state rights. Federalism is primarily concerned with developing a manageable system of governance through creating a two-layered power structure, i.e. at the central and the provincial levels. In essence, federalism involves the division of power between the center and the federating units for a smooth functioning of a state.
According to an academic study, there are approximately 28 countries with a federal system in the world, e.g. the United States of America, Canada, Argentina, Iraq, Brazil, Ethiopia and Pakistan, and no less than 40 percent of the world population lives within federal arrangements. As federalism involves the division of powers between a central body and a number of territorial units, so each level of government is allocated powers, resources and functions. This division of powers and functions is enshrined in the constitution of that state.
Nevertheless, federalism is not a perfect political arrangement. There emerges conflict over powers and resources, as there exist only a few ethnically homogeneous states with abundance of resources. Division of powers and resources brings conflict with it. Hence, conflict is caused by diversity and scarcity. Pakistan, a diverse state with limited resources, has been facing difficulties in achieving national cohesion, and by extension, a well-functioning federal state.
Since its inception, Pakistan has been in search of a truly federal system in which disparate ethnic groups would live autonomously under the overarching identity of Pakistan. What has been done since day one is to impose state identity from above in complete disregard to the deep-rooted ethnic identities. Such efforts have led to creating more cleavages than bringing unity. Indeed, the gap between formal federalism and informal unitary tendencies has led to unrest in Balochistan, the debacle of East Pakistan and civil unrest in many parts of the country. Some of the key factors that led to such a sorry state of federal affairs in Pakistan are as under:
First, Pakistan inherited an abysmal institutional structure from the British Empire. According to Dr. Mohammad Waseem, unlike many postcolonial states, Pakistan lacked continuity in terms of political center. Pakistan had to start from scratch to build a state as it had massive challenges to face: the establishment of a federal capital to erecting a solid institutional structure to run the day-to-day affairs of the government, to the rehabilitation of millions of refugees, etc. Worse still, it had to face threat from without as well.
Second, the threat emanated mainly from east, i.e. India. Pakistan had to strengthen itself militarily to cope with a much bigger, stronger foe. The security problems, coupled with the onset of the Cold War, affected the nature of the state of Pakistan. What was envisioned to be a modern, democratic state by its founding fathers, turned into a security state.
Third, the obsession of the state with security led to the predominance of non-democratic institutions in Pakistan. The civil-military oligarchy has, presumably, been running the show since the very early years of Pakistan. One of the serious consequences of this governance system was the centralization of authority. Such tendencies go against the essence of federalism, as pointed out by the eminent Pakistani political scientist, Dr. Muhammad Waseem. He asserts that the rule of the civil-military oligarchy and federalism are incompatible, as the former prefers centralization while the latter revolves around decentralization. Mehrunnisa Ali argues in her book “Politics of Federalism in Pakistan” that though the three constitutions (1956, 1962 and 1973) were federal in character, they were “non-federal” in practice. The maintenance of a slightly modified Government of India Act, 1935, exemplifies the non-democratic and non-federal inclinations of the elites of Pakistan. The Act was federal on paper and highly centralized in practice. Pakistan, thus, inherited authoritarianism and over-centralization from the British colonial rule.
Fourth, the use of Islam as a political tool, too, has been a contributing factor in this sorry state of federalism in Pakistan. The efforts by the civil-military oligarchy on a highly diverse population stifled the development of effective, accountable institutions. There is evidence to suggest that the early leaders of Pakistan tried to unify the heterogeneous population through religion and language rather than through creating a robust federal system.
Finally, various constitutions gave rise to varied institutional structures that affected the nature of the state. There is an ongoing tussle between those who support centralization and those who advocate for decentralization in Pakistan. The constitutional history is a testimony to that fact: from 1956 through 1962 to the 1973 Constitution. The last one was a step towards a stronger federation with sufficiently autonomous units. But the aspirations of the federalists are yet to be fully satisfied. It is apt to note here that the Eighteenth Amendment (2010) to the Constitution of Pakistan was a significant step in the right direction, and it injected new hope in those who have been striving for a truly federal Pakistan.
In a nutshell, it is the need of the hour that all stakeholders come together and work towards establishing a genuine federal state in which the federating units proudly take part within the constitutional framework of Pakistan. Also, there needs to be a credible step towards a genuine democracy. The 18th Amendment has made a significant progress towards achieving those goals – true federation and genuine democracy. This shows that political issues can only be solved through political means. The state needs to be cognizant of the fact that Pakistan is home to disparate ethnic groups that are proud of their cultural heritage and historical identities. That recognition will pave the way for a united Pakistan where people live together freely within a federal framework. All this will bring economic stability, political accountability and, most importantly, it will strengthen the bond between the state and the society in Pakistan.

The writer is a researcher and columnist based in Mardan. He can be reached at (zakiir9669@gmail.com)

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