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March 30, 2015



A day revisited

For many of us, March 23 brings back the fondest memories of childhood. Every year, on this day, as soon as I could haul myself out of bed, I would step out to join my grandmother, mother, siblings and cousins huddled around the TV set, enjoying fresh breakfast and watching the fancy parades.
We would feel much pride in seeing our troops march, drive armoured cars and camouflaged tanks, glide big guns and fly planes in the bright blue sky. It was only natural that, until recently, I thought of the 23rd of March as a day dedicated primarily to the undisputed mettle and ever-growing arsenal of our armed forces.
Things changed a little when General Musharraf’s illegitimate tenure set in and blood began to be spilled in this land like water. Given what was happening in the country, for many of us it was no longer possible to feel enthused about acrobatic displays of the state’s coercive arm. The 23rd March parades began to lose much of their former charm until it eventually became just another public holiday.
Then, in 2008, as the regime found itself totally besieged by the Lawyers’ Movement on the hand and the Swat insurgency on the other, the annual show was discontinued. We has almost forgotten about it when, this year, on the 23rd of March, 2015, the show returned in full splendour.
The context in which the March 23 show has returned is unmistakable: the general democratic roll-back and concomitant khaki resurgence in our politics. This unfortunate context left me thinking about the meaning and history of the event. It was when I started researching the event’s history that I stumbled upon a truly startling fact: in its origins, March 23 has nothing to do with the military.
The event did not start out as military-related, just like Pakistan did not start out as a praetorian state. And just as the khakis later took over the entire country, they also took over this event.
A somewhat more credible story traces this event back to the

Muslim League’s ‘Pakistan Resolution’ of March 23, 1940. But this story too has serious gaps in it. The resolution, which came to be known as Pakistan Resolution, did not contain the word Pakistan, did not resolve much by way of politics and was passed a day after the 23rd of March.
More significantly, even after Pakistan came into being, March 23 did not become a public holiday. That happened only in 1956, sixteen years after the passage of the ‘Pakistan Resolution’, and for a specific reason. The first time the day was declared a public holiday was to mark an event that has been erased from our collective memory: the coming into effect of Pakistan’s first written constitution – the 1956 constitution – which also marks the legal birthday of our republic.
Although the Constituent Assembly had adopted the constitution on February 29, 1956 Article 220 stated that the constitution would take full effect only on a certain ‘Constitution Day’, to be fixed by the Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly chose March 23 as our Constitution Day, which was also declared a public holiday. For the next couple of years, it went on being celebrated thus.
But in October 1958, as everyone knows, General Raheel’s illustrious forebears decided to abrogate the constitution. So when March 23 next came in, the regime found itself in a quandary: how to celebrate Constitution Day when the constitution had only recently been scrapped? In a stroke of imagination, instead of abolishing the holiday, the regime decided to simply re-brand it: the day was re-dedicated to the Pakistan Resolution instead of the 1956 constitution. The irksome little detail that the Pakistan Resolution was originally passed on March 24 was addressed rather conveniently by posthumously setting it back in time by a day.
The re-branding of the day was completed by cultivating a thoroughly militaristic image through staging parades and air shows. The re-branding exercise has proven so successful that by now almost all knowledge of the day’s constitutionalist origins has been erased from our public imagination. It is in this sense that the day is a telling metaphor for the changing character of Pakistani polity: Constitution Day became a de facto Defence Day just like the rights-based, welfare-oriented federal state envisaged by the 1956 constitution turned into the centralised national security state that Pakistan today is.
As he stood next to the doyen of the khakis, observing the parades this year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cut a sorry figure. Elected to office by so many millions of voters, the country’s most well-loved politician seemed a pale shadow of his former self. Two year into office, he is no longer the thundering lion who had miraculously returned from the gallows to vanquish his captors and restored the country to its constitutionalist and democratic roots; he seems to have been cornered into becoming a mere apologist for the military establishment. The March 23 show only choreographed and made public a take-over, if only a partial take-over, that had already happened.
Power-bearers often keep themselves in power by spinning heady narratives. These narratives often utilise revisionist accounts of history. This is why retrieving even the smallest historical details that challenge these narratives can sometimes be helpful in challenging power-bearers. Retrieving the constitutionalist origins of March 23 is important for precisely this reason. If today, this day has become a symbol of our national security state, tomorrow it could become a symbol of our constitutional tradition.
Our legal and political community should reclaim March 23 as a day for celebrating the start of our tradition of written constitutions. Every year, on this day, we should revive the memory of democratic politicians who forged a constitutional consensus in this country and jurists who staunchly defended constitutions against the transgressions of power bearers.
The writer is a lawyer and researcher based in Islamabad. Email: [email protected]