Thursday February 29, 2024

Debating the constitution

February 18, 2019

It is always nice to interact with young boys and girls studying in public universities, where most of them come from humble backgrounds. A recent visit to Khairpur in Sindh afforded me an opportunity to talk to students of Pakistan Studies and Political Science departments at Shah Abdul Latif University.

The organiser of this event was Dr Ameer Chandio, head of the Political Science Department and someone who motivates students. It was a pleasant surprise to see more than a hundred students listening in rapt attention and participating in the discussion about the early constitutional developments in Pakistan.

Without going into the details of our discussion, here is a gist of what the students were interested in and enquired about. Rather than giving them a lecture, I presented to them a set of questions to ponder about. The first question was about the what and why of the constitution. The students were less interested in textbook definitions of a constitution, and most of them agreed that it is the supreme law of the land that everyone should obey. This led us to discuss countries where there is no written constitution – such as the UK – but where still democracy survives, at least as far as elections and the supremacy of the constitution is concerned.

The salient feature emerging from this question was the point that if the constitution is violated at the highest level, at lower levels too people will take liberty to violate other laws. If state institutions keep abrogating, mutilating, and suspending the constitution, it serves as a message to the people that the decision-makers at the highest level are least bothered about the supremacy of the law. If the custodians and implementers of the constitution show complete disregard to it, how can the state expect the common folk to become law-abiding citizens? The result is a breakdown in law and order which the state attributes to ‘miscreants’.

One student aptly put it: “if a father smokes and tells lies, and then keeps ordering his children not to smoke and lie, he is a fool to think that his injunctions will carry any weight. In fact, the father has lost any moral ground and respect he may have enjoyed had he himself been following what he preached.” Not only at the constitutional level but also at lower levels, if the state itself becomes intolerant of views other than its own officially sanctioned ones, it can’t expect its citizens to become tolerant.

From the what and why of the constitution the discussion moved into the who and where – meaning who makes the constitution and where. The students had a consensus that in a parliamentary democracy constitution-making is the sole prerogative of parliament itself and nobody else has the right to formulate a constitution for the country without involving people’s representatives elected through fair and free elections. All attempts by authoritarian and dictatorial forces to impose a constitution or make amendments to it take away the supreme law’s legitimacy.

From here we initiated a recollection of events taking place immediately after Independence. The responsibility of constitution-making was entrusted to the constituent assembly that had come into being on August 11, 1947 on the basis of the elections held in 1946. Most students didn’t know that the first session of the assembly was presided over by Jogendra Nath Mandal who was also made the first law minister of Pakistan by Jinnah himself. One student asked why Jinnah had appointed a Hindu as the first law minister of Pakistan.

The answer to that came from a girl student who retorted that Jinnah was not a Muslim fundamentalist but a fairly secular-minded person as reflected in his speech of August 11, 1947. This sparked a heated debate among students, some terming him a staunch Muslim and others declaring him liberal and progressive. Then they asked me explicitly to give them an answer about whether Jinnah was a Muslim or a secular. I ended up explaining that being a Muslim and a secular simultaneously are not mutually exclusive conditions. One can be a practising Muslim and a secularist at the same time.

Being a Muslim does not preclude us from believing in secularism, which means that the state has nothing to do with religion. An extremist or fundamentalist is one who tries to impose his religion or sect on others, while a secular Muslim does not do any such thing. A secularist thinks that religion or sect is a personal matter and no state has a right to take sides with one creed. A secular state should be like a doctor who is least bothered about a patient’s faith. Just like a doctor does not take any interest in a person’s faith, the state should also be neutral in all matters religious.

This helped us understand that the early efforts to develop a constitution were thwarted by rival groups which could not agree about how religious or secular Pakistan’s constitution should be. Then there were other factors that contributed to an inordinate delay in constitution-making. For example, repeated removals of provincial governments by the centre created deep ill will among the federating units. The very first provincial government was dismissed within a week after Independence on August 22, 1947. It was Dr Khan Sahib’s government in NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) that was sent packing without even a vote of confidence.

Almost all students agreed that the only constitutional, democratic, and legal way of removing a government is through a no-confidence motion in the assembly. But not only Dr Khan Sahib in the NWFP but also Iftikhar Mumdot in Punjab and Ayub Khuhro in Sindh were dismissed by the centre without no-confidence motions. That triggered a chain of undemocratic events that continued not only in the early years of Pakistan but also in all subsequent decades till today. The first opposition party was Peoples Party of Pakistan created by Abdul Ghaffar Khan and G M Syed in May 1948 but banned within a week.

This discussion helped the students understand that this intolerance of other views is not something new that is happening with Ammar Ali Jan, Arman Loni, Baba Jan, Gulalai Ismail, Mama Qadeer, or Manzur Pashteen. This lack of patience with dissent is as old as the country itself and will continue as long as the ‘70-year-mess’ – not entirely created by politicians alone – is not cleared. And this can happen only when our decision-makers finally realise that diversity of opinion is the essence of democracy and all efforts to create an imposed uniformity of opinion will keep failing.

We also discussed Proda and Ebdo – the laws that targeted opposition politicians on charges of corruption in the first decade of Pakistan. So the current brouhaha about embezzlements and siphoning off of money is also not something happening the first time, as PTI leaders and ‘defence analysts’ want us to believe. Briefly, we also touched upon the Objectives Resolution that some students thought was a good beginning, Some other disagreed by saying that it is precisely this resolution that laid the foundation of an intolerant Pakistan.

This writer only suggested that all students must read this resolution and the 22 recommendations presented by Maulana Syed Suleman Nadvi in January 1951, to see what they stipulated and then the students should form their own opinion. Some students also asked about the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, to which I just advised them to read the eyewitness account written by Zafarullah Poshni in his book ‘Zindagi Zinda Dili ka Naam Hai’.

The writer holds a PhD from the

University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.