A brief but well-documented book about unfolding of the history of our parliamentary struggle
On August 12, 1947, two days before its official birth, the First Constituent Assembly of Pakistan formed a 16 member committee "on fundamental rights of citizens and minorities of Pakistan". That committee was supposed to advise the assembly regarding the fundamental rights of citizens of Pakistan and guide it on matters relating to minorities. Being the first committee, it must be considered as a vital step taken in constitution-making by none other but the President of the assembly, Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was also heading that committee himself.
In many ways, the timing of the formation of that committee reminds us of the preference regarding citizen rights and safeguards for minorities and that is why fundamental rights remain a part of our constitution in spite of fatal interventions by all four military dictators. Also notwithstanding the massive intersections by the non-elected elite, the 1973 Constitution still has the first chapter of fundamental rights intact since the day one.
The story of struggle for fundamental rights is narrated in a recent book "Consistent parliamentary cord: Fundamental Rights of the citizens of Pakistan" published by Senate of Pakistan. The author, Zafarullah Khan, has presented a brief but well-documented book which may help students and researchers with unfolding the history of our parliamentary struggle.
By and large in Pakistan, we have either colonial or pro-dictatorship narratives. From textbooks to the media, you can easily figure out arguments in support of both the narratives. Even some progressive and liberal/secular intellectuals have argued against the history of parliamentary struggle and popular politicians. I remember I had similar views in the past but once I started reading the parliamentary debates, I had to amend my position.
Zafarullah Khan’s book reminds me of those days well. In the introduction, Chairman Senate Mian Raza Rabbani rightly mentions the importance of political and social struggle: "A state cannot circumvent its challenges, let alone develop a roadmap, in the absence of a collective political and social ethos that something is amiss and must be corrected". But without reading the parliamentary debates, one cannot understand that collective political and social ethos for sure.
Allama Iqbal and Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the two founding fathers, had both participated in the assemblies that had virtually no power. Both participated in the assembly debates and remained confident about the parliamentary process and constitutional struggle. Iqbal preferred Kamalism on Khilafat and in a letter called the infamous Khilafat Movement a struggle for dying monarchy. As for Jinnah, he supported federalism and parliamentary form of government throughout his political career.
There was little room to maneuver in those assemblies of the colonial era but the political class did not want to miss even a tiny opportunity and remained consistent: "The colonial constitutional arrangements did not offer any set of guaranteed fundamental rights but the political leadership of that time was quite well abreast and acquainted with the evolving concept".
What happened to the ‘Committee on fundamental rights of citizens and minorities of Pakistan’ is an interesting story. Yet its report was part of the first draft of the proposed constitution presented in the assembly in mid-1950s. The sudden rejection of the draft proved self-destructive for Liaquat Ali Khan who was depending on the civil-military bureaucracy. The First Constituent Assembly could not make the constitution for seven years and members of the newly elected provincial assemblies had no liaison with it. So its death, when it came in 1955, was not mourned.
Finally, the Second Constitutional Assembly, elected by the new provincial assemblies, successfully approved the first constitution in 1956 and the chapter of fundamental rights based on that report was part of it. Fortunately, all parliamentary debates are available online since 10th August 1947 to date (http://www.na.gov.pk/en/debates.php). We can even read the debates regarding defence spending in the session on April 4, 1956. Digitisation of the assembly record for public use is the most important progressive step taken in Pakistan since its birth.
Although the author has discussed all three constitutions, 1956, 1962 and 1973, one should remember that the 1962 constitution was a product of a dictator. Defaming politicians, over-centralisation in the disguise of local bodies and compromise on federalism and parliamentary form of government were the bad policies of the Ayub era, and up until Musharraf’s times both secular and Islamist dictators have used these mantras extensively.
In the constitution of 1956 reserved seats for women were 10 in the lower house but these were reduced to 6 the 1962 constitution. Similarly, schools were under the control of districts earlier on but in the Ayub era that responsibility was shifted to the provinces. These are a few examples to understand the difference between perception and facts.
Pakistan is successfully experimenting with electoral democracy since 2008 and it could be said to be the longest democratic spell in Pakistan. It includes the first democratic transition which is unprecedented. In this scenario, it is important to write the history of democratic struggle based on parliamentary debates especially in the context of fundamental rights. The book under discussion is the first drop of rain in this connection but it is the duty of our academics to assign this work to Mphil, MA and Phd students.
It is high time for the academia to show some courage. They have enough resource in the form of parliamentary debates and they can divide it into different periods easily. The provincial governments should also develop their online data base regarding the assembly debates. These debates must appear in chronological as well as thematic order so that people can use them easily. Only if our media heavyweights could read those debates, they will be forced to let go of the misleading narratives.
In his epilogue, the author sums up the story as: "One cannot ignore that contemporary Pakistan is confronted with numerous challenges pertaining to the safety and security of its citizens. The country is particularly at a war for the last many years. …Amid this grim situation, many freedoms are often undermined and on occasion curtailed through some laws." But in a prophetic way, he has high hopes regarding effective parliamentary oversight that moves the reader a lot. Resilience of Pakistani democracy has a history and even author of Pakistan: A hard Country, Anatol Leiven shows no hesitation in accepting that resilience of Pakistanis. So like the Committee on fundamental rights of citizens and minorities of Pakistan’, this book is too a good beginning and for this gift one should thank the author Zafarullah Khan, the Senate and the Chairman Raza Rabbani.
Consistent Parliamentary Cord: Fundamental Rights of the citizens of Pakistan (Paperback)
Author: Zafarullah Khan
Publisher: Senate of Pakistan, 2016