Genesis of Pakistan and the question of autonomy

By Manzoor Chandio
Written on August 14, 2007

SIXTY years on from the birth of a new country and a new nation, how do the people of smaller provinces view Independence Day? Do they really believe they are free? Are they proud to call themselves Pakistani? Do they think theirs is a respectable federation among the comity of nations?
Since Partition in 1947, Pakistan has had a chequered history.
The nascent state started its journey with mass communal riots, killing of innocent men, women and children, the destruction of property, an unprecedented influx of refugees and bitter disputes with India over Kashmir, Junagarh, canal waters, evacuee property and the withholding of assets.
The big blow came when the man who fathered the new nation died without accomplishing the great goal he cherished.
Though the resolution of March 23, 1940, envisaged “sovereign” and “autonomous” federating units in the country, the issue of provincial autonomy was put on the backburner.
The unforeseen issues which emerged immediately after Partition shaped the country’s political and social texture in ways that could not have been imagined by Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
After his death, there were no leaders who could carry on his mission though he had given a clear roadmap.
The people at the helm of affairs found it difficult to cope with the problems posed by poor physical and financial resources and the vacuum created by Jinnah’s death. The country went through turbulent times, right from its birth to its ignominious defeat and division in 1970.
The nationalists argue that had there been provincial autonomy, the country would have averted the division.
Tracing the roots of demand for provincial autonomy leads us to the Muslim League’s promises to the provinces before Partition.
According to Dr Rafique Afzal, former dean of the faculty of social sciences at Quaid-i-Azam University, the demand for provincial autonomy had become part of the official creed of the All-India Muslim League in the 1920s.
The Government of India Act of 1935 provided for provincial autonomy, and it was this part of the Act that was put in practice from 1937 to 1947.
From 1940 onward, the Muslim League’s demand was for an independent Muslim state based on the Lahore Resolution; but there were many lapses, particularly during and after the Cabinet Mission of 1946.
Many a time, the provincial Muslim League leadership was given a free hand to express views that were hardly in the line with the core demand of the All-India Muslim League.
After independence, however, the Muslim League leaders ignored all this. Their knowledge of statecraft and the rights of federating units was such that they failed to frame a constitution — the basic document needed to run the affairs of the state.
The nationalists felt that the new rulers deliberately delayed constitution-making to marginalise the provinces.
The polity was marred by the absence of a constitution and long years of bureaucratic and despotic rule. No serious effort was made to extricate the country from this conundrum and to give full autonomy to the provinces.
However, post-independence politicians chose to enforce the Objectives Resolution on March 7, 1949, instead of a full-fledged constitution, as a guiding principle.
Few voices were heard for the eradication of the colonial style of governance and the recovery of genuine independence.
Thus, as the saying goes, the “kaley angrez” took over from the “gora angrez”.
Nationalists pointed out in their writings that Muslim leaders in Bengal and Sindh had backed the Muslim League on the grounds that it would ensure provincial autonomy.
Therefore, they withdrew their demand for the complete independence of Bengal and Sindh. According to The New York Times (February 27, 1947), “the Bengal Provincial Muslim League leadership openly advocated for quite some time, the idea of an independent united Bengal without any immediate directive to the contrary from the central party leadership.
During the same period, the president of the Sindh Muslim League is reported to have favoured the setting up of a sovereign Muslim state in Sindh.”
Though efforts were made by the Bhutto government to give some autonomy to the provinces, it was not sufficient as the Concurrent List was to be devolved after 10 years under the 1973 Constitution which was also promulgated on August 14, 1973. Thus this day also marks the promulgation of the current Constitution.
Until recently, it seemed that the Musharraf government would transfer up to 35 subjects out of a total of 47 on the Concurrent List to the provinces to give them more autonomy, but, unfortunately, this has not materialised owing to one or the other pretext. In this connection, the eighteenth constitutional amendment bill had been planned, but the government failed to table it in parliament due to lack of consensus on the quantum of autonomy.
The bill was aimed at resolving the issue of provincial autonomy and resource distribution formula between the federation and the federating units. There are several ministries and departments working simultaneously in the same areas in Islamabad and the provincial capitals, putting a huge burden on the national exchequer.
Some of these include: food and agriculture, health, education, sports and culture, housing and works, information and broadcasting, narcotics control, tourism and religious affairs. In 60 years, no government has been able to decide who should collect and spend the following taxes — surcharge on petroleum, labour tax, workers’ welfare tax, workers’ profit participation tax, income tax, excise duty, sales tax and customs duty.
It is obvious that the resources of the smaller provinces are being taken away and spent outside their areas. Jobs are given to other than the residents of these areas.
Sindh and Balochistan are rich in resources. Had disbursement been made judiciously, the two provinces would have been the most developed areas and there would have been no need for subventions doled out by the centre.
Now, more than ever before, there is heightened public awareness of provincial rights as the centre continues to deny implementation of the Muslim League’s promise of “sovereignty” and “autonomy” to the federating units.

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