Federalism in South Asia has many forms. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have remained highly volatile federations in post-colonial South Asia; whereas, India, the largest democracy as well as one of the largest federations on the globe, has its own dynamics. Federal practices are being revisited everywhere in the region--reconstruction in Afghanistan, revisions in Pakistan, restructuring in Sri Lanka, constitutional process in Nepal, rethinking over Chittagong in Bangladesh and over Kurdistan and Sistan in Iran.
Pakistan is the only South Asian country which been broken in the post-colonial period and is once again under the same threat; therefore it is important to learn from its federal practices, particularly in relation to Sindh, now a province but which was a sovereign country for over 2,000 years until the British set foot in 1843. It not only voluntarily chose to become a part of Pakistan in 1947 but also gave birth to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s Pakistan.
Pakistan is a peculiar federalism with two permanent, conflicting features, which act as foundations of its federal crises. The country runs eight administrative units but looks to secure the interests of only one ethnicity at the cost of others.
The provinces of Sindh and Punjab are almost modern democracies. Balochistan is a tribal administration. Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa (formerly NWFP) has four administrative systems where major cities are modern democracies and the rest is divided into Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Federal Criminal Regulation Area (FCR or semi tribal areas) and Shariat Law for Mehemend Agency.
This permanent diversity is in keeping with the aspirations of people from different backgrounds; however it was not appropriately reviewed until last year, when FATA was constitutionally given the rights of electoral franchise and political association.
The other permanent feature of federalism in the country is political and legislative arrangements securing dominating majority and economic prosperity of Punjab province over the rest, in what people from other provinces term demographic hegemony. The history of state-building and legislation in Pakistan, basically, revolves around this single factor.
During the partition of India, the majority of All India Muslim League (AIML) supporters from Muslim minority provinces in northern and central India migrated to Pakistan. They were heartily welcomed by Sindhi people. Muhajirs (refugees), as they called themselves, were settled in selective urban hubs of Sindh including Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur so as to create constituencies for the immigrant AIML leaders. Therefore ALML leadership favored non-democratic politics.
In 1958, General Ayub Khan took over with the help of civil bureaucracy and AIML leadership and gave the country its first comprehensive constitution. This was followed by the imposition of ‘One Unit System’ on the basis of parity between eastern and western wings of Pakistan. The East Pakistan Bengalis were a majority in the newly formed Pakistan; therefore, they were countered through the merger of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and NWFP into single province of West Pakistan against the will of three latter provinces.
Publishing, reading and writing in Sindhi language was banned during One Unit because Sindhi was the only language in Pakistan which had a script and was the language of academia. Urdu was imposed as a national language, which was resisted by Sindhis and Bengalis. Finally, One Unit had to be abolished due to fear of liberation movement in Bangladesh.
Pakistan was given its third constitution in 1973 by PM Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who hailed from Sindh. This time, the principle of majority democracy was adopted which suited demographic majority of Punjab. Later on, Bhutto was executed under general Zia’s martial law imposed in 1977, which led Sindh into a decade-long resistance that was countered through a five-pronged strategy of militarization; criminalization through dacoits; creating tribal fiefdoms in non-tribal Sindh districts; encouraging ethnic violence by Muhajirs in Karachi and Hyderabad; and managing demographic influx of Afghan refugees and Punjabis to Sindh. At one stage during this process, the military was transformed into a separate interest group, and the political process of 1990’s in Pakistan was basically marked by conflict between civilian and non-civilian actors.
The post 9/11 Pakistani federalism attempts a viable statehood. But the genesis of separatism are still there, as was evident in the Dec 27, 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, when Pakistan ceased to exist in Sindh for three days and nights; however, mass uprising were soon overpowered by Asif Zardari, husband and political successor of Benazir Bhutto. Sindh and Balochistan today are strongholds of freedom movements. Murders of Sindhi nationalist leaders and enforced disappearances of hundreds of political and rights activists has become a routine.
Sindh’s experience with federalism offers some important lessons. Only a federalism that offers political pluralism and ethnic as well as demographic securities can have permanence. Federation entails just distribution of resources, right to rule, maintaining demographic majority and appropriate share in all forms of statecraft and power in historic land. If a federation develops a foreign policy without accommodating people’s and especially federating states’ will, the consequences can be disastrous.
South Asian countries’ varied experiences in federalism can be shared to each country’s benefit, including Nepal.
Identities are also important in single-nation countries, although of an entirely different nature. In Nepal and Bangladesh districts or divisions are administrative provinces, therefore their development and economic viability is a matter of high importance. In case of disagreement, mediation, consultation and understanding between conflicting administrative units is the solution. One of the long-running disputes in Sindh over the division of Larkana district was resolved when the newly formed district of Shahdadkot was jointly named ‘Qambar-Shahdadkot’ after mediation.
South Asian countries have versatile experiences of federal practices and we can share them for each other’s benefits. Why not facilitate this through establishment of a South Asian Court of Justice and South Asian Forum of Federating States under SAARC or any other arrangement? Such a body can help devise conflict resolution mechanisms and by doing so eliminate the chances of violence, dismemberments and political conflicts in federations of South Asia.
There are many conflicts within federations in Africa, resolution of which would be a milestone towards, peace, development and human security. In fact, the United Nations could be a legitimate forum for this, but it gives legitimate mandate only to sovereign countries, whereas the unresolved issues among federating states or between center and federating state are almost non-addressable in the forum. Thus restructuring of the United Nations in which federating states may be given legitimate space for reconciliation and resolution of disputes is urgently needed.
The author is Executive Director, The Institute for Social Movements, Pakistan