Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Reconstructing Federalism

Dr. Rasul Bakhs Rais

Ethnic pluralism of the Indus valley region, that now forms the geographical core of Pakistan, historically was never separatist in orientation but rather interactive and integrationist for thousands of years under local kingdoms and great empires

Federalism, the constitutional distribution of power between the centre and the provinces, has suffered heavier blows during the last eight years under General (retd) Pervez Musharraf than any other time in our history. The story of other norms and institutions is no less tragic, but how we manage issues of federalism is of far greater importance to the future of the country.

The significance of handling the federal question proactively and according to popular aspiration lies in two political facts. The first fact is our national character as a multi-ethnic society. But this multi-ethnic character is like a marble shape, more intricate, inter-woven and complex than is commonly understood or recognised. This development that has taken place through migration, old and new, does not diminish the ethnic character of the provinces, their own ethnic mix notwithstanding. As has become clearer through painful experiences, the issue of provincial rights is one we can ignore only at the cost of damaging the federation.

The second political fact is that a multi-ethnic state like ours requires a democratic, federal framework of governance. Democracy would give peoples and their representatives a sense of ownership in the power structure and a stake in the political system, while federalism would give them political, economic and cultural autonomy. The theoretical foundations of a federal system lie in the concept of dual sovereignty, as it creates two sets of political authority: an effective and efficient national government, and state or provincial governments with separate and well-defined areas of jurisdiction. Empirically, federalism has proved the best arrangement for ethnically diverse societies. Its recognition of social and political pluralism integrates different communities together in a single nationhood.

Unfortunately, successive generations of politicians and policymakers in Pakistan have failed to demonstrate true understanding of ethnic pluralism and how to accommodate it in the political system. Maybe they understood the issue of ethnic diversity but fudged it by representing genuine ethnic and regional demands as opposed to the interests of the federation. This falsification had another sinister purpose: to legitimise themselves as true patriots while labelling ethnic leaders and groups as traitors.

Our national leaders, both civilian and military, never came to grips with the ethnic and regional realities of the country, which were presented as more of a problem than an opportunity to build inclusive, participatory nationalism. The use of religion to create national solidarity that would cut through ethnic identities was too idealistic to be a pragmatic solution to the real political problem.

The ethnic identities of regional social groups are rooted deep in history, culture, language and folklore. The illusory assumption that these identities could be wished away or instantly substituted with another politically engineered identity was proved absolutely false. And if we continue to ignore the ethnic factor in our national politics, it will only add further pressures and demands on the central political system.

The problem is that most of our leaders have been uncomfortable in recognising ethnic identity as a legitimate human feeling. It is also lost on them that ethnic difference is and can be a legitimate basis on which regional groups can claim their share in national resources, power and decision-making.

Ethnicity in Pakistan or in other countries is not inherently antagonistic to building a nation-state. Those who make the opposite argument are fixated on the European notion of culture-based nations, which were formed after many years of immeasurable bloodshed for powerful groups, often minorities, to impose their cultural hegemony on less fortunate, weaker groups.

Most post-colonial states are ethnically diverse, and by necessity have to go through a painful process of adjustment, mutual accommodation and co-existence by mutual acknowledgement, respect and inclusive politics. Pakistan, compared to many other countries, has an ethnic complex more conducive to nation building than in many other places. It has many layers of integrative forces that we could have used, and still can intelligently use, in weaving our composite nationhood.

Ethnic pluralism of the Indus valley region, that now forms the geographical core of Pakistan, historically was never separatist in orientation but rather interactive and integrationist for thousands of years under local kingdoms and great empires. There cannot be better evidence for this than in the historical pattern of migration and voluntary relocation of populations, regional commerce and trade. This historical pattern, which has continued over the past sixty years, has further transformed the ethnic landscape of Pakistan into a marble shape that presents a diffused, patchy and inter-woven image of ethnic colours and cultures.

This has happened, though, without any assistance from the country's politics, which was divisive rather than integrative in its refusal to accept regional autonomy and ethnic rights as one of the guiding principles of Pakistan's secular nationhood.

Let me clarify the idea of secular nationhood: shared powers, responsibility and political significance among all regions and ethnic groups.

Never in any situation is social diversity an obstruction to evolution into cohesive nationhood. It requires a different kind of politics, which must be dictated by the logic of ethnic diversity. It is a kindly national solidarity that needs to be built from below upward by listening to concerns and voices from the constituent regions; not by acknowledging them as rightful players but giving them a say and a stake in national power and decision-making. The trust deficit that we have between the centre and the provinces is in proportion to defective national politics, which has not been appropriate for or responsive to the ethnic mosaic that is Pakistan.

The successive authoritarian rules that we have endured for decades have alienated some ethnic groups, fuelling anger and frustration among them. Military rule by nature has a centralising tendency, and in our case, in popular regional perceptions, it has become associated with the dominance of the majority ethnic group. The one-man political show that we have watched helplessly for the last eight years has greatly damaged our federal structure.

It took us a quarter century to reach national consensus on the 1973 Constitution, somewhat settling the federal issue as the regional political parties accepted distribution of powers. We have not lived up to that promise. We don't need to repeat how individual rulers have disfigured the document to protect their own power and place in politics. Pakistan must return to a democratic, federal framework to address the question of ethnic diversity sooner rather than later. We are already late, weakened and politically disoriented on this fundamental issue of national importance.

The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A key concept that even student of constitutional law and politics miss out:

"The theoretical foundations of a federal system lie in the concept of dual sovereignty"

We forget the fact that a federation, like Pakistan, is based on the idea that the federating units are sovereign, they have entered into the federation only by voluntary accession, and retain the right to secede.