Can a constitution make a nation?

BLAIR FRASER February 15 1955

Can a constitution make a nation?

BLAIR FRASER February 15 1955


ONE THING about expecting the worst, you won’t be disappointed and you may be pleasantly surprised, even by a bad situation. This is what happens to the visitor in Pakistan these days.

The situation is bad all right. Parliament suspended and the Constituent Assembly dissolved in eastern and western wings of this divided country; cabinets and governors arbitrarily appointed by the Governor-General, with no legislature to which they are responsible; the commander-in-chief of the army firmly seated in the cabinet itself, helping to run what looks very like a military dictatorship; the Press censored, assembly restricted, a provincial premier under house arrest—all this makes it look as if democracy had been abolished in Pakistan and a military fascism had triumphed.

But on examination you find that democracy hasn’t exactly been abolished, because it never did exist here. Pakistan has never had a national general election. The central Constituent Assembly, which the Governor-General dissolved last October, was not a real popular legislature; it was a self-perpetuating chamber of Moslem League politicians, one of whose last acts was to repeal a law under which they could be ousted for graft and corruption. The regime set up by the Governor-General is hardly more dictatorial than the oligarchy it replaced. At least it has promised a national general election as soon as possible, and no such prospect existed before.

Altogether the outlook is probably no worse than it was a year ago, and may turn out to be a little better. Pakistan still faces a staggering set of problems both political and economic, and so far she hasn’t solved any of them, but she hasn’t given up either.

To get a notion of the political difficulties of Pakistan, imagine that Canada consists not of the whole top half of the North American Continent, but of two chunks on east and west coasts. French-speaking Quebec is East Canada; Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon-Mackenzie district are West Canada, speaking mostly English but several Indian languages as well. Ontario, Manitoba and the Maritimes are part of the United States.

To complete the analogy you must suppose the people of West Canada are all Roman Catholics, and that this is their sole bond with Quebec or East Canada. All their normal previous contact has been with the English - speaking Protestants of Manitoba, whose city of Winnipeg has been their economic metropolis. Quebec’s has been with eastern Ontario, which you must imagine to be wholly populated by French-speaking Protestants.

This is approximately what happened when Pakistan was created by the partition of India in 1947. East Pakistan, or East Bengal, is a thousand miles from West Pakistan and the whole of India lies between them. It is desperately poor much poorer than the western provinces, and it has no heavy industry and no military strength or resources. In population, though, it makes up fifty-five percent of all Pakistan, and in a parliament elected solely on a basis of population East Bengal would always be the dominating bloc. But since East Bengal can neither support nor defend itself and is in all respects a poor relation of the western provinces, the stronger and wealthier West Pakistan won’t even consider submitting to Bengali dominance. That is why the central Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, after seven years, was never able to draft a constitution.

One thing kept the two alien wings of Pakistan together in some kind of harmony. This was the existence of Moslem League governments in all provinces and in the national capital. Last March, this unifying influence was removed. A provincial election in East Bengal swept the Moslem League from office. Moslem Leaguers won only nine of three hundred and nine seats; a rather motley United Front of various opposition parties, including the Communists as the smallest group, won two hundred seats and formed a provincial government.

Six weeks later the United Front Government had been deposed, the provincial parliament suspended, and Premier A. K. Fazlul Huq was under house arrest. The central government in Karachi had replaced the elected government of East Bengal with its own “strong man,” Major-General Iskander Mirza, who was in full charge with the title of governor.

I arrived in Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan, expecting to find a populace seething with revolt and kept down by police-state methods. I found a sleepy seedy little town where you see neither police nor soldiers in the streets. Manifest misery and poverty don’t prevent the people from looking cheerful and friendly. Most astonishing of all, even the ousted politicians didn’t seem to hold any violent grudge against the central government that had booted them out of office.

“We deserved it,” said one of them philosophically. “We let the situation get out of hand here. Karachi didn’t really have much choice but to intervene.”

As he told it, here’s what happened in East Bengal last year:

Everyone was fed up with the Moslem League Government, which was corrupt, inept and incompetent. However, it looked so strong with its huge parliamentary majority that all opposition parties felt they’d better band together as a United Front to beat the Moslem League.

They needn’t have done this, as it turned out. The Awami League, biggest and strongest United Front party, elected every one of its hundred and forty candidates and could have elected more. Instead, it found itself merely the largest group in a motley coalition with no coherent program and no real unity. The leader of the coalition was not an Awami League man but an ancient Bengali politician, leader of a group one quarter the Awami League’s size, whose name is A. K. Fazlul Huq.

Huq is a great hulking mountain of a man with a big moon face and a soft husky voice, who has been a leading figure in Bengal for fifty years. Some say he is ninety years old, but most people think he’s no more than eighty-five—he admits to eighty, and his backers like to recall that this is “the same age as Winston Churchill.” As First Minister of united Bengal before the war he took a leading part in smashing the nastiest of the moneylenders in Bengal and relieving the peasants of some of their crushing burden of debt. This exploit is still remembered, and is the root of his great popularity. Gossip paints old Huq as a bit of a pirate, but one of the Robin Hood sort who robs the rich to give to the poor. Even now, old and sick and badly discredited, Huq is still a political force to be reckoned with in East Bengal.

Premier Fazlul Huq’s first official act was to appoint to his cabinet one of his nephews, a man of no prominence or popular standing. This despite the fact that one of the “Twenty-one Points” of the United Front’s campaign had called for an end to nepotism. Awami League leaders were furious; they refused to enter a Huq cabinet beside his unwanted nephew. For six weeks deadlock continued, while old Fazlul Huq ran East Bengal as a one-man show.

During this six-week period Huq made some fantastic statements, some of which he said were misquoted but which got him into trouble anyway. One was at a dinner in Calcutta, where the presence of many old Indian friends made him pine aloud for the reunion of all Bengal—that is, the return of East Pakistan to India. This, in Pakistan, is high treason. Neither his own nor any other political party supported Huq in such heretical views.

Before anything was done about this, though, another development occurred. Riots broke out in a jute mill near Dacca, when Bengali workers attacked refugees from other provinces of India. Police were on the spot, but unfortunately, so was Fazlul Huq’s nephew, the unwanted cabinet minister. The police refused to fire on the mob unless the minister took the responsibility and ordered them to do so. The minister wouldn’t take the responsibility. As a result, police and minister alike stood by and watched a furious mob tear several hundred innocent people to pieces. (Some said three thousand were killed, some said five hundred; there is no official figure.)

What with one thing and another, therefore, the central government at Karachi felt justified in removing Huq from office. The Awami League had made a grudging peace with Huq by this time and agreed to enter his cabinet—by coincidence, the Awami ministers were being sworn in at the very moment when the mob broke loose in the jute mill--but they of course were deposed along with Huq. They were pretty indignant at the time but by the time I talked to them they had cooled off and admitted Karachi had good ground for its drastic action.

What did more than anything else to reconcile them, oddly enough, was the Governor-General’s action last October, dissolving the central Constituent Assembly and appointing a new government of his own. In the eyes of Awami League politicians, the Constituent Assembly had been nothing but a nasty nest of Moslem Leaguers, with no popular support but considerable power. Once those enemies were swept away as they themselves had been, the Awami Leaguers were content to wait quietly for the national general election which the central government has promised, and which they expect some time next winter.

EVENTS IN KARACHI leading up to the Governor-General’s drastic action were less sensational than those in Dacca, but even more challenging to him personally.

In September the Constituent Assembly passed an act amending the constitution to strip the Governor-General of his power to remove cabinet ministers. (He had exercised this power eighteen months before by dismissing from office an incompetent government which enjoyed, nevertheless, the confidence of the Constituent Assembly.) The Governor-General struck back a few weeks later, while Prime Minister Mohammed Ali was in Washington, by dissolving the Constituent Assembly.

Mohammed Ali hurried home from Washington, but he denies the press reports which said at the time he was bullied into accepting reappointment. He says there was never any difference of view between him and the Governor-General; they and “strong man” Iskander Mirza, now recalled from East Bengal to be Minister of the Interior in Karachi, proclaim themselves all of one mind.

General Mirza is an outspoken, engaging, eminently competent man who makes no secret of his belief that Pakistan is not ready for democracy. Although he is a general he hasn’t worn a uniform for thirty years—he is less a child of the army than of the old Indian Civil Service, in which he has spent most of his adult life.

Mirza thinks it was a mistake to promise a national general election with manhood suffrage to the poverty stricken illiterate people of Pakistan. However, the promise was made. Mirza agrees it must be kept.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ali, who used to be High Commissioner of Pakistan in Ottawa, is still the same plump, cheerful, unassuming man he was then. Though he is now ruling his country with no legislature and no popular mandate, Mohammed Ali hasn’t acquired any of the mannerisms of a dictator, and he speaks of the coming general election as a matter of course. He thinks it can be held by the end of this year or early in 1956.

The parliament thus elected will enact a constitution for Pakistan, which is still operating under the British Government of India Act of 1935. This time, though, Mohammed Ali is determined that the parliament shall have a draft presented to it as a basis of discussion, instead of starting with an empty sheet as the old Constituent Assembly did. He has already abolished the separate state governments of West Pakistan and reduced the country to two units, east and west; this may help to simplify or suppress the complex of regional rivalries that frustrated previous attempts to draft a constitution.

All these political manoeuvres, of course, merely skim the surface of Pakistan’s social and economic problems. This is a country where almost all the land is held by a handful of wealthy men, and almost all the people live on the edge of starvation. It’s a country where the mullahs, the benighted Moslem priesthood whose political activities are the bane of all Islam, have a potent and sinister influence with the people. It’s a country which has been trying for seven years to lift itself economically by its own bootstraps, and has pulled some of the straps off in the attempt.

Whether any political changes, democratic or otherwise, can bring Pakistan into the twentieth century without more violence and calamity is still a wide-open question. There is only one reassuring thing in the current situation: Whether or not it’s good enough, it isn’t quite as bad as it looks. ★