The Tale of Democracy in Pakistan

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Shamshad Ahmad[1]


During my last visit to the US, I was asked to comment on an essay entitled ‘The story of Indian democracy’ by Sumit Ganguly, a Rabindranath Tagore Professor of Indian Cultures and Civilization at Indiana University.  This essay in fact was an edited version of his talk at the History Institute for Teachers on “China and India: Ancient Civilizations, Rising Powers, Giant Societies, and Contrasting Models of Development,” at the University of Pennsylvania on March 1, 2011.

I found Prof. Ganguly’s historic narrative somewhat factual but with little relevance to his hypothesis that India was the only democratic model among the former British colonies that stood out singularly for its liberal and democratic institutions. He gives the examples of Kenya in East Africa, Malaysia and Sri Lanka in South East Asia which according to him remain “nominally” democratic states. In building his case, he seems to have conveniently glossed over some important parts of India’s history.

He is right that India’s twin, Pakistan has undergone periods of military rule and “has not seen democratic consolidation even when brief democratic openings have appeared.” These are undeniable facts. True also, the vast majority of British colonies did not emerge as democratic states or quickly succumbed to the temptations of authoritarian rule. But Ganguly did not explain why after all India alone emerged as the ‘jewel in the crown’ while other former British colonies remained mired in an uncertain political culture.

I opted to give my comments on the Ganguly paper in writing in the hope they will be covered in the same journal that had carried the ‘The Story of Indian democracy’. For understandable reasons, that did not happen. Now that I am back in Pakistan, I could not find a better alternative than Criterion Quarterly to narrate my own ‘The tale of democracy in Pakistan” to set the record straight.-Author


Any comparison between India and other British colonies like Kenya, Malaysia or Sri Lanka is far-fetched. India, unlike other British colonies, had the advantage of a long civilizational history behind it with fairly advanced statehood already in place.

When the British came to India as traders in the 16th century, India was already at the peak of its civilizational ascendency, and when they left in 1947, the two successor states were already endowed with almost a century of political experience that the British had tried to infuse in Indian body politic as part of their governance strategy in dealing with their largest colonial estate.

The earlier Muslim dynasties had already given India a new personality and character in terms of governance, trade and architecture. Muslims ruled most of the Indian subcontinent with brief intervals for more than a millennium. No other British colony could match India’s more than five thousand years old history involving the ancient Indus Valley Civilization which was contemporary of the Nile, Mesopotamian and Yellow River civilizations.

The impact of Islam on the South-Asian subcontinent was deep and far-reaching. Its influence on the social and religious life in the whole region was outstanding.” The followers of Islam”, writes R.C. Mazumdar, an eminent historian of India “settled in large numbers, but they did not merge themselves into the Hindu pattern. So, for the first time in Indian history, two distinct but important communities and cultures stood face to face, and India was permanently divided into two powerful units.”

But Hinduism and Islam stood poles apart in their attitudes to life. Islam as a religion, strongly monotheistic and insisting on the equality of human beings whereas Hinduism showed extreme flexibility towards God, and was founded on a caste system which divided society into privileged and underprivileged. Hindus and Muslims also had a different worldview altogether. They did not take the same view of history.

Muslim culture developed in the subcontinent over a period of centuries and created a large new community in this part of the world with its own distinct identity which continues to present a different aspect of human thought and action.  This distinctiveness of the two communities was evident in the “encounter” between Hindu and Muslim cultures that began over a thousand years ago, leaving a profound influence on both.  And yet, they have remained distinct and far apart.


Ganguly rightly mentions of the 1857 “Great Mutiny” which both Muslims and Hindus remember as their joint War of Independence against colonial intruders. Though theoretically the new British Raj was constructed in part around a conservative agenda, based on a preservation of tradition and hierarchy but in actual effect, the British rulers characterized the outbreak as an act of treachery against their control, and thus called it the ‘Mutiny’. It continued to be so described throughout the British rule.

The failure of the War of Independence had disastrous political, economic and social consequences for the Muslims as the British placed all responsibility for this event on them. They attributed the 1857 uprising to the Muslims alone who were considered the “main culprits” and thus bore the brunt of British wrath. In order to prevent recurrence of any uprising, the British deliberately followed a repressive policy against the Muslims who were also kept out of responsible government jobs.

The newly introduced English system of education had many drawbacks for the Muslims, mainly because it made no provisions for religious education. As a result, they stayed away from it. Thus, within a few years of loss of political power, the Muslims lost all avenues of employment, were dispossessed of their estates and deprived of the benefits of education. A highly cultured community turned into a backward and poor people. In their place British-educated Hindus began to occupy positions in government offices formerly held by the Muslims.

The British replaced Shariah by what they termed as the Anglo-Mohammedan Law. English became the official language. These developments had a deep socio-economic and political impact on the people of India, particularly the Muslim community which became more retrogressive in its outlook and shunned western way of life. Hindu majority adjusted itself with the new socio-economic dynamics and started acquiring the benefits of their numerical majority.

The Muslim response to this situation further aggravated their plight. They refused to learn English and to associate with the British. They also kept themselves aloof from western education as well as government service. On the other hand, the Hindus did not do so and accepted the new rulers without reservation. They acquired western education, imbibed the new culture and forged ahead in all fields. They formed a new middle class which assumed a leadership role in the new India that was taking shape under British rule.

In looking for the causes of the “Mutiny”, the British colonial rulers alighted on two things: religion and the economy. On religion it was felt that there had been too much interference with indigenous traditions, both Hindu and Muslim. On the economy it was believed that the previous attempts by the Company to introduce free market competition had undermined traditional power structures and bonds of loyalty placing the peasantry at the mercy of merchants and money-lenders.

On a political level, it was also felt that the previous lack of consultation between rulers and ruled had been yet another significant factor in contributing to the uprising. Indians were thus drawn into government at a local level. But this policy turned out to be blatantly discriminatory in favour of the Hindus as was manifest in the support the British gave them in their political awakening and mobilization in the late eighties and beyond.


Beyond a cursory historic episode, Ganguly totally omits notable developments in India during the 19th century that marked the beginning of a gradual phase of political awakening among both Hindu and Muslim communities of India. Some of those developments included administrative measures and political reforms with varying impact on each community.

During this period, educated Indians, particularly Bengali Hindus, were fast becoming politically conscious. In 1885, with British blessings, the Indian National Congress was formed on the initiative of a retired British official, Allan Octavian Hume, and under the guidance of the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin. The Congress which grew in time to be the most powerful political organization in India was used by the British as a convenient “safety valve” against the rising tensions amongst educated Indians who had begun to complain about the injustices of their colonial rulers.

On its part, the Muslim community, victimized for their ‘share’ in the 1857 War of Independence and subjected to discriminatory negligence by the British rulers, were beginning to realise that they were doomed if they did not organise themselves politically. The Hindu dominated Congress politics evoked no enthusiasm among them. In that atmosphere of despair, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) launched his movement known as Aligarh Movement to revive the spirit of progress within the Muslim community of India.

He was convinced that in the new era of science and learning, the Muslim outlook needed to be transformed from a medieval one to a modern one. Therefore, modern education became the pivot of his movement for regeneration of Indian Muslims. He was however averse to the idea of participation by the Muslims in any organized political activity which he feared might revive British hostility towards them.

Sir Syed realized that the British were gradually introducing democratic institutions in India, and in order to understand these, a thorough grounding in western education was essential. In pursuit of his objective, he established the Mohammadan Educational Conference under whose auspices an educational institution called Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College was established at Aligarh to impart education on western lines.

Muslims remained loyal to Sir Syed’s advice to stay away from Hindu-dominated Congress but events were changing fast on the Indian scene and politics were being thrust on all sections of the population. The main motivating factor was that the Muslims’ intellectual class wanted representation; the masses needed a platform on which to unite.

As the nineteenth century ended, political developments gathered pace, due largely to the growing sense of impatience with foreign rule and Hindu-Muslim differences.  The Hindu leaders perceived the advantages of close cooperation with the ruling power and remained in touch with British public opinion through friendly Britons who had retired from public services in India.

The Indian National congress with overwhelming Hindu membership flourished with British material and political support. In fact, the Hindu community as a whole derived the maximum advantages from the change of masters, and made the largest gains, political, educational and economic, under British suzerainty.

Meanwhile, Sir Syed Ahmad’s M.A.O College, converted into Aligarh Muslim University in 1920, was disseminating western political thought by John Locke, Milton, Thomas Paine, etc. and contributing to the emergence of nationalism among Indian Muslims who had begun to realise the importance of their political rights.

In their first political move, a demand was presented by the historic Simla Deputation to Lord Minto, the Governor General of India, on October 1, 1906 asking for separate electorates for the Indian Muslims. The principal reason behind this demand was the maintenance of a separate identity of the Muslim nationhood. The Muslims made it clear that they had no confidence in an assembly elected on the assumed basis of a homogenous Indian nation.

Exactly, three months later, on December 30, 1906, they established the All India Muslim League at Dhaka as a separate political organization for Muslims to pursue their legitimate political rights as a separate community. The British conceded the Muslim demand for separate electorates in the Government of India Act of 1909 confirming the Muslim League’s position as an All-India party.

This was the turning point in the political history of the sub-continent. For the first time, the Hindu-Muslim conflict was raised to the constitutional level. It is in this sense that the principle of separate electorate marked the beginning of the realization of the Two-Nation Theory, its final and inevitable consequence being the partition of British India in 1947.


No doubt, on their emergence as two independent states on the map of the world as a result of a democratic political process, both India and Pakistan inherited a parliamentary tradition and began their independent statehood with a democratic path clearly charted out for them. To start with, however, there was no level-playing field for the state of Pakistan which not only had a colonial legacy of its own to reckon with but also had to build an entire government from scratch in 1947 under a state of emergency whereas India was born with an established political tradition and a fully intact bureaucratic apparatus in Delhi.

As the British Empire’s realm continued to expand until Hunza, the remote kingdom bordering China, fell into British hands in 1891, bringing the expansion to its zenith, the colonial masters delineated the frontier separating Afghanistan from British India in 1893. The resulting Durand Line cut straight through the tribal areas of the Pathans which were later to become part of Pakistan. For tactical reasons, the British left the tribal areas totally isolated from the rest of India to govern themselves under the supervision of British political agents. No political reform or tradition could ever develop in these areas even till today.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British were gradually devolving power to local authorities in several provinces across India but those reforms were never extended to the territories that later made up the bulk of Pakistan after the 1947 partition.

Whereas several of the provinces India inherited from the Raj had experience with some democracy, Pakistan inherited North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, the two highly militarized provinces of the Raj with no such tradition. Both territories were important military recruitment grounds for the Raj and were located along India’s restive western frontier, where devolution was considered a security threat.

Even Balochistan and Sindh had seen more of British military expeditions rather than any political process. The British consolidated their power in Balochistan through two Afghan wars between 1839 and 1879 and after conquering Sindh from their bases in Bombay and Kutch in 1843 they forced Sindh to become part of the Hindu-dominated Bombay Presidency and followed highly discriminatory policies of lionizing the Hindu minority at the cost of Muslim majority. The British kept Sindhi unrest under control only through successive martial laws until Sindh regained its separate status as a separate province in 1935.

The situation in East Bengal which with India’s partition in 1947 became the eastern wing of the newly independent state of Pakistan also was no different in terms of discriminatory polices followed by the British towards Muslim majority areas of their Empire.  Western Bengal, with Hindu majority, being the first area to come under western influence was already developed and industrialized.

It was a striking contrast to the Muslim majority eastern part which had remained totally neglected in British India’s larger political agenda. Muslim peasantry was crushed under the Hindu landlords, the river system was infested with pirates, and very few funds were allocated for education. It was dreaded as a place of banishment.

Finding the Bengal Presidency too large for one governor to administer, the British decided to redraw its boundaries and divided it into two parts in October 1905. This was a welcome development for the Muslims of East Bengal who saw in it an opportunity for redressal of their sufferings and a step towards their socio-economic and educational uplift. But the Hindu community violently opposed it and launched an anti-partition movement eventually managing to have it annulled in 1911 which led to further widening of the gap between the two communities.

In the light of the changing situation, the Muslims revised their approach, and at a meeting of the Muslim League in Lahore in 1924 under the presidentship of M. A. Jinnah, they demanded constitutional safeguards. They now sought preservation of their numerical majorities in the Punjab and Bengal; separation of Sindh from Bombay; constitution of Baluchistan as a separate province and introduction of constitutional reforms in the North-West Frontier Province.

The 1930s witnessed awareness among the Muslims of their separate identity and their anxiety to preserve it within separate territorial boundaries. An important element that brought this simmering Muslim nationalism in the open was the character of the Congress rule in the Muslim minority provinces during 1937-39. The Congress policies in these provinces hurt Muslim susceptibilities and were calculatedly aimed at weakening the Muslims as a separate political and cultural entity.

In this process, on their part, the British were deliberately creating a new class of feudal elites in Sindh and Punjab as part of their larger political agenda to keep the restive less-privileged Muslim population under arbitrary control. No wonder, the Muslims were now left with no choice but to think in terms of seeking adequate safeguards or else inspired by Allama Iqbal’s ideas contained in his Allahabad address thinking in terms of partitioning the sub-continent on communal lines.

In its report on political reforms in India, the Simon Commission (1927) ignored the question of adequate safeguards for the Muslims. The ensuing Nehru Committee also paid no attention to the need for protecting Muslim interests. The Nehru Report had an extremely anti-Muslim bias and its final version adopted by the Congress did not even agree to the principle of federation, insisting on a unitary form of government and claiming absolute power for the majority which was obviously Hindu.

The Muslims opposed the Nehru report, and in January, 1929, an All Parties Muslim Conference in Delhi under the presidentship of the Aga Khan demanded specific safeguards for Muslim interests, including the retention of separate electorates. A positive aspect of Nehru Report was that it resulted in the unity of divided Muslim groups. In 1929, at a meeting of All India Muslim League in Delhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah rejected the Nehru report and presented his famous Fourteen Points as an alternative Muslim agenda.

These points inter alia included the issues of adequate and effective representation of minorities in all legislative and other elected bodies, representation of communal groups by separate electorates, no territorial redistribution in any way to affect the Muslim majority in the Punjab, Bengal and the NWFP, separation of Sindh from Bombay as a separate province, political reforms in NWFP and Baluchistan on the same footing as in other provinces, adequate share for Muslims in all the services of the State and in local self-governing bodies, and constitutional safeguards for the protection of Muslim culture, education, language and religion.

Jinnah’s Fourteen Points in fact summed up the congenital political and economic handicaps with which Pakistan was to begin its independent statehood. This unpalatable colonial legacy in conjunction with the country’s feudalised political parties, social conservatism, and outside influences provided a fertile ground for Pakistan’s non-political forces to grow in size and scale and gain an increasingly strong influence over the state. No wonder, even today, in Ganguly’s words, the military in Pakistan remains primus inter pares, or first among equals. India certainly is not in this unenviable position.

In India, as Ganguly says, “the Congress emerged after independence as virtually a mini-parliament, with habits of debate, argument and negotiation. India managed to forge a democratic constitution by 1950. Despite its huge size and socio-economic challenges, India has been holding elections every five years. It may be the world’s largest exercise of democracy but still larger issues of poverty, discriminatory social order, endemic corruption and exploitation of the poor remain unaddressed.

In Pakistan, the vision of a democratic and progressive future was unambiguously articulated in a resolution adopted at the first meeting of the Council of the Pakistan Muslim League in December 1947, when it pledged “to work for an ideal democratic state based on social justice, as an upholder of human freedom and world peace, in which all citizens will enjoy equal rights and be free from fear, want and ignorance.” This vision, woefully, remains unfulfilled.

Indeed, with its Founder’s early demise in September 1948, the new State of Pakistan lost the promise of healthy political growth with acute systemic deficiencies and frequent leadership miscarriages, restricting its transition to democracy. After the Quaid, it was left without any sense of direction, and came to be possessed by a corrupt political hierarchy of no more than a bunch of self-serving, feudalist and opportunistic politicians who were to manage the newly independent Pakistan in collusion with civil and military bureaucracy.

In the process, we saw a continuing cycle of governmental changes by non-political means. Machiavelli’s political philosophy based on the “doctrine of necessity,” became an integral part of our body politic. Democracy was never allowed to flourish in the country. Pakistan experienced frequent political breakdowns, long spells of military rule, institutional paralysis, endemic corruption, and general aversion to the rule of law.


Pakistan could not change its geography, nor escape from its social, cultural, political, economic and strategic influences. On its independence in 1947, Pakistan was a house divided not against itself but by more than 1000 miles of hostile Indian territory. The world itself was divided in two rival and mutually hostile blocs presenting our foreign policy with a difficult choice; either align with the free world represented at that time by Western democracies or accept subservience to the authoritarian and monolithic Communist system.

The most important factor circumscribing democracy’s growth in Pakistan has been its geopolitical location which not only shaped its personality as a state but also conditioned its domestic as well as external behaviour. Emerging from the trauma of sub-continental turmoil, the young state of Pakistan, faced with the stark reality of its geo-political environment, especially its troubled relationship with India due to last-minute British manipulations in leaving behind disputed borders, gravitated naturally to the pole that stood for freedom and democracy in that intensely bi-polar world.

It sought alliances with the West. In making that deliberate choice, Pakistan obviously was also guided by its over-riding security and economic interests.  On its part, the West, especially the US looked at Pakistan and its special geo-political importance as a strategic asset in its “containment” policy against Soviet expansionism. They could not find a better partner than a country with Pakistan’s exceptional location and potential for a crucial role in the final stages of the Cold War. The ensuing sequence of history speaks for itself in determining what really happened to democracy in Pakistan.

The US-Pakistan relationship has, no doubt, seen ups and downs with rotating phases of “engagement and estrangement” depending on the nature of regional and global dynamics. Notably, every US “engagement” with Pakistan was issue-specific and not based on shared perspectives. The spells of close ties between the two countries have been, and may continue to be, single-issue engagements of limited or uncertain duration. (Cold war, Afghanistan and now terrorism)

Interestingly, during each phase in which relations with the US were good, we in Pakistan had either a military or military-controlled government, whereas in Washington, the policy direction on Pakistan was in the hands of a Republican White House with Pentagon and the CIA playing a central role. Also, ironically, most of the “estrangement” phases of the US-Pakistan relationship happened when we had a civilian elected government and they had a Democrat Administration.

As a painful legacy of these episodes of ‘engagement’ with Washington, we continue to carry a huge baggage in terms of massive Afghan refugee influx and a culture of drugs and guns,  commonly known as the “Kalashnikov” culture which has almost torn apart our social and political fabric. Since 9/11, Pakistan has been a frontline state in the US-led war on terror. In addition to invisible emotional fall out, this war has cost Pakistan staggering military burden, irreparable economic loss and an unquantifiable collateral damage in terms of internal displacement, social chaos, political instability and endemic violence.

While there is a cumulative historic perspective to our political crises, we have suffered most from the legacy of two long spells of military rule in our country, eleven years of General Zia-ul-Haq and nine years of General Pervez Musharraf.  Both came to power through military coups in breach of their constitutional oath and both subverted the Constitution, destroyed institutions and ruined our social fabric by fueling religion-based militant extremism as a tool of their statecraft.

But let’s be honest. The problem is not the US-Pakistan relationship. The problem is its poor and self-serving management on both sides. For Washington, it has remained a transactional relationship. On our side, the problem is the nature that our successive self-centred rulers have always sought to give to this relationship as their political and economic lifeline through their opportunistic policies and notorious deals. It is time for both sides now to remake this important relationship on the basis of universally established norms of inter-state relations.

The objective must be not to weaken this equation but to strengthen it by infusing in it greater mutually relevant political, economic and strategic content.  It must no longer remain a “transactional” relationship and must go beyond the issue of terrorism. It must reach out to democratic and liberal forces and the business community in our country, and also the younger generation in Pakistan which may resent US power but not its ideals.

And in their success alone lies the very future of Pakistan as a strong and stable democratic country with a moderate and progressive outlook and as a factor of regional and global stability. Democracy, pluralism, security, market economy and people-oriented development must be the constant features of this relationship.


Given the common history, everyone wants to know why India is democratic and Pakistan is not. What after all is wrong with Pakistan? Instead of finding rational answers to this question in history, Prof. Sumit Ganguly, like many others, seems to have succumbed to the temptation of attributing India’s democracy to Hinduism and Pakistan’s autocracy to Islam. That is not the case.    

For us, it is not sufficient only to attribute Pakistan’s failure in democracy to its tradition of leadership miscarriages or military take-overs. There are in fact deep-rooted historical, socio-cultural and geo-political factors that have been conditioning the post-independence democratic tradition in Pakistan. Since independence, the politics and governments in Pakistan have remained hostage to the elite classes which have been inimical to any political liberalization in the country.

Indeed, history never looks like history when you are living through it. Within less than a quarter of a century of our independent statehood, we lost half the country. Some blamed it on our physically being a house divided not against itself but by sitting astride more than one thousand miles of a hostile India’s territory. The reality however was that as a newly independent nation, we just could not cope with the challenges of freedom inherent in our geopolitical and structural fault lines. Language became our first bête noire. We are still possessed by the same ghosts in the name of culture, ethnicity and history.
Unlike India’s Congress Party, the Muslim League, Pakistan’s founding party was almost wholly dominated by a few feudal families, whom the British had patronised before partition and were powerful enough to retain control over national affairs through the bureaucracy and the armed forces. While India was born with an intact bureaucratic apparatus in Delhi, Pakistan had to build an entire government in 1947 under a state of emergency.

Besides military and the civil bureaucracy which wielded real authority, we saw a number of politicians being ‘cycled’ through those political and economic crises. Invariably, the politicians proved to be corrupt, interested only in maintaining their political power and securing their own interests or those of their elite fraternity. As “elected” leaders, they never inspired hope for a democratic state that could provide socio-economic justice and fair administration to all Pakistani citizens.
Even after Muslim League’s disintegration, the same feudalised oligarchy consisting of different men at different times under different political flags has remained in power with or without military collaboration. The feudal power structure is indeed at the root of Pakistan’s political decay. It has also resisted land reforms in the country which it sees as a strike at its own roots.

Instead of removing our systemic weaknesses and reinforcing the unifying elements of our nationhood, our power-hungry politicians have always succumbed to narrowly-based self-serving temptations. They rejected the popular will freely expressed in the December 1970 elections, and instead of exploring political remedies to the resultant crisis went along a military solution. It was the height of political opportunism and a humiliating military debacle leaving Pakistan physically amputated; the worst that could happen to any country.

And yet, we learnt no lesson from our mistakes. We are repeating the same mistakes. The very reasons that precipitated the 1971 tragedy remained un-addressed in the new constitution which was adopted in 1973 under pressures emanating in the aftermath of the breakup tragedy rather than on merits of the document itself. Those who had no constitution-making mandate and were in fact responsible for creating a parliamentary gridlock leading to the breakup of Pakistan ironically became the authors of the flawed 1973 constitution.
The political government formed in 1973 soon had problems with two provinces, the NWFP (now KPK) and Balochistan. Governments were dissolved and governor rule was imposed in these provinces. This was followed by an armed uprising in some parts of Balochistan. The then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto then realised the need for systemic changes in the country. He went into early elections in the hope of a two-third majority in parliament to be able to amend the constitution. His plans were preempted by a military takeover.

Since then, the 1973 constitution has been amended twenty-two times but no government has ever attempted to correct the systemic anachronisms in our federal structure or to redress provincial grievances. The so-called ‘devolution’ under the eighteenth amendment provides no solution to the core issue of inter-provincial disparities.

The problem is that the overbearing feudal and tribal power structure in Pakistan has been too deeply entrenched to let any systemic change take place. It doesn’t suit them. They have always resisted reform in the country which they fear will erode their vested power and influence base.
In the process, the country has failed to develop a sustainable democratic system based on constitutional supremacy and institutional integrity. The main casualties have been the state institutions and the process of national integration. The country is also engaged in a precarious struggle to define a national identity and evolve a political system needed for its ethnically and linguistically diverse population.

Pakistan is known to have over twenty languages and nearly 300 distinct dialects. This diversity contributed to chronic regional tensions and provincial disharmony, which not only impeded the process of constitution-making but also remained a potential threat to central authority.

No wonder, there are demands now for more ethnic-linguistic provincial units in the country. No one agrees with the logic of these self-serving demands when we need greater societal cohesion, not fragmentation. We cannot afford new controversies reviving the old ethnic and linguistic chasms. But if inter-provincial disparities are to be removed, we can’t simply wish them away. A surgical remedy would be indispensable.


At the time of our independence in 1947, we inherited the Government of India Act, 1935, which remained our constitutional framework, with necessary adaptations and modifications in the form of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, passed by the British parliament. Seven years of debate failed to produce agreement on fundamental issues such as regional representation or the structure of a constitution. This impasse prompted Governor General Ghulam Mohammad to dismiss the Constituent Assembly on Oct 24, 1954, in what was the first coup of our history, though a civilian one.

The new Constituent Assembly produced the first Constitution of the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” which came into force on March 23, 1956. It provided a parliamentary form of government with a president elected by the members of the National Assembly and the two provincial assemblies of East Pakistan and West Pakistan and a cabinet of ministers headed by a prime minister appointed by the president. Each province was effectively administered by a governor assisted by a small team of ministers.

This constitution remained operative for about two-and-a-half years. Even with the abrogation of the constitution and declaration of martial law in October 1958, no change was made in this federal setup in the second constitution adopted in 1962.

The late fifties and early sixties when this arrangement was in place was perhaps the only period during which the bulk of the population of this country lived in peace and relative prosperity with nominal unemployment. Other than constant political wrangling and intrigues among our politicians, we were a peaceful, tolerant, contented, liberal and law-abiding society till the 1971 tragedy, after which successive domestic and regional events tearing apart our social and political fabric, disrupted Pakistan’s progress as a model for Third World countries.
In the 1970s, we also tried a half-baked version of socialism, the outcome of an arbitrary, personalised approach of an elected prime minister, who nationalised in one stroke our banks, schools and colleges and major industries. The whole systemic perversity had to be reversed at a cost still being paid by the nation. At the moment, we are stuck with another systemic perversity, with an elected president undemocratically also remaining the head of his party while virtually using the head of government’s powers that do not belong to him. It is neither a parliamentary nor presidential form of government.
Ours is the story of a society that has been going round and round in aimless circles for 65 years. Absence of democracy, rule of law and good governance is its continuing hallmark. The country has been engaged in a precarious struggle to define a national identity and evolve a political system for its ethnically and linguistically diverse population.

This diversity contributed to chronic regional tensions and provincial disharmony, which not only impeded the process of constitution-making but also remained a potential threat to central authority. The question of provincial autonomy remains the key to addressing the issues of federalism in our country. There is a strong underlying resentment in Balochistan and in other smaller provinces against what is seen as continued “Punjabi dominance” and inequitable distribution of power and resources.

In the former East Pakistan too, the problems started with a similar deep-rooted sense of deprivation and a feeling of political and economic alienation, which over time became a politico-constitutional crisis culminating into demand for larger autonomy and leading eventually to the break-up of the country. We find our provincial system not only fueling misrule and corruption but also aggravating sense of inequality and deprivation among different parts of the country.

Our Constitution does not provide a solution to the genuine concerns on the inequality of the size of provinces and lopsided sharing of political and economic power. The need for drastic change in our present anachronistic set up is urgent to get rid of the same old usurpers of the country’s politics, outmoded social and political structures and elitist-led status quo in our country.


We are currently suffering the worst governance crisis of our history. The gross inadequacies in governmental handling of serious problems affecting the common man, including continuing food and energy shortages, unabated violence and extremism and countrywide lawlessness have never been so acute. Our present rulers have been amply tested and inspire no hope. The nation desperately looks for an alternative, someone with integrity and credibility and a plan with an able team to remake the State of Pakistan like Malaysia’s Mahathir and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

The country must come out of the ‘farcical’ democratic mode opting for genuine democracy rooted in the will of the people and based on constitutional supremacy, institutional integrity, rule of law and good governance. It is never too late. It is also time for our armed forces to let the country be governed by democratically elected representatives of the people. For them nothing would be more honorable than reverting to their constitutionally-defined professional role and respecting the legitimacy of their people’s democratic aspirations and socio-economic needs.

In today’s context, what is important for Pakistan itself is the need to be stable politically and strong economically so as to be self-reliant and immune to external constraints and exploitation. Our country’s peculiar socio-economic and political culture, based on feudal and tribal structure, high rate of poverty and illiteracy, and inequality of wealth and power are symptomatic of a lopsided situation that warrants the beginning of an end to the current socio-economic disparities and political exploitation of the people by the privileged few of our country.

What in fact we need is the remaking of the State of Pakistan as envisioned by Quaid-e-Azam, free of ethnic and linguistic labels and sectarian, communal and regional disharmony.  We need a new Pakistan where strict adherence to the Constitution shall be ensured as a solemn ‘social contract’ enabling the citizens to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from fear, want, hunger, disease, illiteracy, corruption, intolerance, violence, oppression and injustice. We want our country to be the one in which democracy, not dictatorship will endure, where economic growth and social justice reinforce each other.

Our new Pakistan must be strong enough to live at peace with itself and with the rest of the world as a highly responsible nuclear-weapon state committed to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, particularly the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, external non-interference and peaceful settlement of bilateral disputes. Pakistan must be seen in its region as a source of strength and stability, not as the hub of terrorism and extremism.

And finally, instead of always blaming “outsiders” for our domestic problems, we should have the courage to admit that there is something fundamentally wrong with our own governance patterns. Our systemic perversities are the root cause of our governance failures.  Our problems are not external; our problems are domestic.  Our foremost priority is to fix the fundamentals of our governance. We need domestic consolidation through democracy based on constitutional supremacy, institutional integrity and independent judiciary, rule of law, accountability & good governance.


Our Constitution has been amended umpteen times for furtherance of political power and expediency. If any further changes are needed in our Constitution to correct the systemic anachronisms in our federal structure and to redress provincial grievances, they should be made before it is too late to remove the underlying causes of injustice and socio-economic deprivation of the people of the “smaller” provinces.

Every political leader is promising a change but doesn’t seem to be ready yet to come out with any blueprint for the promised change.  It is time for a surgical operation to root out the country’s systemic perversities. We cannot afford to remain complacent spectators any longer. Here are some suggestions for consideration before the coming election:

  1. 1. Presidential System:
  • Given our pathetic performance in our political conduct and discipline since our independence, we, like most developing countries, are perhaps not yet fit for the parliamentary system. Britain struggled for centuries to reach its current parliamentary status. For us, it would be too long and too arduous a journey to be indefinitely chasing illusory goals.
  • Temperamentally, we are a ‘presidential’ nation. It is time we abandoned the system that we have never been able to practice. Even the Quaid-e-Azam had doubts about the practicality of a parliamentary system in Pakistan. We should explore an adult franchise-based ‘presidential system’ suitably designed for and tailored to Pakistan’s needs.

  1. 2. Proportional Representation:

  • We must also adopt the system of ‘proportional representation’ that ensures representation of political parties in national legislature proportionate to the percentage of popular vote they receive. It will provide greater access to non-feudal, non-elitist educated middle class people in elected assemblies.
  1. 3. Recasting Federal Structure:

  • Also needed is rationalization of our federal system by revisiting our current ‘provincial architecture’ looking for a pragmatic solution to the problems of regional disparities. Reason, not self-serving emotion should be our yardstick.
  • Looking at the systems of other developed and developing countries, we find ourselves a unique example of a federation with almost no parallel anywhere in the world. No country, roughly equal to Pakistan’s geographical and population size has so few and so large provinces.

  • While large unequal provinces are always prone to breed and fuel secessionist mindsets, smaller provinces serve as a safety valve against such tendencies. Nigeria, a large country, on its independence had three regions and soon started facing a religion-based secessionist war in Biafra Region in the 1960s. It solved its federal problems by forming smaller provinces and today, in addition to Abuja as the federal territory, it has 36 states subdivided into 774 local government areas.

  • Most of the large and medium size countries in today’s world have divided themselves into small size provinces or states as ‘administrative units.’ Examples: China 34 provinces, India 28 states and 7 union territories, Iran 30 provinces, Indonesia 33, Egypt 26, France 26, Germany16, Switzerland 26 cantons, Nigeria 37, Philippines 80, Thailand 78, Turkey 81, UK 114 counties and USA 50 states.
  • In any unequal, parochially defined set up irrespective of historical identities, no method of governance can work. It is a system designed for paralysis which we are already experiencing. Our present provincial set up has long been the cause of political instability with an ever-looming threat to the country’s further disintegration. Lately, there have been demands for more provinces on ethnic or linguistic grounds.
  • If this trend were to continue, we will be left with a loosely wired skeleton of a federation with more political space available to self-serving, disgruntled and corrupt politicians to play havoc with this country. We must resist this opportunistic approach and remove the inherent flaws in our system by recasting our federal architecture.
  • This we can do preferably by eliminating altogether the present four linguistic-ethnic-based provinces and replacing them with forty or more administratively-determined provinces both as federating as well as administrative units of the State of Pakistan.
  • In case, our traditional feudalist mindset does not let this change happen and is bent upon retaining the present ethnic-based federal identities, we could still opt for an alternative restructuring of the federation by retaining  the present four ethnic-linguistic-based provinces redesignated as ‘states’ constituting the federating units of Pakistan with a constitutionally redefined role and status.
  • The functions of the four redesignated states shall be limited only to an oversight and supervisory role over the provincial and district governments in their respective jurisdiction and maintaining liaison on their behalf with the Central Government in terms of administrative, judicial, police, law & order, and financial matters.
  • In this task, the four states will have very small functional secretariats for supervisory coordination with their respective provinces administrations. All administrative responsibilities shall be transferred to the local levels obviating the need for state cabinets, assemblies or secretariats.
  • The present provincial assemblies should be abolished and replaced with much smaller elected legislative bodies called State Councils for the needed law-making purposes within the respective states.
  • There will be no state chief minister or cabinets and instead the elected governor as the representative of the federation will oversee the running of the affairs of the provinces with the help of the elected ‘provincial’ administrations within his state.
  1. 4. New Provincial Architecture:

  • In order to separate governance from ethnic-linguistic considerations and to eliminate at least one known tier of redundancy and dirty politics of greed and power, i.e., the present provincial structure, we create forty or more provinces as administrative units ensuring a balance in geographical and population size.
  • In any case, a Sindhi will remain a Sindhi even as parts of Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpur Khas or Larkana Province and so would be other nationalities no matter where they reside.
  • By dividing the country into smaller administrative units as provinces, we would not only be eliminating the causes of regional acrimony and discontent but also ensuring effective and efficient governance through elected bodies at local and grassroots levels.
  • To avoid any large-scale fresh re-demarcation of land boundaries and re-channelling of irrigations canals and tributaries, the best solution will be to convert the existing divisional commissionaries into new provinces headed by elected administrators with a suitable title. (Suggested List of Provinces in Annex I)

5. Districts as Basic Unit of Governance:

  • The newly-designated provinces will have administrations comprising of elected councils headed by an elected administrator and assisted by professional burearocracy. But the basic unit of governance should be the present districts, each headed by an elected person with prescribed eligibility criteria, with the help of small elected bodies at all local levels.
  • The new provincial units shall be responsible for an oversight and coordinatory role providing support to the district governments within their jurisdiction and maintaining liaison with the central government in terms of administrative, judicial, and financial matters.
  • The ‘district governments’ need to be strengthened through adequate resources for meeting citizens’ basic requirements like food, shelter, education, health, security and justice at the local level, and through a monitoring mechanism’ will be made accountable to ensure efficient functioning.
  • Elected district, tehsil and mohalla/village/community councils will involve the people as in other democratic societies in the running of their affairs.  Common man’s problems shall be addressed at the local level with public safety, law and order and timely justice guaranteed and delivered to them at their doorsteps.
  • Election to all local councils except district councils should be on two-yearly adult franchise basis and no member will be allowed more than two 2-year elected terms to widen the scope of democratic process at the grassroots’ level.

  1. 5. Federal Government:
  • The sanctity of ‘separation of powers’ should be the basis of the federal system with three organs of the State functioning independently with usual checks and balances.
  • The federal government should retain only ten to twelve ministries responsible to formulate and implement national policies in important areas, notably defence, economy, education, foreign affairs, national security, trade, communication, justice and law.  All other subjects should be transferred to ‘states’ for effective handling through the new smaller provinces and districts as basic units of governance.
  • Bicameral system of legislature should continue with necessary adjustments giving all provinces equal representation in the Senate as at present except that all seats including those reserved for women and minorities should be filled through direct elections.
  • Both houses together will legislate as in any presidential system on matters of national importance such as budget and economy, foreign affairs and national security to help the federal government in formulating and implementing policies on these subjects.
  • Election to both houses should be held every four years through ‘Proportional Representation’ system ensuring representation of political parties proportionate to the actual popular vote they receive in the polls.
  • The National Assembly and the Senate will concentrate on their job of legislation, deliberate on national issues to help the government in formulating and implementing sound, well considered domestic policies including on national security, economy, budget and foreign affairs.
  1. 7. Balochistan Quagmire:

  • Despite its abundance of natural resources, Balochistan remains the most backward province of the country and its legitimate political and economic grievances have long remained unaddressed.
  • There is a strong underlying resentment in Balochistan (and in other provinces also) against what is seen as continued “Punjabi dominance”, inequitable distribution of political power and resources, and exploitation of province’s natural wealth.
  • We must genuinely look for fair and permanent solutions. The problems in Balochistan will be resolved only through political and economic means, not by use of military force or through violence and militancy.
  • These problems are also rooted in our flawed federal system and will be best resolved by the proposed restructuring of the federation. With smaller units of governance, the issues of governance and availability or distribution of resources shall also be easy to handle.
  • The Baloch interests will also be best safeguarded in a strong and stable Pakistan and in an environment of peace and tranquility free of exploitation, blackmail or duress from any source.
  • But like elsewhere in the world, the people of Balochistan also need to be freed of the outdated and exploitative Darbari and Sardari tribal system which keeps them backward to sustain its own privilege and power.
  • Instead of fuelling self-serving ‘nationalist’ unrest and obstructing genuine development and security related projects, the Sardars and Nawabs should come out of their exploitative mode and join the country’s political mainstream to genuinely work for the socio-economic well-being of their people.
  • In implementing development projects, it will also be easier for the local governments to deliver in terms of improved infrastructure and better living facilities, including health and educational services, and access to the use of their natural resources.


The proposal to strengthen district governments, to form small equal provinces with a limited role in governance and a lean central government as outlined above, will bring about following major advantages:-

It will eliminate the cause of acrimony and discontent among the different regions.

The central government, unburdened from mundane routine affairs will be able to concentrate on formulating and implementing national level policies more effectively.

It will end duplication of responsibilities between different levels now causing confusion and despondency in governance.  Eliminating one tier of assemblies, cabinets and secretariats at provincial level and concentrating the role of legislation at the national level, will help in effective functioning of the country.

By doing away with the provincial legislative and secretariat structures, we will be saving huge expenses now being incurred on maintaining provincial assemblies, minsters, advisors, parliamentary secretaries and large administrative secretariats.

It will bring the desired level of political stability. The parties winning national level elections will be able to form stable governments at the centre without having to make compromises to form provincial governments.

It will meet the demands of sub national group eliminating threats of further breakup of the Country as experienced in 1971, by removing causes of discontent, neutralising propaganda themes like         hatred against Punjabis, developed by our adversaries for a long time.

Disturbances and discontent in an area would be isolated, promptly addressed and problems easily resolved without affecting other areas.

The role of State Governor to support the provincial and district governments in maintaining law and order by providing required force and in dispensation of quick justice by maintaining judicial infrastructure at his disposal will establish inherent checks and balance eliminating chances of district governments going overboard.

Responding to the aspirations and genuine needs of the people of Pakistan, facilitating them in solving their problems at local level and ending acrimony on divisive issues, will act as catalyst to our progress and strengthen us as a nation.


Unfortunately, when the gravest of problems stare us in the face, we tend to ignore them only because we can’t do anything about them. As an expression of our helplessness, we just like to carry on with life, at times even ridiculing those who speak of the need for things to be set right.  As a country and as a nation, at this critical juncture in our history we cannot leave ourselves to the vagaries of time or at the mercy of our corrupt and incompetent rulers. We can’t even innocently continue to believe that everything will be all right, magically or providentially.

We must remember that Pakistan of 1947 could not survive even for twenty five years. Despite the 1973 Constitution, the remaining Pakistan continues to face threat of further disintegration mainly due to unaddressed concerns of different regions.  These are exceptional times warranting exceptional responses to our problems. We must avoid reaching points of no return. The nation desperately looks for an alternative, someone with integrity and credibility and a vision with an able team to remake the State of Pakistan like Malaysia’s Mahathir and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

To avert the vicious cycle of known tragedies, we need a serious and purposeful “national effort” involving a holistic review of our governmental system and a parallel discourse among major political stakeholders and key civil society segments including the media and lawyer’s community to explore and evolve a national ‘remedial and recovery’ plan before it is too late. Elections alone will not make any difference. They are just another exploitative exercise in which the power of wealth and feudal control remain the decisive factor. For qualitative change in the country, the system itself must change.

I am not an expert in governmental structures and have just outlined my random thoughts on systemic changes in the country which inevitably need to be developed and refined through dispassionate debate and discourse by experts in governmental systems and institutional development. It may be a long journey but at least the first step is being taken before it is too late.




  1. 1. Bela/Awaran
  2. 2. Chaghi
  3. 3. Kalat/Khuzdar
  4. 4. Kharan
  5. 5. Makran
  6. 6. Naseerabad
  7. 7. Panjgur
  8. 8. Quetta
  9. 9. Sibi
  10. 10. Zhob


  1. 11. Bannu
  2. 12. Dera Ismail Khan
  3. 13. Dir
  4. 14. Hazara
  5. 15. Kohat
  6. 16. Kohistan
  7. 17. Malakand
  8. 18. Mardan
  9. 19. Peshawar
  10. 20. Swat


  1. 21. Bahawalpur
  2. 22. Dera Ghazi Khan
  3. 23. Faisalabad
  4. 24. Gujranwala
  5. 25. Lahore
  6. 26. Multan
  7. 27. Rawalpindi
  8. 28. Rahim Yar Khan
  9. 29. Sahiwal
  10. 30. Sargodha


  1. 31. Hyderabad
  2. 32. Karachi East
  3. 33. Karachi West
  4. 34. Khairpur
  5. 35. Larkana
  6. 36. Mirpur Khas
  7. 37. Sukkur
  8. 38. Sanghar
  9. 39. Tharparkar

40. Thatta


41. Gilgit & Baltistan


  1. i. Tribal Agencies and Frontier Regions may be absorbed in to the adjoining new provinces as districts.
  2. Azad Jammu and Kashmir – Status quo should be maintained.


Ambassador Shamshad Ahmad

Former Foreign Secretary



  1. THE STORY OF INDIAN DEMOCRACY: An essay by Prof. Sumit Ganguly, published in Foreign Policy Research Institute;Vol. 16, No. 5; June 2011
  2. An Advanced History of India: R. C. Mazumdar; London (1960)
  4. The India-Pakistan Divide: Christophe Jaffrelot; Foreign Affairs; March-April 2011
  5. Pakistan Foreign Policy & Geo-Political Challenges: Shamshad Ahmad; Heritage Foundation Contemporary Series 2010
  6. A new federal structure: Shamshad Ahmad; The News, September 19, 2011
  7. Our experience id democracy: Shamshad Ahmad; The News; October 11, 2011
  8. Our systemic perversities: Shamshad Ahmad; The News, October 18, 2011
  9. The system must change: Shamshad Ahmad, The News, October 22, 2011
  10. Why not remake Pakistan?: Shamshad Ahmad; The News, January 18, 2012


[1] The author is a former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan.