Saturday, August 20, 2011

Redrawing the Internal Map of Pakistan

There is an emotive debate raging across Pakistan on the pros and cons of reorganising the territorial boundaries of Punjab. In this context a few basic issues need to be addressed at the outset. One, the Constitution of Pakistan is an organic document that doesn’t treat discussions about reorganisation of existing provincial boundaries as sacrilegious. Having said that, the mechanism provided by our Constitution (as opposed to constitutions of other states such as India) to redefine territorial boundaries has been made hard enough to ensure that any such change is the product of consensus at the federal and provincial level.

Pursuant to Article 238(4) of the Constitution, the boundary of a province can only be redrawn through a constitutional amendment ie with a two-thirds parliamentary majority at the federal level. And such amendment can only be sent to the president for assent after it has been approved by a two-thirds majority of the assembly of the province whose boundary is to be altered.

What this means is that unless the government and the opposition in the centre, as well as the relevant province, agree there can be no redrawing of provincial borders. The PPP knows this. And this is what suggests that its announcement to carve a Seraiki province out of Punjab is merely electioneering gimmickry aimed at stealing additional votes in southern Punjab. Stirring up separatist passions in Punjab without making any serious effort to engage political parties across the isle in a serious discussion over how to address the concerns of minority communities within Punjab and other provinces might seem typical Zardari-ingenuity at first, but is actually dangerous. Will pro-autonomy groups within other provinces not seek the redress of their concerns while the subject is open? Even for the maestro of deviousness, it might not be possible to shield other provinces from the flames of separatism being ignited in Punjab.

Two, any time that the limits of one administrative unit of a federation are redefined, the legal impact of such change affects all federating units. Any such amendment in the Constitution of Pakistan will require consequential amendments in other provisions as well. The articles providing for representation of provinces within the National Assembly and the Senate will need to be revisited. A new NFC award might be required: distribution of resources satisfactory for a united Punjab as the biggest province might not be acceptable to its smaller successor units. Thus assuming that super-majority consensus can be miraculously generated at the federal and Punjab levels for the creation of a Seraiki province, a constitutional amendment bill proposing the division of Punjab alone will still impact the rights of all provinces and must be the product of a serious constitutional debate.

Three, the reasons for dividing up territories and creating states and provinces etc are seldom administrative and almost always political. The argument then that redistribution of provincial boundaries is welcome so long as it is undertaken on administrative grounds in nothing but gibberish. In any diverse society each citizen is born with multiple identities: nationality, religion, language, ethnicity, tribe/clan, gender, class etc. Which of these identities shape the socio-political consciousness of a citizen (or a group that he/she associates with) is a product of politics and not administrative needs or convenience. Thus it is the political programme of a group or community within a territorial unit that inspires the demand for division or autonomy and is backed by the conviction that such change will result in greater self-governance, empowerment and justice for such group or community.

It is hard to draw a meaningful distinction between the perception of injustice and of being disempowered and disenfranchised entertained by an individual, group or community and the reality of it. Belief is not always backed by empirical evidence or verifiable facts but still remains possibly the most potent trigger for action. Allegations of bias and grievances rooted in the sense of being treated unfairly and unjustly cannot be dispelled by simply rejecting them. If a group of people view themselves as a community or sub-community, in view of their history or ethnic, linguistic or religious identity, who is to say whether such self-conceived sense of identity is true or false? If such group or community believes it is being treated unfairly and political and administrative structures of the state are rendering it politically impotent, who is to decide that such resentment merits no attention? If a community views itself as a minority and struggles for greater political empowerment, who is to rule whether such struggle is legitimate or not?

If a citizen group conceives of itself as a distinct political community, forms a sizable population within a substantial territory that is geographically congruous, and wishes to collectively decide its own matters, there is no reason in principle to deny it the right to greater autonomy. Also notwithstanding the political interests of Punjab’s ruling elite, the division of Punjab might actually be good for the average Punjabi. Currently, he is the object of hostility and suspicion and held responsible for deprivations of fellow citizens across other provinces, largely due to the size of Punjab. Probably once there are a few Punjabs of the same size and influence as the remaining provinces will others realise that the Punjabi is as disempowered and destitute as the rest of his brethren, and the cause of distress of the average Pakistani cannot be removed by continuing to divide Pakistan up into smaller and smaller administrative units.

Will one, twelve or sixteen new provinces change the fact that our political parties are autocracies? Territorial subdivision will not bolster political autonomy or self-governance for it will still be the handful of individuals heading the political parties of Pakistan who will decide who gets to run in elections and represent ordinary people in each constituency. Till such time that political parties – the gatekeepers of our democracy – remain undemocratic themselves, a sense of political empowerment will remain a forlorn hope. Will redrawing the internal map of Pakistan change the fact that our politics is driven by patronage and not policy?

The object of being voted into power for all political parties is to secure access to the resources of the state and then use/abuse state power and distribute resources amongst its voters and supporters to strengthen the personalised system of patronage of party leaders.

Given that in our country the purpose of politics is not to devise policies that affect all citizens but to control power and resources for the benefit of a few, the vast majority of the citizens will always feel disempowered irrespective of which political party is in office. In any constitutional democracy basic citizen rights are guaranteed by the constitution and upheld by state institutions.

In Pakistan, the ordinary citizen needs personal access to local, regional or national elites to secure even his most fundamental rights. You need such personal access to register an FIR or avoid police harassment, to be heard fairly by a magistrate, to register a property deed and to find a job. This reality doesn’t change whether you are North Punjabi, South Punjabi, Pushtun, Hazarawal, Sindhi or Baloch. How will your personal fate be any different in a smaller province if the horse that you bet on lost the election?

So long as our system of governance and basic state institutions remain dysfunctional and every ruling party believes that its sole responsibility is to its supporters and not the entire citizenry, any party that forms government with simple majority support in elections, where not even half the population votes, will rule over a populace that feels largely disempowered. The debate over the creation of more provinces is just a fight over the distribution of spoils between competing elites and bears no relevance to the ordinary Pakistani.

*The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad. This article was originally published in The News (Pakistan) on Saturday, August 20, 2011 under the title "Perceptions of Injustice". It is being published verbatim in Pakistaneering with the kind permission of the author.

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