The emergence of Pakistan as the homeland of South Asia’s Muslims, with their unique identity as a nation, was an unparalleled event in the twentieth century. The adoption of the Pakistan resolution at the All India Muslim League open session on 23rd March 1940 in Lahore gave our nation a clear direction. It was no coincidence that 23rd March was chosen in 1956 as the date when Pakistan’s first constitution came into effect and again as the day in 1973 when, after the trauma of two successive dictatorial misadventures, the country adopted a consensus constitution.
Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisaged a modern democratic state for South Asia’s Muslims. His entire life represented respect for rule of law, justice and fairness. Starting his political career as an ardent nationalist, he earned the title of ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.’ His advocacy of a separate Muslim homeland began only after he was convinced that the Muslim nation would not get fair representation and protection without the creation of Pakistan. The Quaid’s conception of Pakistan was clearly rooted in the notion of a constitutional democracy. It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s leadership was hijacked within a decade of its independence by the dark forces of dictatorship. Within two years of the adoption of the 1956 constitution, the constitutional order was overthrown and the country did not get its first general elections until 1970.
The refusal of an unelected elite to accept the result of the 1970 elections led to the break up of Quaid-i-Azam’s Pakistan. Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto lifted the spirits of the demoralized nation but also gave the country a consensus constitution. The 1973 constitution conformed to the vision of the Quaid drawing its inspiration from Islamic principles, guaranteeing equal rights for all the citizens and above all was thoroughly democratic in character. Shaheed Bhutto’s removal from power and eventual judicial murder plunged the country into darkness.
The two military dictators that followed each had a stint of power spanning a decade. Instead of recognising the sovereignty of the people and the supremacy of the constitution, General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf played havoc with the constitution and our state institutions. General Musharraf’s assault on the constitution is fresh in the memory of the Pakistani nation. Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in October 2007 and her courageous embrace of martyrdom gave the nation the strength to face down the Musharraf dictatorship and to ensure a peaceful return to democracy as a result of the February 2008 elections.
The process of restoration of democracy would not be complete without the restoration of the 1973 constitution. A nation’s constitution is by definition a living document that can be amended through the constitutionally mandated process, reflecting changes and needs of the times. But Generals Ziaul Haq and Musharraf arbitrarily amended a consensus document to reflect their twisted thinking that only usurpers of power occupying the presidency through coups d’etat could protect the national interest. When President Asif Ali Zardari sought and secured election as President, some critics wrongly and unjustifiably attributed to him the desire to wield absolute power under the dictators’ distorted constitutions. In reality, President Zardari’s election to the highest office in the land was essential to complete the country’s transition to full constitutional rule. Had the presidency remained in the hands of a dictator, instead of being held by someone who has willingly accepted suffering for the sake of the struggle for democracy, the process of recreating consensus on a constitutional package would almost definitely have run into difficulties.
The honour of removing constitutional aberrations and of restoring the 1973 constitution will has bestowed on the PPP government under the stewardship of President Zardari, with the participation of all major political forces in the country. President Zardari had planned to complete the transition to democracy and to return the country to the foundations of the 1973 constitution from his first day in office. During his address to the joint sitting of the parliament last year, he advised the Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Fahmida Mirza, to immediately form a constitutional committee comprising representatives of all political forces in the parliament to look at not only doing away with the arbitrary amendments including the infamous 17th amendment inserted by the dictator but also to settle the question of provincial autonomy according to the wishes of the federating units. Had the presidency been in apolitical or establishment hands, as some had desired, the process might have once again been derailed.
Irrespective of what his detractors may like to say, the fact is that Zardari has ungrudgingly consented to forego the powers conferred on the President under the 17th amendment as was his original promise and intention. The constitutional committee is understood to have completed its job and the constitutional package will be in the parliament within this month. The significance of the month of March lies in the fact that this was the month when the Pakistan resolution was adopted in the year 1940 and it was during this month that Shaheed Bhutto choreographed the constitution in 1973. It will again be March when the constitution embodying the vision of Quaid-i-Azam and Quaid-e-Awam will be restored. This year on Pakistan day, we will be able to celebrate not only our nationhood but also our unwavering commitment to constitutionalism.