Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Provincial autonomy and ground realities

PML chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain has chaired a meeting of the two parliamentary sub-committees reporting on the crisis in Balochistan and the related question of granting to the provinces the quantum of autonomy pledged in the 1973 Constitution. The committee led by the party secretary general, Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, has already examined issues relating to the Gwadar Port project, distribution of federal jobs among the provinces, the state of security in the provinces in general and Balochistan in particular, the presence in Balochistan of paramilitary forces and the planned establishment of military cantonments there. The other committee headed by Mr Wasim Sajjad has made recommendations relating to the abolition of the concurrent list of subjects in the Constitution..

The 1973 Constitution had provided that after ten years of its coming into force the lists of subjects would be reviewed in order to remove federal-provincial overlap of jurisdictions, after which the provinces would be given the fullest measure of autonomy. Needless to say, democracy did not last long enough after 1973 to create the conditions needed for the required task. The elected government that had framed the Constitution with an across-the-board political consensus in the country itself felt compelled to dismiss two provincial governments and March troops into Balochistan on the plea that the province was in a state of insurgency. Instead of the devolution promised to the provinces, the nation had a state of emergency imposed on it. Instead of autonomy, the people of Pakistan living in the provinces got their fundamental rights curtained for a majority of the years of independent Pakistan.

Today, Balochistan is once again in a state of insurgency and this time around the insurgents are using much more sophisticated arms, possibly sent in from Oman where the Baloch expatriates are helping the Pakistani Baloch parties objecting to Islamabad’s policies in the province. Democracy, alas, once again eludes Pakistan and there is a government in place whose president is also chief of the army. In Quetta, in the assembly of 64 seats, there is a coalition in power that doesn’t too often see eye-to-eye on the problems that beset the province. The MMA has 18 seats in the house but is propelled by the passion of introducing a Taliban-style Islam there. Its sympathies with the fleeing Taliban are public and Balochistan is internationally known as the great sanctuary for the Afghan militants still covertly fighting the US-led coalition of forces in Afghanistan.

While the MMA challenges the federal government, the Baloch parties have raised the standard of revolt based on the province’s constitutional rights. The major response comes from the Baloch/Brahui nationalists whose interests in the Assembly are represented by three political groups: Balochistan National Movement (BNM) with four seats, Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) with two seats, Balochistan National Democratic Party (BNDP) with one seat and Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) which has four seats in the house. At the national level these parties are known as the supporters of PONAM which stands for the “Pakistan oppressed nations movement”, an advance from the “nationalities” thesis that was made the pretext of federal military intervention in the 1970s.

If there was a need to prepare the ground for provincial autonomy, Pakistan is behind on many counts. It failed to rationalise the number of provinces after 1947. India got eight and today has 34; Pakistan got four and still has four. But since Punjab accounted for over 60 percent of the country’s population, most of the provincial grievances were concentrated on it, including that of East Pakistan which separated in 1971. There were large parts of the country designated as tribal or ‘azad’ areas where the federation failed to take the writ of the state. In particular, Balochistan, barring two or three cities, was left out of the ambit of law for reasons that can only be attributed to the incomplete consolidation of the state territories under the Constitution. For this reason, and many others related to the tribal system in Balochistan, development funds were systematically embezzled in the province.

Therefore we may be forgiven for asking to whom autonomy should be given in Balochistan. Anywhere else, the situation would require a lot of “sympathetic interference” from the federation. That is why those politicians who think that they can suddenly award the kind of autonomy the provinces want with regard to the sharing of revenues through the NFC award — and that too without “normalising” the situation inside the provinces — are simply dreaming unrealistic dreams. There is no doubt that the federation is under strain today; but it is not all because of the non-fulfilment of the constitutional pledge of provincial autonomy. Much of it has to do with the abnormal situation created by years of neglect and manipulation at the hands of federal and provincial parties

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