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Between the line
 

A half measure
April 28, 2010

 

There was a document, called Charter of Democracy, which the presidents of Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League signed at London on May 14, 2006. Both of them, the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, called upon the people of Pakistan to join hands to save their “motherland from the clutches of military dictatorship and to defend their fundamental, social, political and economic rights and for a democratic, federal, modern and progressive Pakistan as dreamt by the founder of the nation.”

When I read the constitution’s 18th amendment, I did not find anything in it for the political parties, particularly the PPP and the Muslim League, to go gaga over it. There is nothing in the amendment to stall a military coup. Pakistan had the consensus-based constitution when the nation adopted it in 1973 under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Yet General Zia-ul Haq and General Parvez Musharraf marched in the army when they so desired to crush all institutions under their jack boots. Zia did something worse when he drenched out even the semblance of pluralism that the constitution reflected.

When I asked Prime Minister Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto in an interview after the Bangladesh war if he could guarantee that the military would not take over again as was his experience when General Mohammad Ayub imposed the martial law, Bhotto said in reply that this time his men would come on to the streets and face the tanks. However, when Bhutto was arrested by Zia and detained at Murree, not even a dog barked. The nation slipped into martial law rule as easily as a person would in new clothes. It looked as if it did not matter to the people who the ruler was.

The 18th amendment is a step towards restoring democracy. Pakistan has yet to prove to the world that it has become a democratic country. The nation showed the signs of a liberated country when people rallied behind the lawyers to put back Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary in his seat. It is clear that the judiciary has become free. But the supremacy of the National Assembly, Pakistan’s parliament, is yet to be established. The unanimous vote on the 18th amendment is an important step to prove it. The question that remains is: will people defend fragile democratic polity, which Pakistan has acquired, when it is challenged by a civilian dictator or a military chief?

India has one of the best constitutions in the world. Yet it lost the democratic system when Mrs. Indira Gandhi took to totalitarian ways and imposed the emergency. The apolitical military in the country rightly stood aloof to let the affairs of governance be settled by the people themselves. Indeed, they did when they put democracy back on the rails. They gave the Congress such a humiliating defeat at the polls that the party was wiped out in northern India. Candidates put up by the opposition won by a margin of lakhs. This was the people’s anger against the temerity to replace democracy with personal rule.

Pakistan should learn one thing more from India: how to restrain its National Assembly from becoming dictatorial and changing the basic structure of the constitution. The Supreme Court of India has held in the Keshavanand Bharti case that parliament cannot change the basic structure of the constitution. Democracy, secularism and the federal structure of the polity are considered three pillars of the constitution. Similarly, Pakistan can have democracy, the country’s Islamic character, the federal structure and pluralism as the basic structure of the constitution.

Yet, the sad experience, again at the hands of Mrs. Gandhi, cannot be rubbed off easily. She gagged the press and suspended the fundamental rights. The judiciary caved in. The Supreme Court upheld 4-1 the imposition of the emergency. This is something akin to the verdict of the Pakistan Supreme Court gave when it justified military coups by inventing an unconstitutional “doctrine of necessity.”

Therefore, there is no go from an awakened society. People and the media have to stay vigilant and uncompromising when it comes to the question of attack on democracy. They must resist prize or pressure and they have to tell the truth because they are the custodians of free expression.

Pakistan can probably teach a lesson to India by taking action against those who ousted the elected government of Nawaz Sharif and sat on the gaddi forcibly. India should have done so after the emergency by not only punishing the guilty politicians but also civil servants who became a willing toll of tyranny. The Shah Commission which pointed out the emergency excesses and proposed measures not to have the nightmare of authoritarianism again was denounced when Mrs. Gandhi returned to power. Had the perpetrators of the emergency been punished there would have been a lesson taught to the saboteurs of democracy. Unfortunately, some people who played a leading role during the emergency are members of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. Punishment to those who violate the constitution is the only way to ward off repetition.

In this context, the power given to president of the ruling party through the 18th amendment to remove the Prime Minister can lead to dictatorship of the party chief. The Prime Minister should be removed by parliament alone. The example of Mrs. Gandhi’s fight against the old timers in the Congress is still fresh in the nation’s mind. They removed her from the party but could not win because she enjoyed a majority in the house. The old timers came a cropper.

The point on which Pakistan’s 18th amendment has excelled India is on defection. In India, MPs do not have the freedom of conscience. They must obey the party whip or lose their membership. In Pakistan, a member of the Senate or the National Assembly can defy the party whip except on the finance bill or a motion of no-confidence.

Still such progressive measures are very few in the 18th amendment. They definitely fall short of what the Charter of Democracy pointed out “…the threats to its survival, the erosion of the federation’s unity, the military’s subordination of all state institutions, the marginalization of civil society, the mockery of the constitution and representative institutions, growing poverty, unemployment and inequality, brutalization of society, breakdown of rule of law and the unprecedented hardships facing our people under a military dictatorship, which has pushed our beloved country to the brink of a total disaster.”

There is no such categorical statement in the 18th amendment or even in the speeches made by the treasury benches. Both PPP and the Muslim League have to re-read the Charter of Democracy which had recommended 26 amendments to the constitution and 36 other measures. The 18th amendment remains only a half measure.


 
 
 
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