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Post-Colonial Angst: What If Pakistan Had Not Become A Republic

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What would have happened if Pakistan continued as a dominion? No one can say for sure but it would not have been any less independent than it is today, argues Yasser Latif Hamdani


Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Nayadaur media’s editorial stance.


Anyone who goes to college in the US and studies something of the US Constitution and history, becomes staunchly pro-republic and anti-monarchy.  In my college days, I was thrilled to read about the exploits of the US founding fathers and their struggle against mad King George III. The age between 18-22 is usually formative and you get wedded to political ideas. It also coloured significantly my view of the British monarchy and I was thankful that at least I was born in a free country.

18 years later, as a Pakistani lawyer, who has seen Pakistan’s republican constitution in action at close quarters, I am not too sure I am quite as idealistic as I used to be. Even in the US context, the election of Donald Trump is to some extent a disillusioning experience.

Delving into Pakistan’s constitutional history, I find myself wondering what if Pakistan had not decided to become a republic on 23 March 1956.  A few days ago, unrelated to this, after hearing the Queen’s speech, I tweeted that it was exemplary and that Pakistanis can be proud of the fact that she was once our head of state (1952-1956) at the time when Pakistan was a dominion.

Immediately I was lampooned by all and sundry. The Islamists were upset that I was praising a time when Pakistan had a Christian head of state. A left leaning professor from Habib University in Karachi declared that I was a colonized super-Pakistani nationalist, the mental gymnastics of which I cannot quite fully conceive.  Others said that I should “have some self respect”.  One lady barrister called me ‘quite silly’.  This lady barrister interestingly was born and educated in Pakistan but went on to live and practise in London and become “Her Majesty’s Counsel Learned at Law” or the Queen’s Counsel- a fact that she proudly advertises on Twitter. It made me realise that perhaps it is important to consider the matter in its proper historical and constitutional context.

It is a fact that British exploited the subcontinent. But what was the nature of that exploitation? Thanks to Nadir Shah Durrani and Ahmad Shah Abdali – our Muslim saviours. Beyond the western frontiers of the subcontinent, Mughal Empire was weakened beyond redemption. The East India Company, a joint stock company from London and an exploitative mercantile power, used the opportunity to slowly but surely control all of India to an extent that the Mughal Emperor became a pensioner of the Company.

Siraj ud Daula, Shuja ud Daula, Mir Qasim, Tipu Sultan, Marhattas and the Sikhs all fell one by one.  For 94 years (from the Battle of Buxar 1764), the Company ruled vast territories in the subcontinent and looted it at will. The war of independence or the mutiny of 1857 as the British called it changed the situation significantly. Even though the Company won the war, its reign came to an end.

From 1858 onwards, the Crown took direct control of the subcontinent and Queen Victoria became the Empress of India- a new consolidated polity under British rule. The Governor General, formerly appointed by the Company, subject to some regulating acts of British parliament, now additionally became the Viceroy of India.

Fast forward 34 years later and the idea of gradual expansion of Indian self-rule started to take shape in form of several succeeding Indian Councils Acts, essentially the birth of constitutional law in the subcontinent. This culminated of course with the Government of India Act 1935 and Independence of India Act 1947 which created two Dominions – Pakistan and India.

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King George VI was the King of both India and Pakistan, which were independent in the sense that their constituent assemblies respectively were empowered to make all laws and to draft constitutions to change the status from a dominion to a republic. India became a republic in 1950 and Pakistan followed suit in 1956.  In 1952 King George VI passed away and was succeeded by the present Queen Elizabeth II who was also the constitutional head of state for Pakistan till 1956.

Pakistan’s founder, Jinnah, though westernised and anglicised, had been a trenchant critic of British rule since the time he joined Congress in 1904. At a later point the successive viceroys would even try to seduce him with knighthood, a post of governor and a High Court judge, but Jinnah refused. Unlike, Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Jinnah preferred to remain plain Mr. Jinnah.

At the time the main demand of Indian nationalists was self-rule in form of a Dominion. In 1930s both Congress and Muslim League, in that order, had adopted complete independence as their goal. One need not get into the politics of the 1940s but when Pakistan was about to be formed, Jinnah was very much considering a republic as Pakistan’s future form, even flirting with the idea of US-like presidential system. However, he concluded that there was no escape from parliamentary democracy.

Begum Shaista Ikramullah in her book Purdah to Parliament writes that he was working on a constitution based on French Republic in 1947. Others claim it was based on Canada’s federal system. Regardless, we will never know because the constitution never saw the light of day and no one knows where it is today.

On the other hand, we find references in the Constituent Assembly debates, which suggest that Jinnah had advised Liaquat Ali Khan to go slow on constitution making. Perhaps Jinnah had become fearful of the constitution that would be framed having had practical experience in dealing with several contending interests in the newly formed Pakistan.

In 1956, Pakistan did finally make and promulgate a constitution. Even though the Constitution made Pakistan the first Islamic Republic in world history, limited the office of the president to Muslims and paid some lip service to Islam, it was otherwise a secular constitution in so much as the executive head i.e. Prime Minister could be any citizen of Pakistan and there was no state religion. Oaths of office, even for the Muslim president, did not contain any religious references.

Nevertheless, in 1958 President Iskandar Mirza abrogated it and subsequently was dispatched by General Ayub Khan. We know the rest of our sordid history of military coups, populist politics and militaristic nationalism that took root here. Ultimately, we did get a more abiding constitution which is theocratic in nature.

The situation of minorities under the current Islamic Republic of Pakistan is dire. It may be pointed out that even our neighbour, with democratic continuity and a secular constitution, has slid down the pole of majoritarian tyranny. It had fared somewhat better so long as the more secular minded and westernized politicians of the Congress were in charge even though the root of populism had set in even under Indira Gandhi.  Modi has shown how even a secular republic can be overturned de facto through populism.

So why does one look back nostalgically to a time when Pakistan was a dominion and not a republic? It is not that one has any special love for monarchy or is caught up in some colonial fantasy. Far from it! It is the practical experience of not just Pakistan (which is a majoritarian theocratic nightmare) but the world at large.

READ  Jinnah Envisioned An Inclusive Pakistan, Equating Him With Hindu Extremists Is A Historical Fallacy

The countries that have been spared the curse of populism are constitutional monarchies like Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Netherlands. It is true that Brexit in UK was a strange aberration but one has to admit that Boris Johnson is hardly the kind of populist that we see in Trump, Putin, Modi, Duterte and Erdogan.

Walter Bagehot writing in 1860s divided the British constitution into two parts, the dignified and the efficient. Crown was the dignified part and the Cabinet and Parliament were the efficient part.  The role of the former is to impress and create reverence by maintaining a distance from the efficient.  This is why the Queen is reticent and distant.  It is a system that has worked. The elected Prime Minister, commanding the confidence of millions, nonetheless works in the name of the monarch. A monarch is not like the president of a parliamentary republic, dependent on the votes and essentially at the whim of a prime minister.

Permanence at the top allows both the elected (parliament and cabinet) and unelected (judiciary, armed forces etc.) to do their job and even though the latter are appointed by the former, they all work in the name of the Queen.  It is a system that has persevered despite republican sentiment.

So what would have happened if Pakistan continued as a dominion? No one can say for sure but it would not have been any less independent than it is today. No one can be certain one would wager the Royal Pakistan Army, placed within the Commonwealth milieu of armed forces, would never have mounted a coup.

There would have been no Kelsen’s Theory of Revolutionary Legality. There would be no Ayub, Yahya, Bhutto, Zia or Musharraf.  Most importantly, however, the minorities would have had an overarching protection of the crown through its representative the Governor General. The Dignified would have kept a check on the Efficient by sheer force of its presence.

Of course, the real issue with this proposition is why should we have had a foreign queen from a distant land in this position. This is a valid point. One must wonder though what makes Mughals, Turks and Afghans, who ruled the subcontinent before the British, become less foreign? It really was a question of legality and popular sanction.

If Pakistan had persisted with being a dominion, it would have been the decision of Pakistan’s constituent assembly. Let us disabuse ourselves of such petty notions. Queen Elizabeth in 1952 was not the East India Company and East India Company’s rule itself was no less legitimate or illegitimate than conquerors of the subcontinent since time immemorial. After 1947 we were free.

In any case, much water has passed under the bridge. All one is saying here is that Pakistan has suffered for the want of British monarchy. It is a sad realisation for someone who is by training and education staunchly pro-republic, as I am but then one lives and learns. Our record as a republic and our inability to protect the weakest and the most marginalised sections of our society would lead any reasonable person to this conclusion.

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