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Old Friday, June 14, 2013
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Default Our ‘historical’ obsession

Our ‘historical’ obsession
By Hussain H Zaidi

Pakistan seems to have become fertile ground for creating history. In March this year, for the first time in the country’s history, popularly elected national and provincial legislatures completed their constitutional tenures without any attempt by extra-political forces to disrupt the democratic process. Then in May historic elections were held, registering a record voter turnout, with an independent Election Commission on the watch and a neutral caretaker setup at the helm. Earlier this month, the nation saw the first ever smooth transfer of power from one civilian government to another.

Nawaz Sharif made history by becoming the first Pakistani to hold the office of prime minister for the third time. Qaim Ali Shah and Shahbaz Sharif also made history when they were sworn in as chief ministers of Sindh and Punjab respectively, each for the third time. The latest addition to these history makers is President Asif Zardari, who earned the honour of addressing the joint session of parliament six times. All the preceding instances of history-making are widely being seen as a sign that democracy is beginning to take root in the country.

Of course, history-making is not new to the nation. To many, the birth of Pakistan itself was a matter of the deepest historical significance in that it marked the creation of the first Muslim state on an ideological basis in modern history. Yes at the time of the creation of Pakistan several other Muslim states were on the map of the world. Yet, the argument goes, none of them could claim to be an ideological entity. Only Pakistan was meant to be a fortress of Islam. We all know where the attempts to make this country a fortress of Islam have landed us. But that is a separate story.

The birth of Pakistan was attended by immense communal violence, one of the worst in history, claiming tens of thousands of lives. Who was responsible for that? The British? The Hindus? The Muslims? The Congress? The Muslim League? History is yet to provide a definitive answer.

The march of history continued and so did its making. It took the country nine long years to draw up its own constitution (in 1956); neighbouring India accomplished the feat in just three years. Some three years prior to that, Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad had made history by dismissing Prime Minister Nazimuddin, who was still commanding a majority in the legislature. Nazimuddin’s sacking was immensely significant for the subsequent political history in that it violated the basic convention of the parliamentary form of government that a ministry can be changed either by a vote in parliament or by defeat in elections. A precedent was set, which turned out to be fatal, that the prime minister can be shown the door by the head of the state.

Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad was so fond of making history that one year later – in 1954 – he sacked the first Constituent Assembly for daring to clip his wings. As in the case of the dismissal of the PM, this step also set a dangerous precedent. The Chief Court of Sindh created history by declaring the governor-general’s proclamation null and void but the Federal Court also made history by setting aside the chief court’s order.

The next major instance of history-making came about in 1958 when President Iskander Mirza abrogated the 1956 constitution, whose product he himself was, clamped the first countrywide martial law and asked the army chief Ayub Khan to take over the reins of power as the country’s first chief martial law administrator. In the history of a nation, few events can be more unfortunate than the abrogation or subversion of the fundamental law of the land.

The abrogation of the 1956 constitution may be seen as the culmination of a process that had started with the dismissal of the prime minister in 1953. Within a fortnight, General Ayub Khan made history by forcing the president to step down and becoming the nation’s undisputed master. Not to be left behind, the apex court with Justice Munir at its head, created history by putting its stamp on the promulgation of the martial law, and invoking the infamous doctrine of necessity. The doctrine was destined to shape the ensuing political history of the country.

Ayub Khan also made history by becoming Pakistan’s longest serving ruler. In 1969, he added another page to the book of history when, faced with tremendous public pressure, he stepped aside and handed over power to another general thus setting the stage for tearing apart the very constitution of which he himself was the architect.

The nation also created history by not going to the polls till 23 years after its creation. The worst, however, was yet to be. The outcome of the 1970 elections was not accepted and instead a military operation was started to crush the agitation in the country’s eastern wing, leading to the dismemberment of the country in 1971.

Bhutto made history in 1973 by becoming the country’s first popularly elected prime minister. He also had the dubious distinction of being the country’s first, and to date only, civilian chief martial law administrator. And then the elected representatives created history by drawing up the 1973 Constitution – with consensus. The ZAB government sought to establish civilian supremacy and people hoped that democracy would take root in the country. However, history had something different in store for the nation.

General Ziaul Haq made history by booting out the country’s first popularly elected dispensation and subsequently having ZAB hanged. The Supreme Court again invoked the doctrine of necessity to validate the subversion of the basic law of the land. In 1988, a few months before his death, Zia replaced Ayub as Pakistan’s longest serving ruler and thus made yet another contribution to history.

In 1988, Benazir Bhutto made history when she became the first woman prime minister, not only of the country but in the entire Muslim world. She was unfortunately shown the door in just two years. Her rival Nawaz Sharif added his own page to history when he decided in 1998 that the country should go nuclear – making Pakistan the first Muslim nuclear power. Before he could contribute more to history, Sharif was dismissed by the armed forces. Again, the apex court validated the coup.

General Pervez Musharraf’s most distinctive contribution to history was his subversion of the same constitution twice (1999 and 2007). The second subversion is singular in that the army chief, while issuing the proclamation of emergency, let the elected institutions function. The Supreme Court, however, in complete break with the past, declared the imposition of the emergency null and void, an ‘offence’ for which the judges were sacked and put under house arrest.

Thus during last 65 years several pages of history have been written and re-written in Pakistan. The question is: what has been the overall impact of this making and remaking of history? Is the nation psychologically more stable, socially more secure, politically more mature and economically better off today than it was, say, three decades ago? The answers entail a strong value judgement and are better left to the reader.

The author is a freelance contributor. Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com
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