- Monday, May 21, 2018

As unrest among Pakistan’s ethnic minorities over the dominance of the majority province, Punjab, grows every day, the question of Pakistan’s constitutional makeup and power-sharing is once again coming under intense debate. Given the demographic imbalance and sharp ethnic differences that exist among the country’s four provinces, Pakistan badly needs a constitutional solution that can satisfy all ethnic and religious segments of society.

However, Pakistan’s Punjabi elites, who control Pakistan’s powerful military and the federal bureaucracy, have failed to even initiate a serious, academic and meaningful debate on this issue. With rapidly growing unrest, and even the feelings of separatism, in Karachi, Balochistan, KPK, Gilgit-Baltistan, Quetta and the northern parts of the country, and renewed calls from some quarters to declare Pakistan a “state sponsoring terrorism,” it is essential to find a constitutional solution that could provide a sense of belonging to all of Pakistan’s ethnic and religious.

I firmly believe in the notion that democracy and the principle of representation go hand in hand. Neither can function without the other. True representation is only possible under a genuine system of democracy — and the stability of democracy is dependent on how content a country’s ethnic and religious minorities are with their representation in power.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the British failed to assess the level of resentment among their subjects in North America over the issues of unjust taxation and their inability to challenge arbitrary British decisions. The British paid the price by losing their imperial control over North America.

The Founding Fathers of a newly liberated United States of America, on the other hand, were quick to learn from the mistakes of their former colonial masters and realized the importance of the principle of just representation. Those who undertook the task to draft the first U.S. Constitution went to great lengths to resolve issues relating to its framework and every state’s representation in the federal and state legislature.



Given the vast disparity between various states’ population size in the 1780s, it was not easy to find a solution that could equally satisfy all the states over the issue of their representation in the proposed federal legislature. The states with bigger populations wanted larger representation, causing fear among the smaller states of being perpetually subjugated — similar to the situation that Pakistan has been in since its inception. The American situation was dire and could have easily resulted in the disintegration of the newly established federation.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution, however, resolved the brewing crisis through a series of compromises that afforded constitutional safeguards to all states, large and small, and ensured their due rights.

The American constitutional experience is a classic example of how democracy is not necessarily, as often presumed, the rule of majority. Majoritarianism may be a good rule to follow in homogeneous societies where an overwhelming majority shares a common ethnic, linguistic and religious background, but it is impractical and fraught with dangers in countries like Pakistan that have many ethnic groups competing for rights and power.

Pakistan’s problems may be acute, but the country is certainly not alone in this. In recent decades, a number of countries with diverse populations — Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Lebanon, South Africa and Cyprus, to name a few — have faced the challenge of reconciling the wishes of majority groups with the ambitions of minorities. But unlike Pakistan, these countries have not allowed this problem to obstruct the nation-building process and instead have developed various forms of power-sharing. The most common system of governance employed by such countries is what Arend Lijphart, a Dutch-born American scholar, calls “consociational” democracy — or to use the less polysyllabic synonym described by Modern British History Professor Ian Talbot, power-sharing.

The fundamental argument for consociationalism is grounded in the assumption that democracy and majority rule may be incompatible under certain circumstances. The theory does not challenge prevailing democratic principles and instead focuses on societies where the population is divided along various lines. It argues that the seemingly innocuous application of majority rule in such conditions could lead to disastrous results — mainly due to the presence of influential minority groups who refuse to yield to majority rule. This is the case with Pakistan, in which a highly educated, industrialized and secular ethnic group known as Mohajirs, is being subjected to subjugation by the majority Punjabis.

The theory itself is fairly simple, and Arend Lijphart defines it in terms of four basic characteristics:

• Joint decision-making by a grand coalition government that represents all significant segments of an ethnically or religiously divided society;

• A high degree of decentralization and autonomy for the constituent communities;

• A rough proportionality in political representation and civil service appointments; and

• A mutual veto concerning the most vital and fundamental issues. The veto can be a formal rule and even be enshrined in the nation’s constitution, but it is usually the outgrowth of the unwritten rule that most decisions, and certainly the most important ones, require not only the participation of the representatives of all groups but also their consent.

A critical analysis of the above clearly suggests that the whole theory of consociationalism is characterized by a series of checks and balances — as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — that remove the possibility of one group of population or one branch of government dominating the rest. By devolving power to the regional level, for instance, the system gives all groups sufficient autonomy to run their own affairs.

Similarly, by granting the power of veto in decision-making to all segments, the system effectively prevents any single group from imposing arbitrary decisions over others. This, in turn, effectively allays the minorities’ fear of living under perpetual majority domination. By incorporating proportional representation, consociational democracy ensures full demographic representation of all segments of society in the decision-making of the country.

Interestingly, this power-sharing system is not entirely new to Punjab, the region from where Pakistan’s military establishment comes from. In fact, it may come as a surprise to many that it was the Muslim political elite in pre-partition Punjab that was instrumental in introducing the power-sharing system that Arend Lijphart has recently interpreted as a classical form of consociational democracy.

In British Punjab, the just over 50 percent Muslim population, according to the majoritarian principle of democracy, had every right to form a provincial government on its own. However, the roughly 18 percent Sikhs and 30 percent Hindus were no less influential in Punjab. Thus, any government without these minorities’ representation would have led to disaster in the province.

Sir Fazl-i-Husain, arguably the most influential Muslim politician in the colonial setup until his death in 1936, was the first one to realize the peculiar religious makeup of Punjab and the perils of majority rule in the province. His brainchild, the Unionist Party of Punjab, may be criticized for its pro-British leanings; yet it would be an academic dishonesty not to credit the party for its amazing understanding of Punjab’s peculiar communal makeup and its attempts to establish an all-representative government rather than insisting on the Muslim majority’s right to rule.

In the mid-1940s, however, the Muslim League’s politics of “Muslim nationalism” brought an end to the Unionists’ consociationalism. When the League swept the 1946 elections and emerged as the single largest party in pre-partition Punjab, it was in a position, according to majoritarian rule, to demand the right to form its government in the province. But the problem was that the Muslim League, despite being the majority party, drew its support solely from Muslim electorates and was seen by non-Muslims as the representative of Muslim interests only.

The British, deeming majority rule inimical to such a religiously polarized region, denied the League the right to rule. Anyone interested in an analogy can recall the political stalemate of 1971 when the Awami League, the single largest party in Pakistan after the 1971 election, was denied the right to form the central government on the grounds that it lacked the mandate of the non-Bengalis. The ensuing crises were similar: Punjab was partitioned in 1947, and East Pakistan broke away in 1971.

The point to stress here is that majoritarianism is not the only form of democracy available, nor is its application viable in all circumstances. It may be best suited to homogeneous countries but certainly lacks the ability to serve pluralistic societies.

Pakistani lawmakers and politicians — and its Punjabi-dominated powerful military, in particular — must admit that Pakistan is not a homogeneous country. They have to be mindful of the fact that Pakistan is inhabited by people who have been ethnically and culturally distinguished from each other for many, many centuries. The creation of Bangladesh was not the first example to reveal how deep such divisions run, nor are the ongoing Mohajir, Baloch, and Pashtoon uprisings likely to be the last.

Pakistan’s religious minorities — Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, Shiites, Agha Khanis- Bohris, etc. — fare no better in Pakistan. Hundreds of members belonging to these religious minorities have been killed in deadly attacks in recent years that were carried out by religious extremist groups, which, according to credible reports, enjoy the support from Pakistan’s “deep state.” They should also be considered stakeholders in the country’s decision-making at the national level and be considered equal citizens of Pakistan.

Religion and Pakistani nationalism may serve as a unifying force during external aggression and internal calamities, but in normal circumstances, the apprehensions and fears of the minorities will continue to hamper the country’s efforts to achieve national unity and political stability. All previous attempts by Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated military establishment and media to inculcate political or national unity through artificial means have only complicated the issue. Continuing with such measures is only likely to aggravate the current predicament. What Pakistan now needs is a complete redesigning of its current internal geographical units, along with a new constitutional framework that could afford permanent legal safeguards to all ethnic and religious groups. Every citizen of Pakistan should be allowed to hold any important office, irrespective of ethnicity, religion sect or gender.

As is the case with almost all other theories, consociationalism has been subjected to some degree of criticism. But nothing has dampened its strength, as it still remains the only system that offers an effective, and democratic, way out of majoritarianism — the main source of restlessness among the Pakistan’s ethnic minorities. Pakistan’s political elite and scholars could explore the theory further and refine it as per Pakistan’s peculiar needs, but it is now established without a doubt that the current system will not be able to get Pakistan out of its current predicament. Consociationalism under the circumstances seems to be best way to make Pakistan a viable state.

• Author Nadeem Nusrat is chairman of The Voice of Karachi and South Asia Minority Alliance Foundation, Washington, D.C.-based advocacy groups that represent Pakistan and other South Asian countries’ ethnic and religious minorities.

• Author Nadeem Nusrat is chairman of The Voice of Karachi and South Asia Minority Alliance Foundation, Washington, D.C.-based advocacy groups that represent Pakistan and other South Asian countries’ ethnic and religious minorities.

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