1956 Constitution of Pakistan: Features & Causes of Failure

Shahid H. Raja
7 min readOct 5, 2022

Pakistan became an independent nation-state on August 14, 1947, because of the dissolution of the British Indian Empire and its partition into two independent sovereign countries. Its founding fathers adopted the 1935 Indian Constitution with slight modifications as an interim constitution to run the new state. At the same time, the National Assembly, which also worked as the Constituent Assembly, started work on framing a new constitution.

However, the lack of experience of the elected people in statecraft, the enormity of the task at hand, and most of all, finding an amicable resolution of the thorny issues such as the role of Islam in the new state, the distribution of powers between the institutions, and the quantum of provincial autonomy resulted in a considerable delay in its framing.

After assuming charge as Prime Minister, Chaudhary Muhammad Ali worked hard to formulate a constitution, for which a special committee was constituted. The committee presented the draft Bill to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on January 9, 1956.

The bill was opposed by the firebrand Bengali leader Maulana Bhashani, the leader of the Awami League in East Pakistan, for providing inadequate autonomy for the Eastern wing. He even used the threat of secession to press for greater autonomy, and his party staged a walkout from the Assembly on February 29, when the Assembly adopted the Constitution. Later on, the Awami League boycotted the official ceremonies celebrating the inauguration of the Constitution.

However, despite their opposition, the Constitution was adopted and enforced on March 23, 1956. With this, Pakistan’s status as a dominion ended, and the country was declared the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Constituent Assembly became the interim National Assembly, and Governor-General Iskander Mirza was sworn in as the first President of Pakistan.

Features of the 1956 Constitution

Modelled on its predecessor, namely the 1935 Indian Constitution, it was a lengthy written document consisting of 234 articles, 13 parts, and 6 schedules containing not only the fundamental principles of the Constitution but also the administrative details. It also included The Objective Resolution, an agreement approved earlier to provide guidelines for the framing of the constitution, as the non-binding preamble.

The Constitution of 1956 was a fairly flexible document, as the method for its amendment was not difficult. Its main provisions were as follows:

1. Islam as the State Religion

Declaring the country the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it made Islam the state religion, forbidding the promulgation of any law against any injunction of Islam. The Objectives Resolution and Quaid’s declaration that Pakistan would be a democratic state based on Islamic principles of social justice were made in the preamble of the Constitution. It was made mandatory that only a Muslim could become president of the country. Good relations with Muslim countries became the main objective of foreign policy. Steps were to be taken to enable the Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives according to the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah and to implement Islamic moral standards.

2. Principle of Parity

The principle of parity was accommodated in the Constitution. West Pakistan was treated as one unit, and seats were divided equally between the two wings of the country. The National Assembly was to meet at least twice a year. A minimum of one session should be held in Dhaka.

3. Federal Structure of State

Defining the boundaries of the country, it adopted federation as the basic structure of the state, with a unicameral legislature. There were three lists for the sharing of powers between the centre and the federating units: the Federal list, the Provincial list, and the Concurrent list. The federal legislation was to take precedence over provincial legislation regarding the concurrent list. In the event of a conflict between the federal and provincial governments, or between the provincial governments, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was to act as a mediator.

4. Two National Languages

Urdu and Bengali were declared the state languages. However, for the first twenty years, English was to continue as an official language. After ten years, the president was to appoint a commission to make recommendations for the replacement of English.

5. Parliamentary Form of Government

Regarding the form of government, it adopted the parliamentary form of democracy, whereby the President would be the head of the state while the Prime Minister was to head the government. The president could appoint, from among the MNAs, a prime minister who had to take the vote of confidence from the house in two months. The prime minister had to inform the president about all the cabinet decisions.

6. Principles of Policy

The Constitution laid down certain Directive Principles of State Policy for the guidance of the Government. Serving as the ideals that the state should strive to achieve, these included, among others, the fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary. The Supreme Court of Pakistan was granted the right to interpret the Constitution in case of any ambiguity.

7. Uni-cameral Legislature

The Constitution established a Unicameral Legislature known as the National Assembly. It was to consist of 300 members. The age limit for a candidate for a seat in the National Assembly was 25 years. Members of the Assembly were to be elected based on Direct Elections conducted based on Adult Franchise. However, for the first ten years, five additional seats were reserved for women in each wing. Every citizen, who was more than 21 years of age was considered an adult.

8. Provincial Structure

The provincial structure was similar to that of the centre. There were 300 members in both provincial assemblies. Ten additional seats were reserved for women. Punjab was given 40% of the seats in the West Pakistan Assembly. Ten additional seats were reserved for women. Punjab was given 40% of the seats in the West Pakistan Assembly.

The constitution was never practically implemented, as no elections were held. It was eventually abrogated on October 7, 1958, when Martial Law was enforced.

Causes of Failure

There were three sets of causes for its failure: structural, managerial, and external

1. Structural Issues/Design Flaws

It was a hybrid constitution trying to satisfy too many stakeholders simultaneously, resulting in its failure to satisfy any of them completely. It was neither a parliamentary form of government in which the prime minister is responsible and accountable nor a presidential one wherein the president can be held accountable. After the enforcement of the Constitution of 1956, the role of the President remained very authoritative. His undue interference with political parties and ministers kept Pakistan away from constitutional development, and consequently, the parliamentary system under this constitution failed.

Similarly, it was a hybrid state concerning the form of the state; it was neither a federation nor a unitary country. Clubbing together all the provinces/regions in the western wing to form One Unit as a counterpoise to the majority province of East Bengal, it deprived the latter of its legitimate right to strike compromises with other provinces within a federal Pakistan. Consequently, it became a straight fight between the two wings for supremacy and resource distribution. The last straw on the back of the camel was the abolition of the upper house, the hallmark of a federation. The constitution of 1956 introduced a unicameral legislature, depriving provinces of a truly federal forum to sort out their differences

2. Managerial Issues and Inadequacies

Besides the above-mentioned structural defects of the design, it was the management failure of the political leadership of the time that played the most important part in its failure. The civilian government in Pakistan from 1947 to 1958 was pitifully incompetent, inexperienced in any sort of governance, and woefully lacking in stature. Although they were veterans of the Pakistan movement, none of them rose above their people and left the province. They could not understand the basic rules of politics, namely accommodation and compromise, and instead fought tooth and nail for their petty interests. As a result, President Iskander Mirza abrogated the 1956 Constitution and imposed martial law on the country in 1958. Three weeks later, General Ayub Khan deposed and exiled him and took over the administration of the country. As a natural fallout, the 1956 Constitution remained abrogated and was finally replaced with the 1962 Constitution.

3. External Environment

There were external factors that also played a part in its failure, particularly the overdevelopment of one institution, namely the armed forces. They were ably assisted by the civilian bureaucracy and the judiciary; the feudal and industrial elites also sided with them. Consequently, it was a losing battle the political elite had to fight; the odds were too much against them.

There was a lack of political training in the country. Many political parties were formed without any political goal. They fight against one another to gain power. So, under these circumstances, the development of a parliamentary system under this constitution failed. Every political party tried to gain power, but no one was interested in elections. So, under these circumstances, elections were delayed, and such a delay caused the failure of the parliamentary system under the first constitution of Pakistan in 1956.

Conclusion

To conclude, it can be stated that the constitutional history of Pakistan reveals that there has been political conflict between the head of state and the head of government, and such political conflict has often led the country to political anarchy. And the constitutions of Pakistan have either been abrogated or suspended in such political anarchy. As far as the 1956 constitution was concerned, it consisted of some positive characteristics, but such political anarchy caused not only its abrogation but also the failure of its parliamentary system. The 1956 Constitution didn’t fail. It was made irrelevant because there was no one to implement it.

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