Constitution-Making in Pakistan during the 1950s: Causes of Delay
Constitution-making in Pakistan has unfortunately a chequered history. After gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan adopted the 1935 Indian Constitution with slight modifications as an interim constitution and started earnestly to frame a consensus document to serve as its permanent constitution. However, due to peculiar circumstances, the complexity of the issues involved, and the incompetency of the political elite, it took them more than seven years to accomplish the task.
This essay is an attempt to discuss this issue in detail and pinpoint the reasons for the extraordinary time taken to frame the Constitution during the 1950s.
After its independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan adopted the 1935 Indian Constitution with slight modifications as an interim constitution. Known as the Pakistan (Provisional Constitutional) Order 1947, it established the federation of Pakistan, comprising East Bengal, West Punjab, Sindh, the NWFP, Baluchistan, and any other area that might accede to Pakistan. This Interim Constitution provided for a strong central government, a governor-general with non-renewable powers, and very limited representation.
At the same time, the National Assembly, which also worked as the Constituent Assembly, started working on framing a new constitution. Its subcommittee, the Basic Principles Committee (BPC), submitted the Objectives Resolution, which contained guidelines for framing the Constitution. The Objectives Resolution, reflecting the views of the strong religious groups in the country, was approved by the Constituent Assembly on March 12, 1948. However, afterwards, it was an uphill task to frame the Constitution, which got derailed off and on for one reason or another for the next seven years.
The Committee, headed by Liaquat Ali Khan, submitted its first report on September 28, 1950, which was not approved mainly because it gave equal representation to both wings, although the East wing had more population than the West and Urdu was the state language. After his assassination on October 16, 1951, the Second draft was presented on December 22, 1952, by Khawaja Nazim ud Din. It proposed bicameral legislation, for the lower and upper houses to have equal representation (upper house, 60 each, and lower house, 200 each). This also came under criticism because of the equal seats for both wings and Urdu as the state language.
The third draft was presented on October 5, 1953, by Muhammad Ali Bogra. Known as the Bogra Formula, it compromised on disparity and proposed bicameral legislation with a lower house of 300 seats elected on a population basis (East Bengal 165, remaining 4 units of West Pakistan 135). It also proposed an Upper house of 52 seats, 10 each for each of the five constituent units, and 2 reserved for women.
However, two political developments changed the whole complexion of the political landscape, and consequently, the framing of the Constitution took a back seat.
- First, the Muslim League was completely routed by a hotchpotch coalition of political parties in the provincial elections held in the East Wing in March 1954. The new government was dismissed soon after the assumption of power in East Pakistan
- Second, the National Assembly passed a bill in September 1954 that made the Governor General (GG) act on the advice of the PM. It was also made mandatory for GG to appoint a Prime Minister who is not only a member of the assembly but also enjoys the confidence of the majority.
Seeing the erosion of his authority, Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad dissolved the Assembly on October 24, 1954. The Supreme Court, headed by Justice Muhammad Munir, upheld the decision under the law of necessity.
After abolishing the provinces in the West wing and converting them into One Unit, new Elections were held on June 21, 1955, to elect 40 members each from both wings. The newly-elected Prime Minister Chaudhry Muhammad Ali took on the task of constitution-making and constituted a special committee for this purpose. The committee presented the draft Bill to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on January 9, 1956.
The bill was opposed by Bengali leaders. Maulana Bhashani, the leader of the Awami League in East Pakistan, even threatened secession to press for autonomy. Later, his party staged a walkout from the Assembly on February 29, when the Assembly adopted the Constitution, and boycotted the official ceremonies celebrating the inauguration of the Constitution.
However, despite their opposition, the Constitution, mainly based on the Government of India Act 1935, was enforced on March 23, 1956. It was unicameral legislation to be elected based on parity between the two provinces. 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.
Reasons for Delay
Based on the above, we can identify the following six major reasons for the delay in constitution-making in Pakistan:
A. Nature of Pakistan's State
The country, which came into existence as an independent nation-state of Pakistan on August 14, 1947, as a result of the dissolution of the British Indian Empire, was a peculiar state in the sense that it was divided into two wings, each separated by 1000 miles of enemy territory. One wing had more population, a better literacy rate, and more experience in constitutional matters but was economically underdeveloped and underrepresented in the security and governance apparatus due to colonial imperatives. On the other hand, the Western wing was bigger in area, better developed, and had a better share in the armed forces and the bureaucracy—the two institutions that play a larger-than-life role in most post-colonial states. It was this disparity between population and power that created difficulties in reaching a consensus on almost every issue in making a Constitution.
B. Complexity of Issues
While it was a Herculean task to create consensus on any issue, the number and complexity of the issues involved made it even harder to do so. A few of these issues were
- Form of State: While the political elite of West Pakistan was in favour of a Unitary form of state with a unicameral legislature, those from the Eastern wing wanted it to be a Federal form of state with a bi-cameral chamber and maximum provincial autonomy
- Form of Government: Same as above, west-wing politicians pushed for a Presidential form of government, while those belonging to the eastern wing wanted the government to be a Westminster-style Parliamentary democracy.
- Representation Formula: East Pakistan, being a populous wing, wanted more seats in the lower chamber based on population, while the Western politicians wanted some sort of parity between the seats to be allocated to both wings. This and the language issue were the two most contentious ones.
- Role of Religion: It was not a big issue to declare Islam as a state religion but there were heated discussions on the nature of Islam and the specifics, which divided the whole nation
- Language Issue: Along with the representation formula, it was the most contentious issue with several dimensions. Urdu as the sole official language of the federation as well as the provinces vs Urdu for the centre and provincial languages in the provinces on the one hand, while Urdu and Bengali as the state languages on the other
Besides the above-mentioned most important issues, others also created a lot of bad blood among the stakeholders, such as fundamental human rights, particularly those of minorities, the status of states acceding to Pakistan, economic system (Capitalism Vs Socialism), relations with neighbours and the World, etc
C. Condition of Statecraft
While India inherited a fully functioning government, it was a different ballgame for Pakistan. Everything had to be started from scratch, as a mass exodus of administrative talent, financial capital, and entrepreneurship meant there were very few people who could run government offices, social services, financial institutions, and commercial enterprises. Communal riots in the wake of independence resulted in the arrival of more than one million traumatized refugees, but they were full of expectations from a country that was still reeling from the pangs of birth, adding to the miseries of the state.
Add the existential threat it was facing from its arch-rival India, and you have a perfect picture of the enormity and complexity of the challenges needing an urgent response. Confronted with these challenges of state-building, nation-building, territorial integrity, etc., constitution-making did not get the importance and urgency it deserved, keeping in view the fact that the new nation-state was comfortable with the Government of India Act 1935 in modified form
D. Weak Political Culture
The demise of the founder of Pakistan, M. A. Jinnah, on September 11, 1948, and the subsequent assassination of the first Prime Minister of the country, Liaquat Ali Khan, on October 16, 1951, created a huge vacuum that derailed the democratic process, and the facade of Parliamentary democracy started eroding. Unfortunately, their successors, who were no doubt men of integrity, lacked enough political maturity and experience in statecraft to steer the country in the right direction and failed the nation.
E. Failure of Muslim League
In almost all the post-colonial states, the party leading the freedom struggle provided leadership in the post-colonial turbulent period; Unfortunately, in the case of Pakistan, the Muslim League, which had successfully launched a freedom struggle within a constitutional framework and using legal means, was unsuccessful in leading the nation towards constitutional democracy. It failed to transform itself from an independence movement into a political party. It lost its credential as a Democratic party when it held not a single annual convention nine years after independence. Infighting within PML, along with widespread public perception regarding corruption within its ranks and file, eroded its credentials as a political party capable of leading the nation.
F. Ascendency of Non-political Forces
In the wake of the weakening political culture, the country rapidly became dependent upon civil and military bureaucratic support, which created space for civil and military interventions. The Office of the Governor-General became instrumental in creating hurdles for the democratic process. Governor’s Rule was imposed in provinces, dismissing the elected Chief Ministers even though they were enjoying the majority in their respective houses. Consequently, the all-important function of the framing of a constitution got a back seat
The 1956 Constitution was never practically implemented, as no elections were held. It didn’t fail, just became irrelevant because there was no one to implement it. It was eventually abrogated after about two years on October 7, 1958, when assemblies were dissolved and Martial Law was declared by President Iskander Mirza. Thus, all the efforts made to draft a consensus document were futile, cutting the very roots of the country as a united nation-state.
The 1956 Constitution, however flawed it might be, was a written agreement endorsed by the majority of the elected representatives who had taken part in the freedom struggle of the country, for their resolve to live together. Its abrogation nullified all the efforts made by the political elite of both wings to do so, cutting the very roots of the country as a united nation-state.
From the book “Pakistan Affairs: 25 Essays”, published by Amazon and available at
Pakistan Affairs: 25 Essays
Pakistan Affairs: 25 Essays" is a comprehensive exploration of around two dozen key political, social, and economic…
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