Punjab in Pakistan’s Politics


A review of The Role of Punjab in Pakistan’s Politics: 1947-88, by Lubna Kanwal

Lubna Kanwal’s dissertation examines the relationship between the centre and the states in post-colonial South Asia by focusing on Punjab’s role in Pakistan’s politics from 1947 to 1988. Scholarship on the region has emphasized that Punjab dominated the political fabric of Pakistan and excluded other provinces and autonomous regions from economic resources and equal power-sharing arrangements. Contrary to this opinion, Kanwal argues that Punjab never achieved “a share in power mechanism proportionally compatible with its contribution, demographically, culturally, or economically (p. 259).” Instead, the elite social groups in Punjab and the Urdu-speaking Muhajir (migrant) community secured the maximum benefits and shaped the country’s policies to their advantage. Kanwal elaborates this argument through an in-depth study of the constitutional provisions in Pakistan that allowed the centre to dominate the provinces. She also analyzes the role played by various ethnicities in administrative bodies – the legislature, the bureaucracy, and the military. A wide variety of sources, including official documents, assembly debates, government reports, political memoirs, and interviews with local politicians, form an important part of Kanwal’s dissertation.

The first chapter examines how the pre-existing colonial political structures shaped Punjab’s relationship with the centre in the newly created state of Pakistan. The primary focus is on the Government of India Act, 1935, which became the basis of Pakistan’s constitutional structure. During the colonial era, the act covered two main areas – provincial and federal. The provinces were empowered to deal with local issues while the British kept sufficient emergency and reserved powers to dismiss the ministries and bring the provincial administration under the direct sway of the British governor and his civil servants, if necessary. The top brass of the bureaucracy was British, while the Punjabi landed elite, who were loyal to the crown, received jobs in lower levels of administration. The domination of the centre over the provinces made the provincial government in Punjab aware that the way to secure maximum benefits was to adopt a pro-British stance and avoid any conflict with the colonial state. Kanwal emphasizes that Punjab had no place of “prominence in the constitutional structure of British India;” its importance stemmed from its contribution to the British Indian army and the agrarian economy. The privileged groups, the landed elites and the military recruits, collaborated with the British bureaucracy to protect their economic interests. In the post-colonial era, the Punjabi elites wanted to retain their privileged position in the federal structure of Pakistan.

The second chapter elaborates on how the province of Punjab struggled to maximize its political and bureaucratic role from 1947 to 1955. In the post-colonial era, Punjab’s privileged position was under threat from two fronts: the muhajirs, who had migrated from the Muslim-minority provinces of India at the time of partition and now dominated the central government, and Bengalis from East Pakistan, who were a majority, representing 55.4 percent of the total population. Fearful that Bengal could mold the country’s policies to its advantage on basis of sheer majority, Punjab refused to accept population-based representation in the legislature. Even the principle of parity suggested by the Basic Principle Committee in 1953 was rejected by Punjab, as they believed the smaller units of West Pakistan could align with East Pakistan to increase their political influence. Instead, Punjab pushed for the merger of all federal units of West Pakistan into “One Unit.” Kanwal argues that although the One Unit plan was created to ensure Punjab’s political interest, in reality it put them at a disadvantage. Punjab lost its demographic share in political representation, while already playing a minimum role in the central bureaucracy, which was mostly dominated by the muhajir community. As such, it failed to influence central policy decisions, thus hampering Punjab’s political and economic development.

The focus of the third chapter shifts to Punjab’s role in the One Unit scheme from 1955 to 1970. The crux of the chapter is that because Punjab was unable to influence policy decisions at the centre, it asserted its presence through the institution of the army, where Punjab had a considerable majority. After the new constitution of 1956 once again allowed the muhajir-dominated centre to curb provisional autonomy, the Punjabi military elite supported the imposition of martial rule in Pakistan under President Ayub. Contrary to the popular perception, Kanwal argues, the imposition of martial rule did not lead to Punjab playing an active political role in framing state policies. This step only provided the president of Pakistan with extra-constitutional powers, making the provinces, including Punjab, subject to his will. Furthermore, Kanwal emphasizes that the Punjabis, even with a numerical majority in the army, could not shape the nation’s policies. The military’s quota system, based on regional representation, allowed Muhajirs and Pukhtuns to dominate the higher military ranks and play a primary role in the military’s decision making. As such, the issues that mattered to Punjab, like adequate share in water resources, economic development, and the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, remained unresolved.

The separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan in 1971, which allowed Punjab to emerge as a majority province with the largest share in food grains and gross domestic product (GDP), is the main theme of the fourth chapter. In this phase, Punjab sought a hegemonic role in setting up a new constitution and a democratic government based on adult franchise. Kanwal argues that although Punjab had maximum representation in the national assembly, it still failed to secure its interest. This was largely due to the Interim Constitution of 1973, which granted extra-constitutional powers to the president to suspend the fundamental rights of the citizens without the approval of the National Assembly. This limited Punjab’s autonomy. Furthermore, the centre played up internal political rivalries to make Punjab politically ineffective and to create loyalists within the bureaucracy and military who toed the centre’s line.

The last chapter focuses on military rule in Pakistan under General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988). Kanwal emphasizes that in this phase the Punjabi military personnel, bureaucratic elites, and commercial groups collaborated with Zia’s administration, looking to protect their personal interests at the cost of Punjab’s political and economic interests. This not only widened the gulf between Punjab and other provinces but also alienated the masses.

Kanwal’s work takes a nuanced approach to analyzing Punjab’s role in Pakistan’s politics. It shatters the popular perception of Punjabi dominance and highlights the class and ethnic differences within Pakistan that prevented Punjab from gaining any special privileges. Her work sheds new light on the complex relationship between the centre and the states in post-colonial South Asia that has provoked regional dissidence and conflicts in the region.

Shahla Hussain
Department of History
Rider University

Primary Sources
Constituent Assembly of Pakistan Debates
Provincial Assembly of Punjab Debates
Government Reports, Pakistan
Newspapers: Pakistan Times, Dawn
National Documentation Centre, Islamabad

Dissertation Information:
Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, 2014. pp.287. Advisors: Dr. Massarrat Abid and Dr. Azra Asghar Ali.

Image: map created by dissertation author

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