And its long shadow
The Muslim League is well over a century-old political party with several stints in government and opposition. It has had a turbulent political journey, the roots of which lie in its history before and immediately after the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
The League started as a movement to protect the rights of the Muslim minority against the Indian National Congress that was dominated by the Hindu majority. It had flaws from the beginning as it was not democratic in its make-up. Not all Muslims belonging to different socio-economic backgrounds could become its members. The first party constitution of 1907 stated that those Muslims who could pay an annual membership fee of Rs25 and earned a minimum amount of Rs500 per annum could become its members. The annual income limit of Rs500 was quite high because at that time the per capita income in India was just Rs42. So, either the rich landed aristocrats or the wealthy professionals could afford to join it.
Not only the poor and middle class Muslims could not join it, this party had no fair representation from all regions of the subcontinent because for many years its organisation was dominated by the Muslims from the United Provinces (UP): 21 of the 58 members of the Constitutional Committee and the secretary of the Party from 1906 to ’26 were UPites. The UPite clique realised that being in minority, the Muslims could never form government in UP so they started politics of national level to bargain their position and privileges in the UP. The Muslim majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal had to shake hands with the League to neutralise the threat to the provincial autonomy that was expected to come from the dominance of the Congress at the Centre.
On top of it, the League did not have a clear-cut programme except to oppose Congress and raise the slogan of Islam in danger to protect the vested privileges of the landed aristocracy. One of its top leaders himself admitted that as late as 1934 our party “was dominated by the titled landed gentry, nawabs, landlords; and Jee Huzoors who were generally well-meaning gentlemen but wanted to serve the Muslim cause only so far as it did not affect their position either socially or in government quarters.”
The problems compounded when this Party had to govern Pakistan after independence. As the ruling Party in the first Constituent Assembly of the country from 1947 to ’54, the League had the daunting task to work-out an acceptable power-sharing formula between the Centre and the provinces as well as between the geographical wings of the East and West Pakistan. It failed to produce the constitution that could satisfy the regional and democratic aspirations of all sections of the population because the Punjabi landlords to a great extent and the Sindhi landlords to a lesser extent “were not inclined to relinquish power and submit to a parliament which they could not control.” As a result of this Punjabi dominance not only 57 of the top-level 60 civil bureaucrats were from West Pakistan but by 1956 about 86pc of the central government expenditure on provinces also went to West Pakistan despite the fact that the majority of the population lived in the eastern wing.
Not only the League’s leaders had failed to resolve the power-sharing deadlock, they had also failed to govern the country ably. As the Party began to lose control over power and administration, it started blaming the civil bureaucracy as well as the military for hatching conspiracies against the political government. The Oxford scholar Maya Tudor in “The promise of power” refutes this charge by arguing that “There is little evidence of a bureaucracy or military eager to intervene to arrest democratic politics until well after Pakistan’s dominant political party [Muslim League] had amply failed to provide stable governance.” It was this failure on the part of the political leadership that precipitated the bureaucratic and military interventions. So weak had become the hold of the political leadership that it had to regularly request the military to ensure that its writ was effectively enforced. It was the central government that politicised the military by imposing the martial law in Lahore in 1953. Charles Withers, the First Secretary to the American Consulate in Lahore recounts: “I got the distinct impression from Ayub and from subsequent conversations with his senior officers who were in Lahore at the same time, that the Pakistan Army is definitely ready to take control should Civil Government break down, although they would be reluctant to do so.” Those who allege that the military was always “waiting in the wings” prior to the 1958 military take-over are either ignorant or deliberately ignore the facts that the 1958 coup was not initiated by a military officer; that the dismissals of the Constituent Assemblies in 1953 and ’54 were also not initiated by military officers and that the civil and political leaders begged the military to institute martial law in 1953 to quell the riots that were engineered by a Punjabi provincial minister to destabilise the central government.
Another assumption is that the politically powerful province of Punjab hosts a large number of serving and retired military personnel before and after partition and the argument put forward is that there has been “a deeply entrenched nexus between former military officers and smaller landlords” which impeded the creation of a stable or democratic regime but Maya Tudor rejects it with the assertion that had it been so then the state of Israel which has a high proportion of military personnel per capita would have experienced a high number of coups which is not the case.
Lastly, it is alleged that American support to the military regimes has resulted in the entrenchment of anti-democratic forces in Pakistan but Maya Tudor rejects this argument as well by counter-arguing that the Pak-US military alliances were formed between 1953 and ’55; however, by that time the civilian political leadership had already fully discredited itself and if the American support is to be factored in at all then it only strengthened the autocratic tendencies which existed well before the American interference in Pakistan but the Americans never created such tendencies.