Special report | Parliament in Chaos 1951-1958

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Enter the invisible oligarchy

By Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed


Khawaja Nazimuddin, the country’s second Governor General who also was the second Prime Minister, seated here in an impressive room of Ahsan Manzil, the ancestral home of his cousin, the Nawab of Dhaka, Khawaja Habibullah Bahadur, who stands on the left with wife Ayesha Begum. Behind the Nawab is Allene Talmey Plaut, associate editor and columnist for Vogue. On the extreme right is Begum Najma Nooruddin, the sister-in-law of Khawaja Nazimuddin. This photograph was taken by Irving Penn in 1947 and was first published in Vogue. At the time, Khawaja Nazimuddin, who had been the Premier of Bengal in British India, was the Chief Minister of East Bengal. — The Nawab of Dhaka Archives, Karachi
Khawaja Nazimuddin, the country’s second Governor General who also was the second Prime Minister, seated here in an impressive room of Ahsan Manzil, the ancestral home of his cousin, the Nawab of Dhaka, Khawaja Habibullah Bahadur, who stands on the left with wife Ayesha Begum. Behind the Nawab is Allene Talmey Plaut, associate editor and columnist for Vogue. On the extreme right is Begum Najma Nooruddin, the sister-in-law of Khawaja Nazimuddin. This photograph was taken by Irving Penn in 1947 and was first published in Vogue. At the time, Khawaja Nazimuddin, who had been the Premier of Bengal in British India, was the Chief Minister of East Bengal. — The Nawab of Dhaka Archives, Karachi

FACILITATED by the circumstances of partition and the laying down of the structures of governance under the Government of India Act 1935, which was adopted as the interim constitution, civil servants acquired a strong foothold in the new country. Here they positioned themselves to become the centre of the power structure. The development was further strengthened due to the Muslim League’s inherent weaknesses, and its failure to engage the vernacular sociopolitical elite, who had not joined the Pakistan movement yet had significant backing in their respective regions. So within a couple of years after independence, it was evident who would call the shots.

In 1951, with the appointment of the first native Pakistani as the commander-in-chief of the Army, the military top brass joined the power structure and a civil-military oligarchy positioned itself to decide the direction of the state and lay down the parameters of the political institutions. Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination paved the way for the type of political engineering that was now in the offing. In complete disregard of parliamentary practices, the cabinet was made to elevate the finance minister, Ghulam Mohammad, to the post of governor general. The incumbent, Khawaja Nazimuddin, was persuaded to step down and become the prime minister. Another bureaucrat, Chaudhri Mohammad Ali, became the new finance minister.

In the following years, several rounds of differences and tussles between the governors general and the prime ministers gradually unfurled the relative strength of the former office vis-à-vis the latter.

Governors General and Prime Ministers of Pakistan 1951-1958 — Illustration by Osamah Mahmood
Governors General and Prime Ministers of Pakistan 1951-1958 — Illustration by Osamah Mahmood

That the federal legislature, which till 1956 also served as the constituent assembly, remained a docile body only confirms the fact that the political dispensation was more of a parliamentary façade or pseudo-parliamentary arrangement that existed alongside a powerful extra-political decision-making state apparatus. Renowned social scientist Hamza Alavi aptly said that Pakistan in the first decade had two governments; one, the visible one that comprised the political class and the parliament with unstable political regimes, and the other the invisible government of the civil-military bureaucracy that had amassed all important powers in its hands.

The objectives of a national security state and a political economy of martial rule propelled Pakistan into the Western military alliances. Economically, it was made to become a part of peripheral capitalism, with the advanced capitalist countries, particularly the United States, as its centre.

The 15 months of Ghulam Mohammad-Nazimuddin uneasy cohabitation ended with the removal of the latter in April 1953. The pliable and unassertive prime minister was charged with the failure of law and order and an economic crisis caused due to food scarcity. The law and order situation had erupted in the wake of the anti-Ahmadi movement which became violent to the extent that martial law had to be imposed in Lahore. However, the prime minister had nothing to do with that as it was a provincial matter.

More astonishing was the later revelation by the court of inquiry that looked into the causes of a situation that had led to the imposition of martial law in the capital of the Punjab province. The court revealed that the anti-Ahmadi movement was masterminded and financed by none but the Punjab government itself, whose head Mumtaz Daultana thought that the resulting law and order crisis in the country would destabilise Nazimuddin’s government and pave the way for his own political ambitions to be realised. To his disappointment, the movement did not take off in other provinces, and his own province became its focus.

Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra as he donned a Native American head dress (top) and possibly a cowboy hat (bottom), during a lighter mood in Karachi. — The Dr Ghulam Nabi Kazi Archives, USA
Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra as he donned a Native American head dress (top) and possibly a cowboy hat (bottom), during a lighter mood in Karachi. — The Dr Ghulam Nabi Kazi Archives, USA

The power-holders attained a number of objectives by removing Nazimuddin. He was replaced as the premier by Mohammad Ali Bogra, hitherto Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. His Bengali ethnicity suggested that Nazimuddin was not removed because of being a Bengali. Bogra could also be useful in cajoling the US to befriend Pakistan, whose rulers were desperate to get Western approbation for themselves and their country. Bogra’s appointment followed the end of the US embargo on food aid to Pakistan, and he later succeeded in seeking a place for his country in the Western military pacts.

All the while, Bogra was also under pressure to take the process of constitution-making ahead. Six precious years had been lost while no breakthrough was in sight for resolving the East-West representation issue that had almost stalled the constitution-making exercise.

Eventually by the end of 1953, prime minister Bogra succeeded in finally devising a formula. Popularly known as the ‘Bogra Formula’, it suggested representation on the basis of population in the lower house and equal representation for five provinces in the upper house. Seats allocated to each province in the lower house were such that when it joined the upper house with equal seats for all provinces, the joint session of parliament could have equal representation for both the wings of the country. The difficult Gordian knot had been disentangled and the making of the constitution was now a matter of days.

Meanwhile, the Bengali legislators along with some of those coming from the smaller provinces in the western part of the country compelled Bogra to assert his and the Assembly’s position. The prime minister thus had a series of legislation passed reducing the powers of the governor general. The latter was now prohibited from appointing and dismissing a prime minister at will. Also, to form the government, he was to call upon a person who was a member of the assembly, and who could be removed only by a vote of no-confidence. This and other restrictions on the power of the Ghulam Mohammad apparently took the wind out of the governor general’s sails. Having done this, the prime minister left for the US. The governor general returned to Karachi and decided to outsmart the prime minister as well as the recalcitrant assembly.

A special plane was sent to London and when prime minister Bogra reached there after completing his visit to the US, he was forced to return to Pakistan rather than spending some time in the UK as planned. Commander-in-chief Ayub Khan and Iskander Mirza, former defence secretary and at that point of time the governor of East Bengal, accompanied the prime minister from London to Karachi. It was an escort of sorts — or perhaps a kidnap.

Upon reaching the governor general’s house, the PM was literally abused by Ghulam Mohammad, who forced Bogra’s removal and dissolved the federal assembly. Rubbing salt on the PM’s wounds, he was now asked to lead a new cabinet that was decided and made then and there in the room where the governor general lay in bed recuperating from an illness. The combination designated as ‘the Cabinet of all Talents’ comprised, among others, the sitting commander-in-chief who was also made the defence minister, Iskander Mirza, and Chaudhri Mohammad Ali.

The cabinet lost no time in devising the merger of all the provinces and states in the western wing of the country, thus creating the province of West Pakistan. This was done to neutralise the numerical majority of East Bengal. The engineering of the situation in this manner could enable the argument that since the country had now only two provinces, East and West Pakistan, they should therefore have equal representation. The term ‘parity’ thus entered Pakistan’s political lexicon.

Ghulam Mohammad’s decision of Oct 24, 1954, to dissolve the assembly was declared illegal by the Sindh High Court, which held that the governor general had the right to dissolve the legislative assembly under the interim constitution, but the assembly dissolved by him also served as the constituent assembly, whose dissolution was not within his competence. However, the historic decision was overruled by the federal court which observed that the constituent assembly, by not being able to furnish the constitution in seven years, had lost its legitimacy. Pakistan’s judiciary, therefore, derailed the country’s constitutional and democratic journey with this decision. Subsequently, the Federal Court and, later the Supreme Court, followed the tradition of un-seating the civilian regimes. But it all started in 1954.

In June 1955, a new assembly was elected through the electoral college of the provincial assemblies. By then, the provincial assembly in East Bengal had been re-elected, and in the provincial elections, held in early 1954, the United Front had defeated, rather routed, the Muslim League. This change was reflected in the elections to the new National Assembly in which the Muslim League lost its majority though it was still the single largest party. It formed the next government in coalition with the United Front. With the Bengali component of the Muslim League parliamentary party having shrunk, the Bengali prime minister, Mr Bogra, was replaced with Chaudhri Mohammad Ali.

Pakistan became a Republic on March 23, 1956 under Prime Minister Chaudhri Mohammad Ali (extreme left). Seen from right to left are Yusuf Haroon (secretary, Muslim League), I.I. Chundrigar (the law minister and future prime minister), Sher-e-Bengal A.K. Fazlul Huq (former interior minister and United Front leader who was instrumental in helping Prime Minister Chaudhri Mohammad Ali in steering the bill through the assembly) and the Speaker Abdul Wahab Khan. — The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad
Pakistan became a Republic on March 23, 1956 under Prime Minister Chaudhri Mohammad Ali (extreme left). Seen from right to left are Yusuf Haroon (secretary, Muslim League), I.I. Chundrigar (the law minister and future prime minister), Sher-e-Bengal A.K. Fazlul Huq (former interior minister and United Front leader who was instrumental in helping Prime Minister Chaudhri Mohammad Ali in steering the bill through the assembly) and the Speaker Abdul Wahab Khan. — The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad

The main achievement of Mohammad Ali’s government was the approval of the 1956 constitution which brought to an end the dominion status of Pakistan and made it a republic. Notwithstanding this achievement, the constitution was infested with numerous weaknesses. It was not drafted by any constitutional body; rather it was drafted by the staff of the law ministry and was later put before the constituent assembly. It was a compromise among different factions represented in the assembly but it was an unnatural compromise for it was made under unusual compulsions and duress. The most prominent was the adoption of parity between East and West Pakistan, on which the Bengali leadership’s compromise could not last long as the subsequent months proved.

Similarly, the constitution remained silent on the question of the form of representation — separate electorate or joint electorate. The parliamentary system itself was subdued by giving extraordinary powers to the president. This was done only because the last governor general, Iskander Mirza, had to become the first president after the adoption of the constitution.

Chaudhri Mohammad Ali lost his premiership when he was compelled to support president Mirza in creating the Republican Party, which had to be given the responsibility of governing the newly-formed province of West Pakistan. It was a pretty unusual situation where the prime minister who belonged to the Muslim League was supporting the Republican Party in the West Pakistan assembly where the League itself was serving as the opposition. This annoyed the newly-elected League president, Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, who asked the League ministers to resign from the federal cabinet thus pulling the carpet from under the prime minister’s feet.

A manipulator of the highest order, Mirza lost no time in asking Mohammad Ali to resign. Now Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy was invited to form the government. The Awami League leader managed to form a coalition, but within 13 months he was shown the door once he failed in keeping the coalition together. Mirza then looked towards Muslim League leader I.I. Chundrigar, who could survive less than two months, losing his office on the electorate issue. Then came Feroz Khan Noon of the Republican Party who managed a coalition with the Awami League that lasted 10 months until Mirza imposed martial law in collaboration with Gen Ayub Khan.

Mirza also abrogated the constitution. His motive behind this, as recorded in history, was to introduce a new constitution through which the existing system could have been removed and the presidential form of government introduced. But his collaborator had his own designs. Within 20 days, Ayub turned the tables on Mirza. Four of Ayub’s generals went to President House and forcibly acquired his resignation. Mirza was sent to Quetta and deported a week later to London where he lived the rest of his life in oblivion. Pakistan, at this point, entered the first phase of its long night of military rule.

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