Education, Development, and Change
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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Democracy, diversity, and devolution

Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Pakistan Today, 12 June, 2011
Diversity has always been considered a hazard by imperialist powers as they believed in the positional superiority of their culture. They would consider the colonised and marginalised groups as others who were undeveloped savages. They would like to civilise and develop them by conquering them This melting pot approach denies all kinds of diversities by refuting their legitimacy. Such a monolithic approach erodes individual liberty and identity and leads to a despotic environment.

Why is it important to recognise diversities in a society? It is tantamount to recognising different perspectives and viewpoints. A society may have social, ethnic, political, economic, linguistic, and educational diversities. In a hegemonic setup, these diversities are not only ignored but deliberately stigmatised and excluded from the main discourse. A true democratic system not only recognises diversities but also provides spaces to celebrate them. In Pakistan, we have seen prolonged spans of military rule where one person becomes the source of power and alternative perspectives are snubbed as they are considered to be potential threats to power concentrated in the centre.

To keep the power concentration in the centre, the centre strategically maligns the peripheral identities by dubbing them incompetent and unpatriotic. In Pakistan, we have witnessed this centrist mindset during many regimes. In all the martial law regimes in Pakistan, politicians were perceived by the dictators as corrupt and incompetent. The voices of dissent were suppressed by declaring them traitors and punishing them. One elected Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was deposed and hanged to death by Zia-ul-Haq on the pretext of a murder case which was no more than a judicial farce. Another, Nawaz Sharif, was deposed, handcuffed, and put in Attock fort in solitary confinement and was later sent into forced exile.

In Pakistan, dictators have exploited the notion of oneness: one religion, and one language. After independence, Bengalis demanded Bangla to be declared as a national language together with Urdu since it was spoken by a majority. Unfortunately, this legitimate demand was denied as it would not go with the ‘oneness’ theory. It was declared that Urdu would be the only national language of the country. Even though there were numerous examples of countries with multiple national languages but the myopic administration did not pay heed to them.

In Pakistan, a powerful centre has either ignored or undermined the role and rights of provinces. The legitimate voices from provinces, especially smaller provinces, were suppressed by using coercive means. A typical response to the popular demand of rights has been that the provinces do not have the financial capacity and human resources to carry out the responsibilities. This perception could have some element of truth but the question is that how can provinces build their capacity if they are not given a chance to run their own affairs.

How can diversity be valued? A clear answer to this question is a true democracy that believes in sharing power with all the stakeholders. Interestingly, in Pakistan, two military dictators announced local governments apparently showing that they were ready to dilute the power of the centre but their political intentions were highly questionable. Thus rhetoric of delegating powers to lower levels happened to be counterproductive in essence.

A serious effort in this regard came in the form of the 18th Amendment that completes the third angle of the triangle: democracy, diversity and devolution. As a result of the Amendment, a number of ministries are to be devolved to the provinces. These rights are coupled with responsibilities, mainly of a financial nature where provinces will have to generate fundings for development projects. This very important juncture came sixty four years after independence where all the major political parties unanimously passed the resolution.

The forces of change are always challenged by the forces of resistance. So is the case with the 18th Amendment where status quo forces are trying to dampen this historical initiative. A major political party has left the membership of implementation committee while PML(Q), which is not very enthusiastic about devolution, managed to get the membership of the commission. The deadline of 30th June, 2011 is fast approaching. A common observation is the lukewarm attitude of the federal government. Similarly provinces, with the exception of KP, are not very enthusiastic. This situation is raising an important concern. Are we going to lose this hard-earned opportunity of devolving powers to provinces? Hopefully, this won’t happen and the hard work of implantation commission will lead to the empowerment of provinces, the ideal way of celebrating diversity.

The writer is Professor & Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan. He can be reached at