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Let’s live by the Constitution

WHOEVER thought of the splendid idea of celebrating Constitution Day did a good service to Pakistan. Such events, even in their ritualistic form, should remind rulers and citizens both of the means of maintaining order in institutions of governance and justice in the state’s relations with the individual.

The essential questions are: who should remember the Constitution? What is in the Constitution or what must be remembered most regarding it? And how can the Constitution be best remembered?

Remembering the Constitution, that is becoming familiar with its provisions, is obligatory for all those who, while taking their oaths of office, vow to perform their functions in accordance with the Constitution or to uphold it. They include the president, the governors, the prime minister, the chief ministers, the federal/provincial ministers, members of all legislatures, judges of the superior courts, members of the Election Commission, and all members of the armed forces.

The public impression is that the only people who remember the Constitution are the superior court judges, who have to deal with constitutional petitions, and parliamentarians who wish to challenge any decisions. All other dignitaries named in the Third Schedule of the Constitution apparently do not consider themselves bound to learn what the Constitution says.

This state of affairs is due to the people’s ignorance of the state’s basic law. Thus, celebration of the Constitution will have meaning if the people are made familiar with the core of the document, that is, the limits to the state’s authority and the inviolability of their rights. This process must obviously begin during children’s schooling.

It is necessary to ensure that the Constitution reflect the evolving concepts of basic freedoms.

There is no harm in learning from the army that has been inviting girls and boys to spend a day with the troops. This is all very well. Children, especially in the 14-18 age group, should know the soldiers and their work, but it may be equally important for them to know the basic facts about their state and the responsibilities of the various institutions and services.

For learning about the Constitution, it is necessary to remember that the people were denied their due and the seeds of the state’s disintegration (in 1971) were sown by the failure to adopt a just constitution for a decade. The people will suffer more and the state’s integrity will remain at risk if there is no fair constitution and we don’t live by it.

A few things about the 1973 Constitution are worth remembering. First, it was adopted while the horrors of 1971 were fresh in politicians’ minds and they were pragmatic enough to defer their demands for a proper federal set-up. These demands were only partly accepted in 2010, vide the 18th Amendment, another halfway house on the path to a genuine federation. Thus, full implementation of the 18th Amendment and the urgency of further devolution of authority to the federating units and from them to the local governments must not be forgotten.

Also worth remembering is Article 3 of the Constitution which distinguishes the 1973 Constitution from the previously adopted documents. This article obliges the state to eliminate all forms of exploitation and start following the principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work”.

This article must not be dismissed as socialist jargon, because the end of exploitation has become an essential ideal of any civilised state. A vast majority of Pakistan’s citizens do want deliverance from bonded labour, child labour, gender discrimination, denial of equality before the law on the basis of belief, ethnicity, domicile and social status, exploitation of religious sentiments, and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

But what is the constitutionalism that is being celebrated? Everybody has forgotten the principal slogan that inspired all movements for the establishment of democracy, namely, restoration of the basic law as it was adopted in 1973, that is, minus the distortions introduced during 1974-1988 and 1999-2008, except for amendments justifiable by universal democratic conventions.

Pakistan has already paid a huge price by making democratic governance and the rule of law subject to belief, custom and prejudice and the Constitution cannot help the people realise their aspirations until it is purged of such aberrations. Further, the practice of ceding democratic space to non-elected elements will not promote constitutionalism; it will only make the state weaker.

Then it is necessary to ensure that the Constitution reflect the evolving concepts of basic freedoms and rights and new patterns of responsible governance.

The question as to how a constitution can be remembered is hard to answer. Let us begin with educating the children, all of whom must now be attending educational institutions, in the essentials of constitutionalism, the choice of the democratic system, and the citizens’ responsibilities.

Nobody should ignore the fact that the Constitution has repeatedly been subverted with impunity. Judicial authorities assert they have made subversion of the Constitution impossible. It is difficult to accept this claim, for no barrier to protect the Constitution stronger than Article 6 has been raised.

The ultimate guarantee against disruption of the constitutional order lies in the people’s willingness and ability to defend it. That is not possible so long as power is vested in only a few hundred parliamentarians; once they are neutralised, there will be no one to defend what Ziaul Haq contemptuously described as a sheaf of papers that could easily be torn. The Constitution can only be defended by people who are organised, who enjoy a share in power and who are convinced that they own the state and its resources. In this struggle a dynamic, wide-awake civil society can play a key role and perhaps that is why unstable regimes are gunning for it the world over.

The creation of an active citizenry, conscious of its rights and having the will to fight for them, can best justify the Constitution Day ritual.

Rehman.I.A. Let’s live by the Constitution. Dawn, April 13, 2017.

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