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Democratic trajectory of Bahawalpur State

How the government of Pakistan introduced quick reforms to control the State of Bahawalpur after its accession

Democratic trajectory of Bahawalpur State

The trajectory of Bahawalpur State, which acceded to Pakistan in October 1947, was also quite interesting. Bahawalpur State was the most prominent state which had joined Pakistan. While Bahawalpur ranked below Kalat in the gun salute table under the British Indian Empire (17 as compared to 19 of Kalat), it was physically closer to the Indian heartland, was involved in the Chamber of Princes, and was economically more prosperous and viable. The main railway line from Lahore to Karachi also ran through Bahawalpur State and therefore the importance of the state was patent.

After accession, the government of Pakistan brought in a quick succession of reforms in the state. The aim, however, was not to fully democratise the state, but to bring it more fully under the control of the government of Pakistan. Therefore, when in 1948, Nawab Mushtaq Gurmani, the Prime Minister of Bahawalpur State, was about to move on a position in the central government of Pakistan, Karachi clearly impressed upon the ruler to accept the nomination of the government of Pakistan for prime minister. Col. A.S.B. Shah, the secretary of the newly created states ministry, visited the Nawab in December 1948 and persuaded him to accept Col. Dring, a member of the erstwhile Indian Civil Service and then the Chief Secretary to the Government of the NWFP, as prime minister.

Writing to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Col. Shah noted that he “reassured His Highness … and said that Col. Dring fulfilled all the qualifications His Highness had in mind and had the advantage of his name being sponsored by the Prime Minister of Pakistan.” With their man fully in the saddle, Karachi now contemplated some democratic reform, especially since there was a local Muslim League chapter in the state which was clamouring for power. However, it was clear that any democratic reform should only strengthen the control of the central government. Shah further noted: “We must get the people of Bahawalpur State behind the government of Pakistan without any further delay. The only way to do this is to get them a representative form of interim government. The Prime Minister should be allowed to work directly under the Government of Pakistan in matters relevant to defence, external affairs and communications, and all financial and executive powers should be concentrated in ministers nominated by the Pakistan government.”

The Government of Bahawalpur Act 1949 was the first step in the ushering in of democratic reform in the state. It crated a legislature, Majlis, of twenty-five members, with sixteen elected seats by local bodies, two ex-officio members, and seven persons nominated by the ruler. The Majlis had extremely limited powers. Neither the prime minister, and nor the ministers were responsible to it, and the prime minister could veto any law passed on the already limited ‘transferred subjects’. Only two ministers of the cabinet were to be members of the Majlis. The prime minister could also simply ignore the Majlis and promulgate laws he deemed fit, and the ruler held full powers to dissolve the Majlis at his pleasure.

Despite the limited nature of reform, the people and the Bahawalpur Muslim League (BML) under the leadership of Hasan Mahmud welcomed this measure. The Muslim League in the state was divided in factions till then, but the announcement and later carrying out of the Majlis elections brought about a reconciliation of sorts among them uniting them under Hasan Mahmud. As a result, the BML won 90 out of the 122 local bodies seats, which translated into fifteen out of the sixteen elected seats in the Majlis.

Within a year of the introduction of controlled democracy in the state agitation picked up for more reforms. The genie was now out of the bottle and the people now demanded full responsible government. The first demand was the replacement of the Pakistan government-appointed British civil servant Col. Dring with a local person. It was hoped that while an elected prime minister was not possible immediately, at least a local person should be appointed to the position. However, these protestations were unsuccessful and both the Nawab and the Pakistan government backed their appointee. But where the protests did manage to succeed was in the increase by five of the elected members of the Majlis, the addition of a further elected member as minister and the stipulation that the Sadr and Naib Sadr of the Majlis also be elected members.

The denial of full responsible government in Bahawalpur State kept its people in an agitated state and newspapers began to lead a campaign for reform. Daily Sutlej and Insaf carried scathing articles on the state of democracy in the state (and were promptly banned) and even Dawn, the semi-official newspaper of Pakistan ridiculed the state noting that “There are just three persons who rule over this state and their position is like the Holy Father, the Holy Son and the Holy Ghost.” The central government, therefore, finally gave in and introduced the Government of Bahawalpur (Interim Constitution) Act 1952, which introduced full responsible government in the state and also made the state a federated unit of Pakistan with the status of a province.

Under this act, there were to be a Majlis of 49 elected members — for the first time not indirectly, but directly elected by the people with universal adult franchise. The chief minister was also to be elected by and responsible to the Majlis with full executive powers. The ruler was to become a constitutional ruler with limited powers, and under the close gaze of a government of Pakistan appointed ‘advisor.’

Elections under the 1952 Act were carried out in May 1952 with active participation from the BML, the Jinnah Awami League and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Electioneering was strong and it was clear that Bahawalpur was now poised to achieve its full potential under a responsible government. The results saw a great victory for the BML which own 35 seats, with the Jinnah Awami League bagging 10 and the Jamaat-e-Islami and independents securing two each. As a result, the head of the BML, Hasan Mahmud, became the chief minister with three cabinet ministers. The people of Bahawalpur had finally snatched full responsible government from the jaws of an unwilling ruler and central government.

Read also: Glorious past of Swat State

Developments in Bahawalpur State between 1952 and 1955, when it was merged in the One Unit, show great strides by the elected government, which clearly exhibited the state as a viable and progressive unit of Pakistan.

To be continued.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

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