This article discusses the reasons for the failure of the 1956 constitution of Pakistan and the imposition of Martial law in 1958.
At the time of independence, Pakistan adopted the Government of India Act 1935 with some modifications as its interim constitution. The new state of Pakistan promulgated its first constitution on 23rd March 1956 after nine years of its independence. Contrary to Pakistan, India promulgated its constitution in 1950, within three years of its independence.
The 1956 constitution remained in action only for two years as then-president of the country, Iskandar Mirza, abrogated the constitution and imposed Martial Law in 1958.
The reasons for the promulgation of Martial in 1958
Following were the reasons that led to the failure of the 1956 constitution and the 1958 Coup d’etat in Pakistan.
1. Disproportionate use of presidential powers
The 1956 constitution gave the president the power to appoint the Prime Minister from the national assembly. The president could also dismiss the executive (Prime Minister and his cabinet) and the national assembly.
This meant that the national assembly had no powers to elect the prime minister. As the executive head, the Prime Minister could remain in office only as long as he enjoyed the confidence of the president.
Being placed at the mercy of the president, the assembly assumed a status not more than a rubber stamp. Using his powers, the president could send a government home at any time. There was no constitutional guarantee or mechanism to check any unreasonable act of the president.
This is what exactly happened. President, Iskandar Mirza using his powers started to sideline the elected prime ministers who attempted to utilize their authority. He dismissed five prime ministers in a time period of 2 years causing political turmoil and uncertainty in the country.
2. The opposition of One Unit Formula
The 1956 constitution provided the One-Unit Formula, initially given by Ch. Muhammad Ali’s government in 1954. According to this formula, the four provinces of West Pakistan (Punjab, Sindh, NWFP, and Balochistan) were amalgamated into a single unit.
West Pakistani politicians resented One-Unit Formula. Protests within and outside assembly against one unit formula created a chaotic and disturbing situation in the country. This further deepened the already existing political instability and law and order situations in West Pakistan.
3. Controversy over parity of Representation at the center
The 1956 constitution provided parity of representation at the center. That is the number of representatives from both wings in the central assembly would be equal.
East Pakistani politicians in the assembly criticized this formula of representation. They felt that they would be underrepresented in the center despite being numerically a majority. They formed 56% of the total population of Pakistan. Thus they demanded a representation at the center proportional to their population.
On the contrary, the West Pakistani politicians did not want to see a dominant Bengali representation in the center. Consequently, they emphasized the parity of representation. When the 1956 constitution got promulgated on March 23, 1956, East Pakistan-based political parties reacted with anger and frequent protests.
4. Loss of public trust in President and System
Misuse and abuse of power by the president had caused a loss of public trust in him and the system. By 1958, the popularity of the president had reached the lowest ebb. The president saw himself out of power in the coming general elections in 1858 as per the law laid out in the new constitution.
Iskandar Mirza did not want to lose power and was ready to take any step to make sure that he was in the power. Hence, he dismissed the government, dissolved the national assembly, and placed the country under its first Martial law on October 7, 1958.
The above reasons not only led to the abrogation of the constitution. They also resulted in the imposition of the first law in the country. The 1958 martial law became a precedent for future dismissal of elected governments by military coups.