Case for a Secular Pakistan and The price paid by Pakistan for rejecting secularism

Posted on September 19, 2010 by


By I. A. Rehman
First published in The News on Sunday, August 29, 2010

Perhaps the greatest injustice done to the Quaid-e-Azam in the state founded under his leadership is that his August 11, 1947 address to the Constituent Assembly is treated as a charter of non-Muslim citizens’ rights only, whereas in reality it lays down the fundamentals of Pakistan’s ideal, its constitution and the path to the entire population’s goal of self-realisation. Most of Pakistan’s crises of governance have largely been caused by repudiation of the ideal defined by the Quaid.

Why did the Quaid’s colleagues and aides fail to appreciate the import of his words? Most probably, they could not get over two misunderstandings. First, they thought the Indian Muslims’ choice of their religious marker, out of the several cultural markers of their identity, as the decisive marker in order to escape non-Muslim domination, would survive the creation of a Muslim-majority Pakistan.

They did not heed the warnings that once Pakistan was achieved all other non-religious identities (linguistic, social and cultural) and politico-economic interests of the communities inhabiting the new state would be revived in force. They persuaded themselves to believe that the religious-cultural marker that had superseded the other markers during the freedom struggle would continue to be effective after independence too. The people were pushed into a barren controversy whether Pakistan was created in the name of Islam (the inappropriate controversy continues to this day) while the real issue was religion’s (any religion’s) proven incapacity to provide an unbreakable bond of unity in a multi-national state.

The second misunderstanding was the assumption, contrary to historical as well as theological evidence, that Islam had provided for a state model a Muslim people could disregard only at the cost of betraying their faith. This debate also remains unresolved to this day.

As soon as Pakistan came into being and the reference to the religious identity of its Muslim (majority) population became irrelevant, as confirmed by the Quaid on August 11, 1947, all other identities of the various communities (they could be called nationalities or nations even) comprising Pakistan started asserting themselves. The country’s leadership, which had been overwhelmed by the partition problems, chose to fall back on the religious marker that had served it well in the pre-partition days. This started happening in the Quaid’s lifetime and the process accelerated after his death.

The Quaid-i-Azam’s ideal of a secular sovereign Pakistan received a fatal blow when the Constituent Assembly adopted the Objectives Resolution. Whereas the Lahore Resolution of 1940 had called for states whose constituent units were to be ‘sovereign’, the Objectives Resolution compromised sovereign status of the state of Pakistan itself. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, the moving spirit behind the resolution, presumably thought otherwise – that the resolution did not affect the parliament’s sovereign rights. This view is supported by the fact that Pakistan’s first draft constitution (Basic Principles Committee’s report of 1950) presented by Liaquat Ali Khan himself was secular – the name of the state was simply ‘Pakistan’, no office (President included) was reserved for Muslims, there was no reference to any Islamic advisory body nor to the scrapping of laws contrary to the injunctions of Islam. This report was rejected partly because it did not meet the Bengali Pakistanis’ national aspirations and partly because the clerics did not find the draft Islamic enough. The Objectives Resolution had begun to be interpreted in a way different from Liaquat Ali Khan’s claim.

Speaking on the Objectives Resolution, a non-Muslim member of the Constituent Assembly had warned the majority party of the appearance of an adventurer who might claim to be ordained by God Almighty and enforce his will in Allah’s name. A mere 28 years later, this dark warning came true with the ascent to power of Gen. Ziaul Haq who changed Jinnah’s secular Pakistan into a religious state according to his own flawed view of Islam and statecraft both, though critical concessions to the orthodoxy had been made by several rulers during the intervening years.

Each constitutional proposal after 1950 marked a step away from secularism. General Ayub made a feeble attempt in 1962 to change the name of the state from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to the Republic of Pakistan but as a dictator he did not have the public support he needed for the success of his scheme. Besides, he had undermined his position by dropping the chapter on fundamental rights from his constitution of 1962. He was also guilty of offering the clerics monopoly over politics by banishing politicians and giving them, the mullahs, the only political stage that had survived the martial law (the mosque). Bhutto tried to pre-empt the clerics by adopting Islam as the state religion and throwing the Ahmadis out of the Islamic fold but even he did not surrender the parliament’s exclusive right to make laws.

This crucial step — robbing the parliament of its exclusive right to make laws — was taken by Gen. Ziaul Haq when he created the Shariat Courts that may have given a couple of good decisions but which are responsible for the blasphemy law, the bar on land reforms and the huge embarrassment caused by the cases on rajam and interest-related laws.

One unwelcome consequence of the efforts to Islamise Pakistan’s laws and practices was the rise of divisive forces. The authors of the 1956 constitution could not agree on the system of franchise and left the matter to the two provincial assemblies. East Pakistan opted for joint electorate while West Pakistan considered retention of separate electorates essential for the preservation of the state’s Islamic identity. A government notification in early 1958 enforced joint electorate throughout the country but the smouldering controversy gave Gen. Zia the handle he needed to bring back separate electorates in 1985, and the consequences are known.

This fresh division of Pakistanis on the basis of belief was inevitably followed by divisions in the Muslim community on the basis of sects. The majority sect claimed the right to impose its version of the Islamic state while another sect claimed this right on the strength of its material resources and its fire-power. The tussle has made Pakistan a battleground for a bloody and unending sectarian strife.

The misplaced reliance on the religious marker and the consequent rejection of the demands of secularism made many political issues intractable. The refusal to grant Bengali and the languages of other nationalities their due status, the move to adopt Arabic as one of the official languages, the formation of One Unit, the shift away from territorial nationalism and in favour of a religion-based nationalism, and the treatment of the military operations in East Bengal as a holy war for Islam – all these aberrations can be traced to the basic mistake of preferring a religious state to a secular one.

Among other things the Objectives Resolution gave rise to the concept of two sovereignties — a lower level sovereignty of the state and the ultimate sovereignty of God. There was never any doubt about the latter enjoying the power to supersede the former, and the only question was as to who would decide the matter in case of conflict between the writs of the two sovereigns. Till 1979 this was the job of the parliament. Gen. Zia replaced the parliament with the Shariat Courts. Many Muslim groups and individuals — militants, some businessmen and a majority of those who do not wish to respect the man-made laws — say they have a right to violate Pakistani laws because they claim to follow God’s injunctions. Thus, a suicide bomber considers it his religious duty to kill Muslims in mosques because in his eyes they are kafirs or worse (munafiqeen). Anyone can get away with any crime by claiming to be obeying Divine commands. A large number of Pakistanis (including Gen. Musharraf in 1999) saw nothing wrong with Taliban if they only wanted to establish the kingdom of God. Today, militants swearing by pristine Islam are recognised as the greatest threat to Pakistan’s integrity.

The theory of the religious state has also given rise to the dangerous idea of the country’s ideological frontiers. Unimaginably heavy is the price the people have had to pay for the rise of forces that have appropriated to themselves the right to defend the state’s ideological frontiers and the much maligned civilians, especially the pest known as politicians, can have no role in this holy task.

The question as to what might have happened if Pakistan had stayed on the secular path lies in the realm of conjecture and Muslims are told to avoid speculation. But one thing is clear — the quest for a theocratic dispensation is bound to cause Pakistan harm one is afraid to imagine. History records only one outcome when religion is used to resist an oppressed people’s nationalism. As a Dhaka editor told Ayub Khan in 1965, “the more of a religious polity you talk of, the smaller will become the size of Pakistan you will be left with”. His diagnosis was confirmed in 1971. Are we determined to go on proving him right?