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REVIEW: What it means to be Muslim League

Reviewed by Humair Ishtiaq

EVEN for a diehard Muslim Leaguer, it would be quite a task to come up with the exact number of factions that the party has thrown up over the years. Politicians have used it for their self-driven, self-centred interests, while the dictators have abused it for their own vested interests. Beyond doubt the League is one of the most easily sellable brands in Pakistani politics.

S.M. Zafar, in his memoirs of his nine years in the Senate, says Mumtaz Daultana was probably the first person to use the term ‘political brand’ for the Muslim League. During a private conversation with Zafar, he even suggested that it would have been better for national politics had the words ‘Muslim League’ been declared national heritage immediately after independence to stop people from exploiting the sentiments attached with the nomenclature. “It is because of this historical weightage that the League will continue to have breakaway factions because people have to sell their wares under some garb,” he had said back then.

While still on the subject, Zafar recalls — though in a footnote — an incident narrated to him by Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan’s private secretary. The Nawabzada had been a Leaguer before forming his own party. In December 1986 a delegation of assorted Leaguers came to the Nawabzada and requested him to head a joint Muslim League as his was the only name on which consensus could be achieved.

“The problem with the League is that it has too many leaders and too few political workers,” the Nawabzada told the delegation before quoting a Seraiki proverb according to which the most difficult task in the world is to keep five kilograms of live frogs on a weighing scale. He hit the last nail in the coffin by saying that he would give the frogs a chance, but keeping Muslim League leadership united was even trickier. Ironically, Zafar, a lawyer by profession, has himself been a longstanding Leaguer having worked closely with Pir Pagara, Nawaz Sharif and Chaudhry Shujaat. His stint as a senator came during his association with the Q-League.

While filling out the application for senatorship, Zafar paused at a question that asked the applicant if he had ever left the Muslim League and if so, why. Zafar, who had done a stint with Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi’s NPP, was a bit disturbed by the ‘why’ part of the question. It was explained to him that perhaps the party wanted to ensure that the decision to quit was not based on ideological differences. The party preferred people “with a League mindset,” he was told. This led the lawyer to wonder what a League mindset is. The answer he got was interesting even for Zafar who had once been the secretary-general of the Pagara-led faction.

The answer had two parts. Firstly, a Leaguer would always consider Muhammad Ali Jinnah to be the supreme leader; and, secondly, would hold the PPP and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto responsible for the 1971 dismemberment of the country.

Since Zafar wanted to finish the form, he quickly moved on, keeping the lawyer in him under check. However, his mind went back to a discussion on the same subject he once had with Daultana and the Nawabzada during Ziaul Haq’s rule. The main points enumerated by Zafar in the book are, again, quite interesting, to say the least. For instance, complete adherence to Jinnah’s ideals about Pakistan is demanded without touching on the many ways in which the famed August 11 speech has been contested, twisted and re-interpreted by the Leaguers.

Even more preposterous, it is mandatory for Leaguers to oppose and reject all kinds of dictatorships and to have firm belief in parliamentary democracy. Who needs a reminder that from Bhutto (and he was once a Leaguer as well) under Ayub to Nawaz under Zia, many owe their political existence to military patrons? And finally, a Leaguer worth his salt must never mentally accept the partition of Pakistan and should do everything possible to revert to the pre-1971 position. While we criticise the Indian mindset of not coming to terms with the events of 1947, we seem to find nothing wrong with adopting the same approach towards 1971. Wishful thinking surely knows no bounds. In contemporary times, the support the Q-League needed in parliament was manufactured by carving out a ‘Patriot’ group from within the PPP and it had no impact on the League conscience. To his credit, Zafar has been blunt about such happenings without being blatant.

Perhaps, his is not a true League mindset. The book — heavy, voluminous tome that it is — provides a glimpse of how things work behind the scenes. But it is just a peek and no more. The period it covers — from 2003 to 2012 — had a lot going on — the Legal Framework Order, tussle with the judiciary, Aafia Siddiqui, A.Q. Khan, Akbar Bugti, Osama bin Laden, to name but a few — but Zafar’s account has more words than substance.

In many cases he had a ring-side view. Being a senior constitutional lawyer, he was consulted on many occasions, but Zafar, the lawyer that he is, has chosen to be more discreet than a politician might have been. But if he wanted to take that route, he could have easily done it in half as many words. Based on diary notes, news clippings and historical references, the book drags. With over 800 pages covering a nine-year period, it doesn’t help the reader in sustaining interest, which is a pity.

The last few conclusions that Zafar draws also sound a bit too optimistic. It is as if the League mindset suddenly got the better of him. For instance, he sees in the Pakistan Army “a new wave of nationalism and national identity” instead of “jihad in the name of Allah”. It is not too hard to recall that even ‘jihad’ was conducted out of the same sense of nationalism. Seemingly, Zafar has purposely shied away from the argument that Pakistan tilted to the right basically because it suited American interests of the time, and has been going the other way since 9/11 as it suits current American interests.

And, finally, he sees something like an Arab Spring emerging “inevitably in Pakistan either before or after the elections”. On what grounds he sees this happening is something that Zafar has not touched upon. Moreover, this assertion is a contradiction of what he himself theorised elsewhere in the book, arguing with the help of historical data that Pakistan — indeed, the subcontinent at large — is not suited to revolutions: “From the Khilafat Movement to Pakistan Movement, we can change gradually through movements, but not through revolutions … this is not our culture,” he says in a footnote early on in the book. But some 780 pages later, he sees an Arab Spring around the corner. That is one disadvantage of writing unnecessarily lengthy tomes.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer


Senator S.M. Zafar Ki Kahani, Un Ki Apni Zabani


By S.M. Zafar

Sagar Publishers, Lahore