Different narratives of Pakistan

Published August 14, 2013
Documents relating to the Pakistan Movement. -Photo by White Star
Documents relating to the Pakistan Movement. -Photo by White Star

Politics is known for coining new slogans and creating visions of the future. This becomes more common near election time when different political leaders and parties offer new and catchy slogans for the betterment of the people. We often hear the narratives and slogans of “New Pakistan” and “Jinnah’s Pakistan” as the frameworks for articulating the present and the future of Pakistan. These are two visions of the nature and dynamics of the Pakistani state and society.

There are several competing visions of Pakistan. The advocates of different narratives of Pakistan are passionate about their vision and slogans and make a selective use of historical evidence to support their contention and reject the competing visions.

Why multiple narratives and slogans?

Sixty-six years after independence, Pakistan’s political and societal elite have not been able to develop an enduring consensus on the nature and direction of Pakistani state and society. Different slogans are raised to protect and advance each partisan societal narrative. There are several reasons for the proliferations of the visions of Pakistan and the attendant slogans.

The early demise of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in September1948 did not enable him to transfer his charisma to the institutions and processes of the new state of Pakistan. Had he lived longer to evolve a constitutional framework for Pakistan, we would have enjoyed greater legitimacy because of his blessings, establishing a grand narrative of the present and the future of Pakistan.

Quaid-i-Azam’s death created a serious crisis of leadership inside and outside the ruling Pakistan Muslim League. Liaquat Ali Khan, prime minister (August 1947-October 1951), offered a narrative of Pakistan in his speeches on the objectives of the resolutions in the first Constituent Assembly, 1949. But, competing narratives, especially by orthodox and fundamentalist Islamic leaders, contested the constitutional democratic and modernist Islamic perspective as advocated by Liaquat Ali Khan and others.

The delay in constitution-making and the lack of political continuity also adversely affected the efforts to create a broad-based understanding on the features of the state system and societal arrangements. The political governments changed frequently during 1951-58 which weakened the political forces. This made it possible for the military to step directly into the political domain and assume power in October 1958 and three other occasions.

The political order created by the military regimes in Pakistan reflected military ethos of control and management. It could not accommodate the pressures for political participation and socio-economic justice. Their efforts to create a selective consensus provided a temporary solution to the problems of national identity and the future of the state and society. This selective consensus unravelled when military rule came to an end for one reason or another.

Another reason for emergence of multiple narratives of Pakistan and the slogans associated with each narrative is the inability of the political leaders to evolve an acceptable framework for the relationship between the federal government and the provinces. They could not adequately address the issues of representation of the provinces in federal institutions, distribution of administrative and political powers and financial resources. The initial framework of federal-provincial relationship was based on monolithic nationalism to the exclusion of other ethnic, linguistic and regional identities.

This approach to federal-provincial relations caused much bitterness in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and smaller provinces and administrative units in Western Pakistan (the present-day Pakistan). The region-based political and societal elite challenged the hegemonic federal model and underlined the need of recognizing provincial rights and interests in the constitutional and political arrangements. The first major attempt to accommodate provincial concerns was made in the original 1973 Constitution which included many new institutional arrangements and procedures to upgrade the status and role of provinces.

Two major strides in 2009 and 2010 made unprecedented efforts to strengthen the position and role of provinces. In 2009, the criterion for allocation of resources from federal divisible revenue was changed in the 7th National Finance Commission Award from single criterion on population, to multiple bases for distribution of resources between the federal government and provinces. This decision accommodated the demands of the provinces with lesser population and more problems of under-development and poverty.

In 2010, the 18th Constitutional Amendment brought about drastic changes in the nature of the Pakistan federation by tilting the balance of power in favour of provinces. The concurrent list of subjects in the constitution has been done away with and about 20 departments have been shifted to provinces that now enjoy greater autonomy than was the case in the past. The formula for ownership of natural resources and sharing of electricity and gas profits is a step forward in creating participatory federation.

Selective use of history

While building the narrative for the future and inventing slogans, the political leaders and intellectuals make a selective use of history and often engage in re-writing history in order to justify their projected notions of the present and the future. They selectively pick up historical events and statements of the leaders for justifying what they want to achieve today.

The advocates of a loose federation or a confederation for Pakistan adopt a literalist approach towards the text of the Lahore Resolution and refuse to take into account the changes that took place in the demands of the All India Muslim League during 1940-47. Though this resolution did not provide any formula for distribution of state power in the proposed Pakistan state, many people insist on making the constitution of Pakistan on the basis of the text of the resolution. It is an example of selective use of history and rewriting it to meet the requirements of the present.

There is a common tendency to interpret Quaid-i-Azam’s statements according to the need of the speaker, and his statements and words are given new meanings in order to support one’s point of view in the contemporary political discourse. If Jinnah has used the word “Islam” or the “Quranic principles” or the “Sharia”, no effort is made to understand the context of his comments and what he actually meant, given his intellectual and legal orientations. Rather, the person invoking Jinnah, interprets his words or statements in a manner that strengthens his current political agenda.

Major narratives

We can identify various scenarios of the present and future of Pakistan in the statements of political leaders and writings of intellectuals and analysts. Some of the leading narratives over the years have been:

  1. The original grand narrative
  2. The regionalist scenario
  3. The Islamist vision
  4. The Jihadi Pakistan
  5. Islamic-sectarian Pakistan
  6. New Pakistan
  7. Jinnah’s Pakistan.

The original grand narrative of Pakistan was advocated by the Muslim League leadership and others associated with it in the first decade of independence. They acknowledged the relevance of Islam to nation and state building because they had advocated a new nationalism as alternate to the Congress-led, secular-one nation nationalism by invoking Islam as a mark of their national identity and an instrument of political mobilization. However, they wanted to make Pakistan a modern democratic state. This narrative assigned the highest priority to representative governance, constitutionalism, the rule of law and equal citizenship. Islamic history and traditional Islamic laws were viewed as one of the sources of law that was to be made by an elected assembly. They agreed that no Pakistani law should violate the basic teaching and principles of Islam but the religious leadership was not given the final word to decide if the legislation conformed to the teachings and principles of Islam. This matter could be decided by the superior judiciary or parliament itself. The original grand narrative placed the highest premium on monolithic and state-security dominated nationalism with the slogan of one religion, one Quran, one state, one nation and one national language.

The grand narrative of monolithic top-directed state system was questioned by political elite with strong roots in provinces. The first successful challenge to the political elite dominating the federal state came from East Bengal in the 1954 provincial elections. The ruling Muslim League, symbolizing the assertive and centralized federal system lost the election to an array of political parties that articulated the issue of provincial cultural-political identity, rights and interests. The most eloquent expression of provincial rights and interests was the formulation of the Six-Point Formula (1966) by the Awami League for redefining the federal-provincial relationship. This formula was updated before the 1970 elections by the Awami League and issued as the main election demand which received enthusiastic support of the people in East Bengal. In western Pakistan the opposition to the integrated province of West Pakistan, established in October 1955, increased with time. The integrated province of West Pakistan was dissolved and four provinces were revived in July 1, 1970.

The third narrative of the present and future of Pakistan and its attendant slogans were evolved by conservative and orthodox Islamic circles, especially Islamic parties and groups that wanted to assign a central role to Islamic teachings and principles in governance and societal affairs. The Islamic clergy and their staunch followers viewed all affairs of the state and an individual’s life as the function of and subordinate to Islam as articulated by them. They wanted to reshape Pakistan’s political order that gave them an in-built advantage in the name of Islam. The Islamic elite diverged among them on the details of the Islamic political system pertaining to the incorporation of modern democratic norms, the electoral process, scope of law making by an elected legislature, a strict enforcement of the sharia laws and who was to decide the Islamic nature of the state and its laws.

The military government of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) adopted Islamic conservatism and orthodoxy as the official creed of Pakistan and used the state apparatus and the reward system to enforce religious orthodoxy and conservatism in the state system and the society to the satisfaction of conservative religious clergy.

A new dimension was added to the Islamic narrative when General Zia-ul-Haq’s military government joined with the United States and conservative Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, to create Afgan-Islamic armed resistance movement against the Soviet troops that entered Afghanistan in the last week of December 1979.

Pakistan partly pulled back its support to militant and Jihadi radical Islamic groups after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. However, these groups continued to function because Pakistan’s state authorities had not totally abandoned them. Further, these Jihadi organizations developed strong societal roots in Pakistan.

The slogan of “New Pakistan” was floated primarily by Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) in connection with the May 2013, general elections. The PTI election manifesto described the new Pakistan as being inspired by the views of Allama Iqbal and Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and stood for “justice, peace and prosperity” for all people. The manifesto makes the “catch-all” promises for improvement in the affairs of the state and society and a better and prosperous future for all. This is simply an election slogan and combines ideas from the original grand narrative, the Islamist vision with inclination towards the notion of Jihadi Pakistan.

The notion of “Jinnah’s Pakistan” overlaps with the original grand narrative. The major focus is on the political discourse of Quaid-i-Azam and the resolutions of the Muslim League in the pre-independence period. Both projected the establishment of Pakistan as a homeland for the Muslims of British India in order to protect and advance their socio-cultural identity, rights and interests.

Neither Jinnah nor the Muslim League resolutions in the pre-independence period argued that a separate state was needed because Islam was in danger in British India or Islam would be obliterated in united independent India. Jinnah talked of the concern and anxieties of the Muslims. He advocated worldly political, social and economic demands of the Muslims in his famous “Fourteen Points”, his discourse on constitutional issues after his return to India in 1934 and the speeches made at the Lahore session of the Muslim League (March 1940). Subsequently he focused on protection and advancement of the political future of the Muslims of British India.

Pakistan’s salvation lies in implementing Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan in letter and spirit. There is a need to go beyond slogans and adopt definite measures to improve the quality of life for the common people. Other visions and narratives of Pakistan will lose their attraction only if Pakistan is genuinely transformed on the basis of the principles enunciated by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The writer holds PhD degree from the University of Pennsylvania and is Professor Emeritus, Political Science, Punjab University, Lahore. He is a recipient of the Presidential Award Sitara-i-Imtiaz.



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