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Battle for Pakistan’s soul

June 25, 2005

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A FASCINATING debate on Jinnah’s political beliefs has opened up on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. Triggered by L.K. Advani’s praise for the Quaid’s secular credentials, this assessment has been attacked by BJP hardliners in India as well as mullahs in Pakistan.

There is an irony here: religious extremists in both countries are on the same side of this debate. The militantly Hindu RSS has stridently rejected Jinnah’s secular stance, while our religious parties have always maintained that Pakistan’s founder had fought for, and won, an Islamic state.

For any objective student of recent Indian history, Jinnah’s secularism is not a subject for debate. Anybody reading his famous and oft-quoted speech to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, (“You are free; you are free to go to your temples... You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state...”) will conclude that this is as clear an enunciation of the secular ideal as found anywhere.

But despite the unambiguous message contained in this speech, there are many in Pakistan today who insist that Jinnah had always intended to create an Islamic state. The sophisticated among them quote from selected speeches made to justify a separate state for the Muslims, while the less educated simply ask: “If the Quaid did not want an Islamic state, why did he demand the partition of India?”

Indeed, this is a difficult argument to rebut. If he had wanted a secular Pakistan, what was wrong with Muslims and Hindus living together in a secular and united India? Nearly sixty years after the event, it is easy to forget that Jinnah had often spoken of ‘a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent’, and never an Islamic state. But this subtle difference is not easy to sell to the religious right.

The fact that Jinnah’s vision is still being debated on both sides of the border indicates that the question of the nature of the Pakistani state has not yet been settled. And while the religious parties have made significant gains since Zia’s dark period, pushing the national agenda far to the right, secular forces are still fighting a rearguard action.

In a recent talk show on a private TV channel, the subject under discussion was whether Jinnah was secular or not. During the show, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy raised an interesting point.

He said our mullahs were against secularism in Pakistan, but wanted secularism in India and the West. This is very true. In ideologically organized states, minorities would have few religious freedoms, just as they don’t in Pakistan. So while fundamentalist Muslims insist on asserting their religious identity in the West, they deny this right to the minorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

But why should Hindu extremists in India be so concerned about Jinnah’s secularism? Clearly, in their world view, partition only makes sense if the demand for Pakistan came from Islamic ideologues. The RSS has consistently branded Pakistan a fundamentalist state responsible for much of India’s woes. So if its founder is upheld to be a secularist by its BJP partner, L.K. Advani, this requires a major U-turn in Hindu nationalist thinking.

For their own reasons, the RSS’s Muslim counterparts in Pakistan require Jinnah to be one of theirs if they are to sell the concept of a pure and unalloyed Islamic state. After all, if they concede that Jinnah never wanted or visualized a theocracy, their demand to transform Pakistan into ‘a laboratory of Islam’ is severely compromised. So not only has Jinnah to be posthumously transformed into a pious, orthodox Muslim, he must also be projected as the founder of an Islamic state.

The reality of Jinnah was very different from the image religious elements have tried to create. Stanley Wolpert’s readable and well-researched biography paints a picture of a very human Jinnah whose faith was anything but orthodox. Indeed, Wolpert’s passing reference to Jinnah’s dietary preferences caused the book to be banned in Pakistan during Zia’s rule.

The fact that Jinnah remained on the fringes of Indian politics during the Khilafat movement in the 1920s clearly indicates that he did not wish to mix religion with politics. Nevertheless, being a shrewd politician, he actively sought the support of Deobandis and Barelvis alike in his quest for Muslim unity. In the 1937 elections, the Muslim League cultivated the pirs of Punjab and Sindh to use their influence with their millions of mureeds.

In this duality lies much of the confusion about Jinnah’s secularism. Before different audiences, he used different languages. Now, over five decades after his death, people with differing political agendas are able to find different texts to support their views. Like theologians poring over ancient religious texts to underpin their beliefs, modern-day fundamentalists and secularists clutch at Jinnah’s words to support their vision of Pakistan. But as in ancient scriptures, there is much ambiguity in Jinnah’s writings and speeches. Both sides can find texts to justify their respective views.

Perhaps one clear clue to the reality of Jinnah’s political views lies in the fact that before Pakistan became a reality, Muslim parties were almost unanimously opposed to partition.

Some of them adopted this stance because they genuinely thought (and they were not far wrong) that the creation of a Muslim state in the Muslim-majority areas would mean abandoning Muslims in Hindu-majority provinces. But most ulema opposed Jinnah because they saw him as a westernized, secular politician whose faith was not as rigid as theirs. Indeed, when asked whether he was a Shia or a Sunni, Jinnah is supposed to have replied: “I am neither Shia nor Sunni. I am a simple Musalman.” For zealots, a state created by such a person could only be secular.

It is unlikely that logic or scholarship will decide this debate. Both clearly indicate that Jinnah was one of the most secular politicians of his generation. Nevertheless, we are left with the undisputed fact that Pakistan was carved up in the name of religion, and it is now difficult to argue that the new state was never intended to be the hotbed of fanaticism it has become, whatever its founder’s real intentions.

Many younger readers might find this entire subject academic and irrelevant. But in reality, this ongoing debate is nothing short of a battle for the soul of Pakistan. Indeed, its outcome will determine what kind of country future generations will grow up in.