Ahmadiyya question: Setting Niazi free

Published November 16, 2014
April 1972, Maulana Kauser Niazi with Bhutto. — Courtesy photo
April 1972, Maulana Kauser Niazi with Bhutto. — Courtesy photo

Former Minister of Religious Affairs in the Z.A. Bhutto government (1971-77), Kausar Niazi, has been mistreated by history.

Many local historians have charged him for influencing some of the Bhutto government's many controversial policies, especially the one that supposedly 'resolved the long standing Ahmadiyya question'.

Though a number of former members of Bhutto's PPP have squarely blamed Niazi of influencing Bhutto regarding the thorny matter, the truth is quite the opposite.

In the 1950s and the 1960s Kausar Niazi was a prominent member of one of Pakistan's leading religious parties, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). In 1953 he was arrested and jailed by the government for taking part in the violent anti-Ahamdiyya riots in Lahore. Niazi was also highly vocal in his support for JI's criticism of the Ayub Khan dictatorship (1958-69). The JI had accused Ayub of undermining the role of Islamic scholars in Pakistan.

However, after Ayub Khan eased out his young foreign minister, Z.A. Bhutto in 1966, Niazi supported Bhutto's stand against his former boss (over the 1965 ceasefire against India).

Despite his falling out with the Bhuttos later on, Maulana Kausar Niazi’s opposition to declaring the Ahmadiyya a minority exemplified his secular credentials

When Bhutto formed his own party in 1967 (the PPP), the JI denounced Bhutto and the PPP of being a party of communists who were being backed by the Soviet Union to 'destroy faith in Pakistan'.

After disagreeing with JI's line of attack against Bhutto, Niazi broke away from the party. He was consequently invited by Bhutto to join the PPP. Bhutto was searching for a religious scholar to join his party, someone who could (theologically) retaliate against JI's diatribes against the PPP. Niazi's entry into the PPP was not welcomed by the party's leftist ideologues. But Bhutto overruled their concerns, suggesting that Niazi fully backed the party's socialist programme.

Niazi was given the party ticket to contest the 1970 election from a constituency in Sialkot (even though he was originally from Mianwali).

Interestingly, the constituency in Sialkot from where Niazi was contesting had a large Ahamdiyya population.

But Niazi, now positioning himself as a 'progressive Muslim scholar' and a firm advocate of the PPP's socialist manifesto, decided to hold a series of meetings with the leaders of the Ahamdiyya community.

He convinced them that the PPP would never allow the religious parties to outlaw the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam and that the PPP was the community's only hope against excommunication.

According to the recently published memoirs of late Barrister Azizullah Shiekh — a famous lawyer and former member of the leftwing National Awami Party (NAP) — the Ahmadiyya community, before getting Niazi's assurances, had already struck a deal with the leaders of NAP. The NAP too had promised the community that it would keep the right-wing / religious parties from reviving the anti-Ahmadiyya campaign.

However, Kausar succeeded in making the Ahmadiyya community choose the PPP over NAP and vote for the PPP across Pakistan. This also helped Naizi to win the election from his Sialkot constituency where he received over 90,000 votes. In December 1971, after the departure of East Pakistan (that became Bangladesh), Bhutto was invited to form the new government because the PPP had won the most seats from West Pakistan.

Niazi became an advisor in the Bhutto cabinet and in 1974 was made a federal minister (minister of religious affairs).

This was also the year when the religious parties had revived their campaign to oust the Ahmadiyya community from the fold of mainstream Islam.

Rioting in the Punjab saw Bhutto advising the parties in the parliament to debate the matter. After the rioting failed to subside and some of Bhutto's ministers suggested that the party was losing support in the Punjab over the issue, Bhutto decided to allow the religious parties to table a bill for the constitutional excommunication of the Ahmadiyya.

Rafi Nasim, one of Bhutto's main constitutional advisors, wrote in his book (The Political Discourse of Z.A. Bhutto) that Bhutto asked the PPP legislators to vote (for or against the bill) according to their own conscience.

Most PPP MNAs along with the religious parties and Pakistan Muslim League factions voted to declare the Ahamadiyya as a non-Muslim minority. The NAP abstained from voting.

Barrister Azizullah Shiekh mentions in his memoirs that NAP's leader, Wali Khan, was still simmering from the way the Ahmadiyya leaders had broken their deal with NAP and had instead favoured the PPP. Azizullah writes that when he asked Wali Khan why NAP had remained quiet on the issue, he was told (by Wali): 'Let them (the Ahmadiyya) go to the ones they voted for …'What was Niazi's stand on the issue, a man who in the 1950s had agitated against the Ahamdiyya? Ironically, Husain Haqani — former Pakistan ambassador to the US (2008-2012), and a PPP member — mentions in his book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, that Niazi actually advised Bhutto not to turn the bill into law.

Niazi's opposition in this regard is explained in a bit more detail by the respected columnist and intellectual, late Khalid Hassan, in a letter that he wrote to one of his readers many years later. He writes: "If there was one man in the Bhutto cabinet in 1974 who was opposed to declaring the Ahmadiyya a minority, it was Maulana Kausar Niazi. He told me this himself. He recalled Niazi telling Bhutto, 'Please do not pursue this 80 years old problem. As far as clerics are concerned, one cleric can't bear to stand behind another to say his ritual prayers. Let them decide on their own; the government should stay away from this matter.'"

Niazi lost his place in the PPP when Bhutto was toppled in a military coup in 1977. Niazi was accused by Bhutto's widow, Nusrat Bhutto, of 'being the establishment's man'. In 1978 Niazi formed his own faction of the PPP, the Progressive Peoples Party. The party did not last and Niazi retired from politics. He returned in 1990 as a member of National People's Party (a party formed by his former PPP colleague, Mustafa Jatoi). He was finally welcomed back into the PPP in 1993 by Benazir Bhutto, but passed away in 1994.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 16th, 2014



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