Supporters of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan gather before their leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi and the party’s patron-in-chief, Pir Afzal Qadri in Lahore | M. Arif/White Star

When the state capitulates

The recent buckling down of the state to mobs of the radical right is not the first time it has done so.
Updated 12 Nov, 2018 01:04pm

Buoyed perhaps by signs of cleavage between Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and its protectors, the government is trying to look brave after the event and separating dharna (sit-in) participants from arsonists and destroyers of property. It is also true that the concessions allowed to the agitators in the ceasefire document lack substance or are not feasible. Yet these factors cannot blur the reality that, through their latest dharna, conservative religio-political forces have tightened their siege of the state of Pakistan. And their next attempt to change the character of the state might be somewhat stronger.

This prognosis is based on the history of the various national governments’ acts of surrender under pressure from conservative political elements operating under religious banners and which have invariably whetted the latter’s appetite for more gains.

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Seventy years ago, a number of religious groups called upon the government to replace the democratic foundations of the few-months-old state with theocratic pillars, a proposition the Quaid-i-Azam had repeatedly repudiated before independence and, finally, in his August 1947 speech. Nearly all of these groups had opposed the demand for Pakistan as they didn’t expect it to be a religious state. The demographic change in the Muslim majority provinces, caused by the partition of Punjab and Bengal — especially of the former — persuaded them to rewrite their theses and raise the banner of theocracy.

The government conceded ground to a greater extent than required and adopted the Objectives Resolution which institutionalised the concept of dual sovereignty, the higher sovereignty of Divine authority and the lower-level sovereignty of the state’s parliament (as a delegatee). The government spokesmen denied Pakistan’s status as a laboratory for religious experiments, but the religio-political lobby quietly celebrated its success in opening the way to defiance of the state by invoking Divine injunctions.

The recent buckling down of the state to mobs of the radical right is not the first time it has done so in Pakistan’s history. But the repercussions on the country’s social fabric are cumulative

Throughout the decades since 1949, the state has been yielding to theocratic forces bit by bit, and the latter have used each concession to press for a further erosion of the democratic character of the state. The custodians of power have chosen to compete with them instead of holding on to the pledges made to the people during the struggle for freedom.

In the first draft of the constitutional framework for Pakistan, presented in 1950 by none else than the mover of the Objectives Resolution and Pakistan’s first prime minister, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, the name of the state was simply Pakistan and its head was not required to be a Muslim. The Objectives Resolution was to be incorporated in the constitution as a directive principle of state policy “subject to the provision that this will not prejudice the interpretation of fundamental rights in the constitution at the proper place.” In order to “enable the Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the Holy Quran and the Sunnah”, steps were to be taken to explain what such life meant and, among other things, the teaching of the Holy Quran was to be made compulsory.

Although the shadow of the Objectives Resolution could be seen in this draft, its comparison with the present constitution — its choice of nomenclature, its indestructible Council of Ideology and its Federal Shariat Court — is enough to reveal the extent of the state’s deviation from its original premises.

Several instruments have been used by the religio-political lobby to force the state to compromise its principles. The first method was to stoke an anti-Ahmadiyya agitation to persuade the Daultana government of Punjab to bring down the Nazimuddin government at the centre. This was the only time force was used to suppress the challenge to the state, though Khawaja Nazimuddin could stay as prime minister for only a few months more. And the anti-Ahmadiyya agitation for the realisation of theocratic goals continues to this day.

This latest act of rebellion against the state has also revealed the politically motivated pseudo-religious elements’ tactics of nibbling at the state structure, institution by institution.

In 1974 the Bhutto government took the extraordinary step of arming the state with the power to decide who is a Muslim and who is not and claimed to have resolved a 90-year-old problem. The problem is still there and has, indeed, grown bigger. The 1974 decision only enabled General Ziaul Haq to destroy the constitution of 1973 and enforce his illiberal version of Islam. Assuming the leadership of the theocratic lobby, Ziaul Haq created a parallel judicial system, sowed the seeds of sectarianism, fostered intolerance, institutionalised discrimination against minority communities, tried to push society, especially women, back into the mediaeval period, and embroiled Pakistan in the Afghan war — with horrible consequences for our state and society both. As a result, the Muslims of the country have been dividing themselves into sects and subsets, each claiming exclusive power to redefine the state and its citizenship.

One of Gen Ziaul Haq’s most significant services to the theocratic elements was the insertion of Section 295 C into the Penal Code. The provision was designed as a weapon to be used against non-Muslim citizens but, today, more Muslims than non-Muslims are on trial under it. Originally the members of minority communities alone were living in constant fear of being charged with an offence punishable with death but, today, a large number of Muslims — especially media persons — have been forced to join the frightened hordes.

The religio-political lobby was gladdened when Muhammad Nawaz Sharif donned Ziaul Haq’s mantle and undertook to complete his late mentor’s unfinished agenda. But it did not take his tormentors long to ditch him. In 2017, they went for the jugular of his party’s government over a non-issue and got the new election law changed and the law minister packed off into retirement. Further, they cut out of his constituency and from the stock of his traditional voters the latest and perhaps the most ferocious challenger the state has faced.

But Sharif is not the first nor the last of the former patrons those trying to capture the state have betrayed. During the latest agitation, they went not only for Imran Khan and his government but also for the army and the judiciary. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and two of his brother judges, who have always treated religious figures with prudent deference, were rewarded with an edict against them.

This latest act of rebellion against the state has also revealed the politically motivated pseudo-religious elements’ tactics of nibbling at the state structure, institution by institution. After assaulting political parties, parliament and rights organisations, they have attacked the army and the judiciary, and the purpose obviously is to alienate the people from them.

But each attack on the state has had serious repercussions on the country’s social fabric. After each round of clash between the state and its challengers, society has been brutalised and has become more divided, more violent and more intolerant. Take the present case. This time, the challengers had literally no section of the public on their side. But even those who deplored arson and destruction of property, including the religious political parties and individual scholars, did not censure the agitators for their indefensible stand.

The public will take its cue from this posture of support to the agitators and that will convince the dharna organisers that they have not lost the battle. It is only a matter of time before they, or their more militant siblings, return to mount a fresh charge against the state.

As Allama Mohammed Iqbal once wrote,

[Weakness is a crime punishable by sudden death.]

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 11th, 2018