Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Histories, when confined to nutshells, become absolute facts devoid of context. They are turned into miniature caricatures, paraded as stripped actualities that anyone can dress in the manner they deem fit. This is particularly true in the age of social media, that only allows the exhibition of historical facts as end results. It completely ignores the complex historical processes which led to the end results.

For example, as miniaturised history, the 18th-century French Revolution was an uprising of the poor against the rich. Just recently I heard someone say this in a podcast, positioning it as a ‘historical fact’ which the podcaster said was aiming at a ‘privileged, middle-class’ foe.

Indeed, the poor did rise up in France but the uprising was largely instigated and navigated by the middle-classes against common foes: the aristocratic/landed elites and the powerful clergy. The well-known historian Henry Heller, in The French Revolution and Historical Materialism, roots the revolution in the gradual growth of the middle-class in France.

According to Heller, by the 18th century, the political and economic aspirations, and interests of the French middle class began to clash with those of the ancien régime, i.e., the monarchy, the feudal class and the church. This friction saw the middle-class intelligentsia strongly propagate the ideas of democracy, secularism and nationalism, which became the main ideological engines of the revolution.

In analysing historical events, context provides uncomfortable perspectives that challenge simplistic versions of our understanding

Another example is the American Civil War (1861-1865). In a nutshell, it is often explained as an armed conflict between the pro-slavery South and the anti-slavery North in the US.

American economists M. Thornton and R.B. Execlund write, in The Economics of the Civil War, that the conflict was mainly due to economic tensions between the “industrialised North” and the “agricultural South.” Prominent in this respect was the perception in the South that tax revenues collected there were largely being transferred to strengthen industrial interests of the North.

The anti-slavery position was adopted by the North and President Lincoln only after the Southern states declared their secession. Lincoln’s original stance on slavery, which he displayed a year before the Civil War, was rather different. He had said: “I have no purpose to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I don’t intend to.”

There are numerous such examples from world history which, when carefully studied outside their nutshell versions, often add a deeper dimension to the end result. Many such examples are also present in Pakistan’s history. Take for instance, the 1974 Second Constitutional Amendment, and the 1986 Article 295-C in the country’s penal code. The first ousted the Ahmadi community from the fold of Islam, and the second introduced the death penalty for those found to have committed blasphemy.

When explained in a nutshell, the Second Amendment is elucidated as the sole doing of the ‘socialist’ regime of Z.A. Bhutto. Unlike various conventional religious groups that had opposed the creation of Pakistan, Punjab’s Ahmadi community had backed Jinnah’s call. They then became prominent in the country’s state and government institutions.

The Iranian-American author and academic Vali Nasr, in Vanguard of Islamic Revolution, writes that soon after Pakistan’s creation, radical religious groups in Punjab often “articulated economic grievances in Islamic terms.” This contributed to the 1953 anti-Ahmadi movement when the provincial government, headed by Mumtaz Daultana, failed to address an economic crisis in the province. As a distraction, Daultana went on to tacitly support the movement. He was dismissed by the president after the movement was crushed by the military.

The 1973 international oil crisis badly hit world economies and Pakistan was no exception. Urdu newspapers of this period are full of statements by religious parties expressing economic grievances in ‘Islamic’ terms. Then, an episode in Rabwah, in which a group of Ahmadi youth clashed with the student-wing of Jamaat-i-Islami, suddenly triggered a brand new anti-Ahmadi movement in Punjab.

In his 1997 study of the Bhutto regime, Rafi Raza writes that Bhutto refused to allow the opposition to discuss the issue in the parliament. And when violence increased, he publicly threatened to crush the protests with the help of the military. However, with the military already engaged in fighting an insurgency in Balochistan, Bhutto demurred. On the insistence of some of his party’s MPAs in the Punjab assembly, the religious parties were finally allowed to table a bill.

In an essay for Political Power and Social Theory, Sadia Saeed writes that the 1953 movement had largely been crushed on the insistence of the military and the bureaucracy but that, by the 1970s, both had been weakened and distanced from politics. She also writes that the pressure to allow the opposition to table the anti-Ahmadi bill also came from the left and liberal quarters. For example, Wali Khan’s National Awami Party did not oppose the bill, and a June 7, 1974 editorial in Dawn explained the bill as the opposition’s ‘democratic right.’

Now, to Article 295-C. In the nutshell version of its history, this article was introduced by the reactionary Gen Zia dictatorship. It is true that this dictatorship introduced various controversial laws in the name of faith, but the fact is, Zia was actually not in favour of introducing the death penalty in this context.

According to a February 11, 2011 article by Khalid Ahmad in The Express Tribune, some journalists and lawyers from Punjab approached the Federal Shariat Court in 1984, petitioning it to introduce stern laws against blasphemy. On June 8, 1986, some members of the National Assembly — which was formed after the 1985 elections — agreed to table a private bill that would include the death penalty for blasphemy.

The Zia-backed government of Mohammad Khan Junejo preempted the move and tabled a bill that did not include the death penalty. However, during a debate, which included no more than six legislators, the death sentence was added.

As a last-minute addition, the government hastily added “death penalty or life imprisonment” in the bill that was passed.

Upon emotional appeals, especially by those who had demanded the death penalty, Zia, as president, signed the bill into law in October 1986.

The addition of the words “or life imprisonment” was challenged by the same politicians in 1987 in the Shariat Court. In 1990, the court ruled that the death penalty alone should be mandatory for blasphemy. It asked the then sitting government of Mian Nawaz Sharif to remove “or life imprisonment” from the law. The government planned to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court but since those who had originally demanded the death penalty were by then part of Sharif’s party and coalition government (the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad), the regime withdrew the challenge.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 10th, 2019