Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan exhorts the Muslim League National Guard and Aligarh University volunteers in Lahore in 1944 to campaign actively for the Muslim League in the 1945 general elections. (Courtesy: National Archive)
Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan exhorts the Muslim League National Guard and Aligarh University volunteers in Lahore in 1944 to campaign actively for the Muslim League in the 1945 general elections. (Courtesy: National Archive)

TO understand Pakistan’s many modern-day contradictions — especially the complicated relationship between religion and the state — it is important to understand how the common citizen’s perspectives were shaped in the years leading to Partition. Some promises were made that were never kept, and some promises were made that were never meant to be kept. The distrust between the state and its people is not a new phenomenon, as would show the couple of real-life incidents narrated here.

My paternal grandfather often told a story about how the people of his ancestral town in northern Punjab responded when some activists of the All-India Muslim League (AIML) visited the area during the campaigning phase of the 1946 provincial elections in British India. Our ancestral town, Makhad, is 160km from Rawalpindi.

My grandfather was in his late 20s in 1946, and worked with his father, who was a trader. He was well-versed in Indian politics, but a majority of the people in the town had little or no idea. They hardly ventured outside the town. So, when the AIML campaigners arrived and asked them to vote for the party, so that the party leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, could form an independent Muslim-majority country, some of the townsfolk were not sure exactly who they were talking about.

According to my grandfather, the people of the town had heard names like Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru, but they were not particularly interested in them. The townsfolk knew more about the Unionist Party (UP), which at the time was Punjab’s largest political party. Its members were the people who actually mattered when it came to addressing the economic and social issues having an impact on the lives of the town’s residents. That being so, the attempt to persuade the locals to vote for the League failed.

The All-India Muslim League, while electioneering in Muslim-majority areas, promised that religion would play a central role in Pakistan. NADEEM F. PARACHA argues that the party had no such plans. Pakistanis have since struggled to reconcile the party’s words and intentions.

Punjab was a Muslim-majority region. Approximately 51pc of its population was Muslim. Sindh, East Bengal, Balochistan and the erstwhile NWFP (present-day KP) also had Muslim majorities. But AIML’s support base largely lay in Muslim-minority regions of India where the Congress Party was strong. According to Dr Muhammad Waseem (in Political Conflict in Pakistan, 2022) and French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot (in The Pakistan Paradox, 2015), the AIML struggled to locate support for itself in India’s Muslim-majority regions.

These regions were self-contained with their own culture, language and politics. What is more, even their understanding of Islam somewhat differed from each other. For example, Bengali-Muslims, and those in the NWFP, found themselves to be ‘different’ from Punjabi-Muslims. The case between Sindh and Punjab had its own undertones.

The locals wondered why the people of Muslim-majority regions will vote for a party that had become a vehicle of Muslims living in Hindu-majority regions, and who had the most to gain from a separate Muslim-majority country? It was a tussle between, say, majority-Muslims and minority-Muslims.

According to the economist Shahid Javed Burki (in State and Society in Pakistan, reprint 2019), by the 1940s, the AIML had become the party of urban middle-and-lower-middle-income Muslims residing in Hindu-majority regions. They had to compete for economic resources with Hindu majorities. But the situation was slightly different for the Muslims of Muslim-majority regions. They were already residing in areas where they were in a majority: what would Pakistan offer them that would be different?

When the AIML posse failed in its mission to convince the townsfolk of Makhad to vote for the party, another group of AIML workers arrived. The first group had consisted of young men belonging to the party’s student wing. Their message revolved around the importance of ‘Muslim unity’ and the economic benefits of having a separate Muslim-majority country.

The AIML was led by ‘modernists’ who had adopted Islam, not as a theocratic-political doctrine, but as an identity marker to differentiate India’s Muslims from the region’s Hindu majority. The party did not reject the long history that the Muslims shared with the Hindus, but they added to this a history that the Muslims of India shared with Arabia and Persia as well.

The second group of AIML workers that arrived were led by a cleric. They came to meet the famous Pir of Makhad. The Pir was from a long line of Sufi personalities that had come to Makhad in the 17th century and settled there. Jinnah had instructed the party to win the support of Punjab’s spiritual leaders who exercised great influence in rural areas. So the AIML’s message was tweaked to fire the imagination of the rural folk of the province.

After meeting the Pir, the cleric leading the League team told the townsfolk that Jinnah was committed to the creation of an Islamic state that would be driven by Shariah laws, and that the new state would be transformed into a caliphate. He also attacked the Unionist Party for being ‘in league’ with the Hindus and the Sikhs, who, he said, wanted to crush Punjab’s Muslims. Similar accusations were levelled against even the Islamist parties that were opposing the League for having ‘a secular approach’.

My grandfather would chuckle and say that the cleric painted Jinnah in such a manner that the townsfolk started to imagine the secular barrister as an Islamic sage with a flowing white beard. AIML’s strategy in the Punjab worked. In the urban areas, the call for Muslim Unity was hammered, whereas the campaigning in rural Punjab was left to the right-wingers.

Thus, Pakistan was achieved on the back of a somewhat schizophrenic meta-narrative. One side of the narrative treated Islam as a faith that was inherently progressive, democratic and flexible enough to adopt 20th century modernity. The other side of the same narrative explained Pakistan as a bastion of Islam that was to evolve into becoming an Islamic State ruled by Shariah laws. However, the other side was almost immediately curbed when Jinnah, as the country’s first governor-general, stated that Pakistan was not to be a theocracy.

One of the slogans used during AIML’s election campaign in Punjab in 1946 was Pakistan ka matlab kya; La Ilaha Illallah. It was derived from a 1944 poem by Asghar Sodai, a young man from Sialkot. This had become a popular slogan in Punjab, so much so that just days before the creation of Pakistan, a man during a Muslim League session in Karachi asked Jinnah, “Sir, you promised us ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya, La Ilaha Illallah’ ...” Irritated by the interruption, Jinnah shot back: “Sit down!” he roared. “Neither the Muslim League Working Committee nor I ever passed a resolution [called] Pakistan ka matlab kya; you may have used it to catch a few votes.”

Jinnah was actually right. But, reportedly, Sodai was disappointed, and Punjab’s faith-healers formed their own political party in 1948, called the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP).


Back in the mid-1980s, when I was studying in a state-owned college in Karachi, there was an ageing man called Akhtar who worked as a senior clerk at the college. He had retired in the late 1970s, but was rehired as a contractual employee. He was born in Multan, and was in his 20s when Pakistan came into being in 1947. He had passionately taken part in the independence movement. As a teen, he was smitten by Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi’s quasi-fascist Khaksar Movement, and then by the radical anti-Jinnah Islamist party, the Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam. However, Akhtar was eventually won over by AIML, when some of its workers convinced him that Jinnah was working towards creating an Islamic state.

To young men like myself who used to go around calling themselves ‘Marxists’ in the 1980s, Akhtar was surprisingly supportive, considering the fact that he never hid his sympathies for Islamist ideas. Perhaps the reason for this was his disillusionment towards the League,w hich, according to him, had “lied to us” [the us being Punjabis like himself]. Akhtar was pained by the fact that his community and he had voted for AIML, believing that the party was going to create a ‘true Islamic state’.

Akhtar was a supporter of the dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq, because, in his eyes, Zia was a bit more sincere than the League had been about making Pakistan a bastion of Islam. No wonder, then, that in 1979, Sodai’s poem returned with a bang when the dictatorship turned it into a thumping marching song and began airing it on PTV and Radio Pakistan.

Another reason why Akhtar had no issue with me calling myself a Marxist was that he saw me as a member from his own ethnic group. Compared to the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs, Punjabis were a minority in Karachi. But what he did not know was that I was Mohajir from my mother’s side. A Mohajir friend of mine at college, Tariq, thought Akhtar was a “closed-minded man and a fanatic who was distorting Islam”.

Tariq was not secular. But his understanding of Islam was quite different than Akhtar’s. He would often insist that Islam was “a balance between materialism and spirituality”, and that men such as Akhtar had turned it into a political weapon.

Here, we can again see how different ethnic groups of the country comprehended and advocated Islam. The understanding of the religion in this context was tinged with histories, myths, cultures and even the political economy of every ethnic group. The meta-narrative of pre-1980s that had defined the raison d’etre of Pakistan on the basis of Muslim unity and had relegated the theological aspects of it to the private sphere, was initially challenged by secular ethnic entities that perceived the narrative as an instrument of repression by the ‘Punjabi and Mohajir elites.’

Sindhi, Baloch, Pakhtun and Bengali nationalists accused the Punjabis and the Mohajirs of duping them into ‘joining’ Pakistan so that the two could create political, economic and cultural hegemonies for themselves. Of course, the Mohajir were not understood as a separate ethnic group till the 1980s. They were mostly seen as Muslims who migrated from Hindu-majority areas.

Mohajir and Punjabi elites were denounced for usurping the rights of Muslims of Muslim-majority areas that had become part of Pakistan. Interestingly, the elites were often those who had not only migrated from Hindu-majority areas and were Urdu-speaking, but also Muslim Punjabis who arrived from East Punjab that had become part of India (Waseem, Jaffrelot). They too were ‘minority-Muslims’.

The overarching tensions in the first 20 years of the country, as such, had a multi-layered dimension; mostly ethnic. The results of the 1970 elections may in a certain sense indicate the political rise of majority-Muslims who had always been rooted in what became Pakistan. Subsequently, folk music, that was once banned on state-owned platforms, poured into living rooms. It was not seen anymore as an art-form that ‘promoted provincialism.’ It was the product of majority Muslims. Likewise, the Sufi shrine culture began being romanticised, undermining the non-populist version of religion championed by the state till the 1960s.

But the minority-Muslims struck back when funds started flowing in from the Gulf in the 1980s. The majority Muslims were enticed and co-opted when the state began to build a new meta-narrative, which ignored the country’s actual location and shifted it to an imaginary one thousands of miles away. Majority-Muslims lapped it up because they began to find jobs in oil-rich Arab countries and climbed the social ladder.

However, in its attempt to tap and appease resentments that men like Akhtar carried, the new narrative ended up empowering the resentments which then mutated and became the source of bigotry. For some time now, the state is struggling to rein in the forces that the narrative unleashed.

The writer is a columnist and an author.

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