A resounding ‘no’ To Theocracy

Mohammad Ali Jinnah offering Eid prayers (left) in Burns Garden Karachi in 1947. The Constituent Assembly was the venue of the historic August 11, 1947, inaugural speech of the Quaid-i-Azam in which he proclaimed “you are free to go to your temples… religion… has nothing to do with the business of the state.” In this historic image (right) of another Constituent Assembly session, the Governor-General, is seen seated to the left of the aisle facing the Speaker, and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan on its right. (Courtesy: Press Information Department Archive
Mohammad Ali Jinnah offering Eid prayers (left) in Burns Garden Karachi in 1947. The Constituent Assembly was the venue of the historic August 11, 1947, inaugural speech of the Quaid-i-Azam in which he proclaimed “you are free to go to your temples… religion… has nothing to do with the business of the state.” In this historic image (right) of another Constituent Assembly session, the Governor-General, is seen seated to the left of the aisle facing the Speaker, and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan on its right. (Courtesy: Press Information Department Archive

EVER since its inception, Pakistan has undergone multifarious crises, resulting mainly from its unresolved contradictions. The uneasy relations between a powerful centre and weak provinces, conflict between authoritarian regimes and democratic aspirations, the civil-military dichotomy, and such other elements continue to adversely affect the cause of national integration.

But the most important and all-encompassing is the crisis of nation-building, and the country’s failure in constructing its very idea of nationhood. Often expressed in the idiom of ‘ideology’, the concept of nationhood owes its validity to its capacity to identify, address and successfully respond to the aggregated needs of society, thus creating a feeling of commonness among the people. Ideologies are not pregiven nor are they ordained externally. Ideologies are human constructs, and nations evolve them in response to their material interest, and in the light of their historical collective experiences.

The merit of an ideology lies in how best it represents its society, its ethos, its aspirations and perceived goals. The sustenance of ideologies also depends on how appropriately their architects constructed them, not as they subjectively wished, but as the objective representation of their socio-political conditions demanded.

Today, we live in a world of nation states, almost all of whom claim to have an ideology which they use to seek allegiance of their citizens; they succeed in doing so if material facts and the socio-political conditions corroborate with the ideological claims, otherwise ideologies remain in the realm of imagination and fantasy and forcing such fantasies on the people prove counterproductive; they create cleavages in society and distance the state from society.

Although Jinnah declared that Pakistan would not be a theocracy, Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed believes that subsequent governments failed to develop a national narrative or ideology to reflect the Quaid’s ideals.

Fruitless exercises

This, unfortunately, has been the experience of our country in which, since independence, the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ was designated to serve as the grand narrative. Lately, a ‘national narrative’ is being constructed which replicates the erstwhile ideology. That these exercises have remained fruitless suggests that they were constructed in disregard of the specific facts and realities of the country. As our history shows, these were also used to deny and suppress the plurality of society.

At the time of its creation, Pakistan fitted the category of countries about which Rupert Emerson had proclaimed in his From Empire to Nation that they were not nations in being, but in hope. Pakistan, despite a long journey of 75 years, still finds itself in the same category. One may ask why it could not succeed in creating a sense of nationhood, a question that inevitably compels one to peep into the past and see how this country came into being and what the founding fathers, particularly Mohammad Ali Jinnah, an unparalleled leader having the credit of creating a country, thought about nation-formation.

Concept of nationhood

Central in this regard is his concept of nationhood as it manifested itself in his statements not only during the period when he was a player in all-India politics, but also when Pakistan came into being and he gave his vision of what a Pakistani nation would be. Jinnah had looked into the nation-formation processes as these emerged in modern times.

In the pre-partition days, Jinnah’s speeches in the Imperial Legislative Council, the positions he took on different legislations, his stand on the communal divide in India and his thoughts on successive political development in the field of constitutional reforms, all suggest that he was greatly influenced by the liberal political statesmen, like Dadabhai Nauroji, Pherozeshah Mehta and G.K. Gokhale, in India, and William Gladstone and John Morley in Britain, who thought that only through participatory democracy, suitable federal arrangements and a secular state, could the edifice of nationhood be erected in a society with extraordinary diversities.

Inbuilt secularism

A number of instances could be cited to show how the values of democracy, fair play and secularism expressed themselves in the positions taken by Jinnah. As for secularism, it was inbuilt in Jinnah’s concept of nationhood right from the beginning.

It is known that in the beginning of his political career he was not in favour of separate electorate. Jinnah in that period believed that such an allowance for a minority was likely to give it a permanent minority status. In the Congress session of 1906, he as a member of that organisation, moved an amendment to the official resolution asking to delete the clause regarding reservation of seats in the legislature and services for backward classes.

He observed that “Mohammaden Community should be treated in the same way as the Hindu community”. In 1913, he opposed the government’s decision to grant communal representation in self-governing bodies. At one point, he told the students of Dayal Singh College, Lahore: “This college does not believe in religious creed. I, too, feel that the salvation of India lies in this non-sectarian feeling.”

Jinnah also did not like the partition of Bengal in 1905 because he thought it was done to divide the region. When he joined the Muslim League, he took positions that were not welcomed by the traditional elite of the organisation. His role in bringing the Congress and League closer and bringing them to agree on the famous Lucknow Pact also shows that he did not look at the Hindu-Muslim equation as a communal issue, rather he viewed it as a political matter that was obstructing nation-formation in India. Even when he accepted to view the Muslims as a minority, his main concern was to overcome the angularity of the minority and the majority divide.

He worked for some form of affirmative action that may enable the Muslims to get a share in national institutions bigger than what their size in the overall population would have entitled them to get. He also presented formulas through which the Hindu-Muslim representation in the provincial legislatures was balanced in a reciprocal manner.

All this was done to address the communal issue through political means. On occasions he came up with proposals for better Muslim representation, like when he proposed it in the famous Delhi Muslim Proposals, and offered to give up separate electorate in return.

When in the middle of the 1930s he moved on to claim Muslims to be a nation and not a minority, his understanding of nationhood compelled him to evoke the nation’s right of self-determination that had by then emerged as a universally accepted principle. He, in 1940 at the time of the presentation of the Lahore Resolution, suggested that India’s crisis was not a national crisis, but an international one. He suggested that all nations living in India had the right of self-expression and self-determination.

When Jinnah came up with the demand for Pakistan, he took pains to explain that Pakistan would not be a theocracy. By its very definition, theocracy is the opposite of secularism. So, when Jinnah said Pakistan would not be a theocracy, he was actually telling what it would be.

A section of religio-political intelligentsia insists that theocracy was a system specific to Christianity. One wonders why Jinnah did not know this, and found it necessary to recurrently clarify that Pakistan would not be a theocracy. On the eve of partition, in July 1947, he said: “Islam and its idealism have taught us democracy. It has taught equality of men, justice and fair play to everybody … In any case, Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state …”.

Jinnah made all such pronouncements not just to dispel the apprehensions that the non-Muslim citizens of the would-be new country could have, but also because, knowledgeable about Muslim history, he knew how on occasions the clergy got access to state power and used it to its advantage under the cover of religion. It is not difficult to realise this fact even in contemporary times when we have a Muslim theocratic state in Afghanistan and another in Iran.

Here it is important to refer to Jinnah’s August 11, 1947, speech in which he gave a complete and very convincing elaboration of what had actually happened in India that had paved the way for its partition, and how the new country could avoid such division in its future journey. Jinnah believed that, if not settled politically, communal and cultural issues would become a permanent source of division in society, and would serve as a major obstacle in nation-building. The Aug 11 speech is the best expression of Jinnah’s concept of nationhood.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the detractors translated it ‘atheism’ which it surely was not. Secularism accommodates all as long as there is no imposition on one’s belief on the rest. The neutrality of the state is essential if it seeks allegiance of all its citizens and if it aims at realising a united nation. Such an arrangement, regrettably, was not realised.

Within two years of independence, the state’s character was redefined through the Objectives Resolution. The non-Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly demonstrated their resentment whichever they could. Jinnah’s chosen law minister, Jogendra Nath Mandal, soon left Pakistan.

Ideological narrative

During the last 75 years, the state’s use of its ideological narrative to provide religious sanctions to its policies has remained an essential part of statecraft, though this reliance varied in different phases.

In the first two decades, the civil and military bureaucracies which had been groomed during the British period, and which exercised hegemony on the state’s power, used religion in a selective manner. It was used to impose central dictates and policies over provinces. The pro-West foreign policy pursued in the Cold War period was also justified on ideological grounds.

The use of ideological narrative became a more recurrent theme during the rule of General Yahya Khan whose information minister Gen Sher Ali became the most vocal torchbearer of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’.

The debate around religion and socialism became one of the defining themes of the 1970 elections. In this background, the success of two secular organisations, Awami League (AL) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was a historic development, but the election results with AL emerging as the majority party could not be accepted by the establishment and the West Pakistani political elite that had allied with it.

1973 Constitution

After the separation of East Pakistan, the scene in the western wing characteristically changed. Once in power, the PPP compromised on many of its pronouncements. The 1973 Constitution, though a positive achievement, was a curious mix of religious and secular clauses. One finds it difficult to agree with Prof Mohammad Waseem’s observation that the PPP government “often transgressed the chartered path of the establishment” in pursuit of its “socialist agenda” (Political Conflict in Pakistan; 2022). As a matter of fact, despite reformative initiatives, the regime operated within the ideological framework of the state.

The 1973 Constitution had more religious clauses than the previous constitutions. The regime also dealt with its opponents taking the support of the ideological narrative. In 1975, the secular National Awami Party (NAP) was banned and its leadership was put behind bars. The regime’s attorney-general, Yahya Bakhtiar, made full use of the ideological narrative while pleading the case against NAP in the Supreme Court, which upheld the government’s ban.

The NAP leaders who were not arrested established a successor organisation, the National Democratic Party (NDP), with Naseem Wali Khan, the spouse of NAP leader Wali Khan, as its vice-president. Quite interestingly, the NDP did not include secularism in its constitution which meant that in the new Pakistan, this set of leadership also was trying to adjust to the ideological framework of the state.

The most aggressive use of the ideological apparatus, however, came during the rule of Gen Ziaul Haq who through the naked use of power imposed strict repressive measures against democratic forces, women and the minorities. The country was made a frontline state against communism and a war was launched in Afghanistan at the behest of the Western powers.

Eight years of this project were led to the creation of the Afghan Taliban, established in the hope of enabling Pakistan to get strategic depth in the north-west leading to the Central Asian regions. The 9/11 events ushered in yet another phase of extreme militancy. The militant outfits soon became autonomous and found their market in the external terrorist theatres.

Following the 2014 Army Public School incident in Peshawar, the policy of patronising extremist organisations was reviewed. A National Action Plan was devised, which suggested numerous steps ranging from reform in governance and judiciary to the devising of a National Narrative and clearing the syllabi of different biases. The plan was, however, not implemented in letter and in spirit, though it was successful in certain areas. The organisations banned, mostly on external pressures, resurfaced with new names. As for the reforms in seminaries, the whole education system was in time ‘seminarised’ in the name of Single National Curriculum (SNC). It is clear that in the name of religion, everything can be done by anyone.

After 75 years of independence, the grand narrative coined by the ruling class has left society polarised in every sense imaginable. Pakistan’s hopes lie only in genuine democratic and federal processes. Coexistence, if one doesn’t like the word ‘secularism’, is the only way to free the state from its self-acquired fetters.

The writer is Director, Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi, and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Sohail University.



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