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September 21, 2016

To be or not to be a modern republic


September 21, 2016


The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

Here are two questions that can be seen as one – inter-related but can be approached from different angles – in order to understand better the issues we face. One, how do we define ourselves as a country? Two, how do we define ourselves as a nation?

I do not lament the fact that these issues are still unresolved as it has just been 69 years since Pakistan came about and only 45 since it was reshaped in its present form. But what is worrying is the insistence of the powers that be and a section of the intelligentsia on ideas, strategies, policies and actions that never worked for us in the past.

Let me begin with the address of Chief Justice of Pakistan Anwar Zaheer Jamali in a ceremony held in Islamabad the other day to celebrate the beginning of the new judicial year. He said just the rights things about harmony between the institutions of the state, curbing corruption at all levels, need for tolerance in society and developing an efficient legal system.

However, he categorically said that Quaid-e-Azam never envisioned a secular state but wanted all citizens to have equal rights. Meaning thereby, according to Justice Jamali, that Muslims and those citizens belonging to other religions will be equally free to practise their respective faiths. But does freedom to practise what you believe in amount to being an equal citizen?

Justice Jamali is correct in the sense that if we try to find the word ‘secular’ or the term ‘secularism’ in the speech of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah that he made as the president of the first constituent assembly on August 11, 1947, we will fail. But what is the definition of the word ‘secular’? For academic justice, one has to dismiss the absolutely incorrect meanings of the word that were promoted by religio-political parties and some other pseudo-scholars for political expediency.

If we turn to the basics and go for the first and foremost meaning given in the Oxford English Dictionary, secular simply means ‘not connected to religious or spiritual matters’. Other meanings are ‘temporal’ and ‘worldly’.

Secularism is defined as a principle that separates the functioning of government institutions from religious institutions. Therefore, if the Quaid did not use the word ‘secular’ or the term ‘secularism’ in the August 11 speech, what did he actually mean when he said, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” The Quaid also said categorically that Pakistan will not be a theocracy. What does theocracy mean? Again, if we consult the same dictionary, the meaning is ‘a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god’.

However, one must acknowledge the fact that the Quaid made references to Islam all along his political struggle. One of the most significant of his statements in this respect was made in Islamia College, Peshawar, in 1946, where he said, “We do not demand Pakistan simply to have a piece of land but we want a ‘aboratory where we could experiment on Islamic principles.”

I for one do not see his 1946 Peshawar speech completely contradicting his 1947 constituent assembly address. Because while he speaks of Islamic principles, the first law minister he appoints is Joginder Nath Mandal, a Hindu, and the first foreign minister is Sir Zafarullah, an Ahmadi. His military commander happens to be a Christian and the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim. The Quaid himself was much above any sectarian affiliation but he was certainly not born in the majority Sunni sect.

Therefore, it is important to remember that the Islamic principles Quaid referred to time and again in his speeches were those of equality, social justice and human dignity. He had a different meaning and a different vision, whether he was right or wrong in the eyes of the clerics of the time and the clerics now.

What is prevalent in the name of Islamic principles today, as espoused and professed by clerics and religious outfits, is more about regulating people’s personal lives, restricting minorities, oppressing women and challenging modern knowledge. Their faith has little to do with economic egalitarianism, social justice, equality irrespective of caste and creed and human dignity.

We live in a Muslim-majority society and nothing in the world can change it. There is no danger to our beliefs or our practice. We have our culture which is rooted in the Indo-Muslim civilisation but strongly bonded with Central Asia, Iran and the Middle East. But how should that define our state? It was not founded as a monarchy. It was not created to become a theocracy. It was supposed to be a modern state founded on democratic principles.

Being a South Asian Muslim was the primary identity marker for those who constitute the majority of the citizens. But isn’t it the case that the faith of the majority was to be freely practised by the majority of the citizens while the universal principles of equality and justice were to provide the bedrock of the functioning of the state?

Even if we find Quaid-e-Azam contradicting himself on occasions over years of his political career, that shouldn’t worry us too much. He was a human being, a politician struggling for the rights of his people. He had to use all means available to him to galvanise his constituents. But he made practical choices till the very end. For instance, during the same year when he made the speech in Peshawar, he had agreed to the Cabinet Mission Plan proposed by the British which could have prevented a complete partition of British India by giving more autonomy to confederating units.

The Indian National Congress had scuttled the plan. Even later, Quaid-e-Azam agreed to the partition of Punjab and Bengal with a heavy heart. He lamented the formation of a ‘moth-eaten, truncated Pakistan’ as a consequence of the Boundary Commission Award. His are not the last words. His ideas shall serve as the beginning of a debate to create a modern state that is subservient to the interests of its citizens.

Today, Pakistan has to find its feet in the comity of nations. It has to become a state where all citizens are equal and a state which favours it’s weak and oppressed, dispossessed and disgruntled citizens, whether they are from Punjab or Balochistan or are women or non-Muslims. The state sides with them proactively until they are mainstreamed and made equally powerful as others. Internally for us, if religion had been the only cementing factor, East Pakistan would not have become Bangladesh, MQM wouldn’t have gained popularity, Balochistan wouldn’t have witnessed four armed struggles and minority Muslim sects would not be violently attacked.

The same is true externally. We have to learn to be dispassionate about those counties where the majority of populations share our beliefs but these countries work solely to their own benefit and safeguard their own interest. I have said this before but no harm in repeating it. The two countries in our South Asian region whom we are most friendly with as states are both non-Muslim, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

China, our major economic and strategic partner, is a decidedly nonreligious country. Whereas, Afghanistan and Iran, whom we do not enjoy a smooth relationship with at the moment, are both Muslim brotherly states. Middle Eastern countries have their own preferences, however much we gloss over it. For instance, the rise of Dubai mysteriously coincides with the fall of Karachi in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Finally, there is enough history and evidence to infer that no country is going to come forward and help us resolve our outstanding issues with India. An uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue between Delhi and Islamabad in tandem with demilitarising Kashmir is the only way out of the present predicament for both countries.

We can bleed each other as much as we please but like Pakistan cannot prevail over India through use of force, India needs to recognise that an unstable and isolated Pakistan will spell disaster for India.

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