When Christians were partitioned in the Punjab-II

The first and by far the most significant intervention in the development of judiciary in Pakistan was presided over by Justice Cornelius

‘Constitutional Muslim’ Justice Cornelius.

The partition of British Punjab both increased and decreased opportunities for Indian Christians in the civil services. On the one hand, the dearth of officials on both sides of the Radcliffe line could offer opportunities for advancement (and this was especially true in West Punjab where it was expected that there would be a real dearth), but on the other hand, it limited them to both a smaller sphere of operations and also to areas which were now largely demarcated according to religion: Muslim majority in West Punjab, and Hindu and Sikh majority in East Punjab. Indian Christians, who didn’t fit in either description, could therefore fall through the cracks as they formed the ‘wrong’ community on both sides.

Thus, while Samuel Martin Burke tried to escape the difficult choice (and yet ended up in the Pakistan Foreign Service shortly after the creation of Pakistan), the lone Indian Christian ICS officers in the judicial service — Justice Alvin Robert Cornelius decided to throw in his lot with West Punjab. While Justice Cornelius does not seem to have ever gone into the details of his choice for Pakistan, the decision did prove good for him. He had already been elevated to the bench of the Lahore High Court in 1946, and in the summer of 1947 played an important part in helping Chief Justice Sir Abdul Rashid in the split of the court. Later, he helped the Government of Pakistan draft laws for refugees and rehabilitation. While still on the bench, he became the Law Secretary in April 1950, a position he retained till May 1951, when he was elevated to the Federal Court of Pakistan (later the Supreme Court).

Justice Cornelius came from a rather interesting background and hence his choice in 1947 was not straightforward. He was born in May 1903 in Agra to Professor Israel Jacob Cornelius who taught mathematics at Holkar College in the princely state of Indore. His father’s ancestors were Hindus and were from the family of Naikor landlords, who served in military of the Madras Presidency under the East India Company. It was Justice Cornelius’s grandfather, Perayya Kait Pillay, who after having fought during the conquest of Burma by the British in the late nineteenth century, settled in the then central provinces and became a schoolmaster. It was there that he converted to Christianity and adopted the surname ‘Cornelius’ after a centurion who had converted to Christianity at the time of the Apostles.

Justice Cornelius’s mother, Tara D’Rozario, was also from a family who had converted from Hinduism, and her father, Michael D’Rozario was a forest officer in Central India. Thus from both his parents, his lineage was Hindu.

It was the ancestry of his wife, Ione Francis, whom he married in 1931, which connected him to Islam. Both the parents of Ione had come from Muslim ancestry with her paternal grandfather, Said Shah Safi, who had worked in the Foreign and Political Department of the Government of India converting to Christianity, and on the maternal side, her grandfather, Miran Baksh Utarid converting and taking the name ‘Marcus Benedict.’ Marcus Benedict Utarid then distinguished himself as the translator of the Bible in Urdu for which Pope Benedict XV gave him an award. Thus, while Justice Cornelius was a Christian, he had deep connection and understanding of both Hinduism and Islam in South Asia.

The legal acumen of Justice Cornelius strongly came to the fore during his long tenure on the bench of the highest court in Pakistan, where he served as a Chief Justice from 1960 to 1968. Not only has Justice Cornelius been the only non-Muslim to head the judiciary in Pakistan (Justice Rana Bhagwandas, a Hindu, briefly served as acting chief justice between March and July 2007), his tenure also marks him out as the second longest serving chief justice of Pakistan (just behind Justice Haleem in the 1980s). Later, he also served as the law minister in the cabinet of General Yahya Khan from 1969 to 1971.

Justice Cornelius remained active in the legal profession even after his firm departure from a government role, and became the senior partner in the firm, Cornelius, Lane and Mufti, in 1980. He remained active in the firm till 1988, when he fell ill and so ended all legal activity. He died in 1991.

A lot has been written on the life and thought of Justice Cornelius, and therefore I shall limit myself to making certain important points.

The tenure of Justice Cornelius coincided with the period when Pakistan finally began to emerge as a player on the world stage. The initial few years after independence were those of turmoil and consolidation, and the untimely death of the founder of the country and the assassination of its first prime minister in 1951, brought about additional instability to the government and the country. The following years were largely spent on wrangling between the two ‘wings’ of the country, and even the constitution of the country took nine long years to formulate. Thereafter, the coup of General Ayub Khan in 1958 brought about a break in political activity, and a focus on economic development.

Thus, while in political processes Pakistan stagnated, it developed economically (more in the West than in the East), and soon the decade of the 1960s began to be touted as the ‘decade of development’ by Ayub Khan. The economy of Pakistan did so well in that decade that it became an example for other developing countries with its experience serving as bedrock for many programmes around the world. In the international arena Ayub’s alignment with the Western bloc brought prestige and influence in Western capitals, but his outreach to the Communist bloc also reaped benefits.

Therefore, Justice Cornelius presided over a court during the time of economic stability and progress. This meant that Justice Cornelius could put his ideas to work in the state. Foremost amongst his ideas was a synthesis of Islamic ideals and Western thought. The two chief justices before him with long tenures, Justice Sir Abdul Rashid and Justice Mohammad Munir (Justice Shahabuddin died after just nine days in office), were steeped in the British tradition and followed it meticulously. Rarely did they venture out of it, and when they did, like Justice Munir at times, they still kept their jurisprudence secular.

Justice Cornelius, however, was of another bent. He thought that as an ‘Islamic’ country Pakistan should not just follow the British model wholesale but blend it with Islamic ideals so as to achieve a better synthesis. Coming from a non-Muslim (Christian) chief justice of Pakistan, this argument carried even more weight. Therefore, in numerous judgments, Justice Cornelius used Islamic principles, especially the concepts of adl and insaf (broadly equitable justice), and employed it in the local context. He even referred to himself once as a ‘constitutional Muslim’.

While one cannot delve deeper into his approach here, suffice it to mention that, this was the first and by far the most significant intervention in the development of the judiciary in Pakistan. It opened another door, created a dialogue between Western and Islamic jurisprudence, and also tried to make justice more intelligible to the common man.

During his tenure, Justice Cornelius also tried to broaden, solidify and enforce fundamental rights in Pakistan. Even though Pakistan did not have parliamentary democracy throughout his tenure as chief justice, he still tried to ensure that the courts played their part in the protection and enforcement of fundamental rights in the country. Despite being initially under martial law, the courts under Justice Cornelius still issued writs and continued to broaden the scope of a rights discourse. This stance by the courts provided the much-needed space for free thought and action to remain (and even flourish in pockets) in Pakistan despite limitations.

Looking back, it almost seems inconceivable that the decision of a Christian judge to opt for ‘Muslim’ Pakistan in 1947 would have such far reaching consequences, not just for the country itself, but also for the development of jurisprudence worldwide, but such was the impact of that fateful summer.

To be continued….


The author is a Chevening Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. He tweets at @BangashYK and his email is: [email protected]

Pakistan and Justice Cornelius: When Christians were partitioned in the Punjab-II