A question of identity

While it was always clear Pakistan would be different from India, the kind of Muslim polity it would become was not that clear

A question of identity


he question of identity has haunted Pakistan since its inception. It was the first modern country in the world created on the basis of religion. Some have described it as ‘insufficiently imagined’ even, for issues of its identity have prevented critical decisions from being made throughout its history. The identity question was a major reason why the first constitution took nine (1947-56) years to be agreed upon; led to a separatist movement in its eastern wing, where, again for the first time in history, a majority seceded in 1971 to form Bangladesh; and where, still, suspicion of smaller ethnicities and provinces centres on an understanding of identity.

There is no doubt that Pakistan was created for the Muslims of the British Indian Empire. Call it a ‘homeland for Muslims’ or an ‘Islamic country’ — these terms were used quite interchangeably in those days, and only recently have scholars begun to split hairs about them – it was clear that Pakistan would be unlike India, where it was feared that a Hindu Raj would soon engulf all minorities, especially Muslims. What was not clear was how Muslim a polity and which kind/ type of a Muslim polity would Pakistan be? Would Pakistan be the kind of country Sir Syed Ahmed Khan would have liked to found, based on modern education and rationality? Or would it be more in tune with the tenets of Islam as elucidated by Maulana Maududi (among others)?

Both the modernist and traditionalist versions of Islam were considered perfectly legitimate at the time of the founding of Pakistan, and it was apparent that the founder of Pakistan veered towards the modernist approach, which saw Islam as a modern religion. For example, on the concept of purdah — still very prevalent amongst Muslims in 1947, Jinnah had noted in an interview in July 1947 that “The position of women is already equal in law to that of men… The institution of purdah, which is the result of tradition and not of the teachings of the Qur’an, will gradually disappear. In the old, old days it was a good idea, since in the autocratic past a king of a chieftain might take to himself any beautiful woman he saw, and a man was wise indeed to keep his women under cover. Custom throughout the world tends to outlive the reason for its origin, and this one is no exception. In the modern state such a precaution is not necessary, and it is already on the way out.” A maulana, in 1947, as in 2022, night balk at such a statement — but such was the view of the founder of the country.

Now in its 75th year, Pakistan needs to return to the ideals of Jinnah, not only because he was the founder of the country, but also because it is only in the adoption of his conception of identity that Pakistan can finally ‘resolve’ this identity ‘dilemma’ and march forward with confidence.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, its founder died just over a year after its inception and the debate over the identity of the country floundered. While the first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, adhered, though in a limited manner, to the ideals of the founder, he wanted religion to have a more central role in the governance of the country. The Objectives Resolution of March 1949 then set Liaquat’s vision, which was so broadly worded that both the modernists and traditionalists could claim it as their own. In the ensuing debate on the resolution, while the treasury benches were at pains to assure the non-Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan that the Islamic nature of Pakistan will in fact prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’ over the minorities and offer them the greatest protection, some Muslim members of parliament clearly had their own interpretations. Thus, Maulana Shabbir Osmani, a leading cleric from the Deoband Madrassa, stated that: “An Islamic state is not a state in its own right, with authority inherent in it. It is a state to which authority has been delegated. The real sovereignty belongs to God.” Hence, he noted that “It is evident that such a state which is founded on some principles, be it theocratic or secular (like the USSR) can be run only by those who believe in those principles. People who do not subscribe to those ideas may have a place in the administrative machinery of the state but they cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of framing the general polity of the state or dealing with matters vital to its safety and integrity.” Another member, Dr Omar Hayat Malik, the vice chancellor of the Punjab University, called this kind of state ‘theo-democracy’. Therefore, in just a few lines the non-Muslims of Pakistan, which in 1949 were still about 20 percent of the country, and were well represented in parliament too, were thrown out of the ambit of governance in the country. The lack of clarity of where to place the non-Muslims in the polity of Pakistan, has been the bane of the country since inception and has, sadly, led to a steady exodus of non-Muslims from Pakistan, further depleting its diversity and rigour.

Now in its 75th year, Pakistan needs to return to the ideals of Jinnah, not only because he was the founder of the country, but also because it is only in the adoption of his conception of identity that Pakistan can finally resolve this identity dilemma and march forward with confidence. And what was Jinnah’s idea? Realising that now he had his Pakistan, where Muslims would be free from the feared Hindu domination, but cognisant of the fact that perhaps at least a quarter to a third of Pakistan’s population would be non-Muslim, Jinnah based the identity of Pakistan on a common ‘citizenship’ — and nothing else, in his famous August 11, 1947 speech. That speech still remains controversial as on the face of it, Jinnah seems to be doing a volte-face. Jinnah’s biographer, Stanley Wolpert, echoed this confusion by writing: “What a remarkable reversal it was, as though he had been transformed overnight once again into the old Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity”. But it was not a reversal. Ever the pragmatist, Jinnah knew that in a country like Pakistan, basing its citizenship squarely along religious lines would alienate a large percentage of the population and would even rile different Muslim sects against one another. Being from a minority Muslim denomination, Jinnah was aware of the effect of different interpretations. Thus, when the ‘political idea’ of Pakistan was territorialised, there was no option but to base the identity of the new country on a common and equal citizenship.

Speaking at the debate on the Objectives Resolution in 1949, parliamentarian Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya stated: “I say, give up this division of the people into Muslims and non-Muslims and let us call ourselves one nation. Let us call ourselves one people of Pakistan.” Sadly, his words fell on deaf ears and we have even whitewashed him from our memory. Yet, his words ring true even today. May they be finally heeded.

The author is a Fulbright Fellow at the LM South Asia Institute, Harvard University. He can be contacted at: Yaqoob.bangash@gmail.com @BangashYK

A question of identity