Afghanistan, Pakistan & Bangladesh Articles

A secular Pakistan?

Taimoor Ashraf

The speech that the Quaid made on 11 August, 1947

Pakistan may be no heaven on earth but we are undoubtedly much better off today than our elders who had to live through the nightmare of communal rioting which had ensued months before India’s independence. Yet we are no closer to reaching a consensus on the issue whether Pakistan was meant to be a secular state. It is debatable, therefore, that those in tens of millions who headed both East and West of India during the eventful days, traumatised but running very high on religious nationalism, had any clearer notion of the ideological contours of their new nation. This is not to suggest that those who never had to migrate had hedged their bets in favor of secularism.

This is however not to suggest that there are no takers of secularism in today’s Pakistan. Self-proclaimed liberals are also the self-appointed guardians of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s liberal political legacy and actively advocate the form of governance wherein there is a divorce between the state and the religion. To this end, Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech has been quoted time and again, stating “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state…” No doubt that the father of the nation uttered these words, but is this all he said on that historic occasion?

Jinnah delivered a composite speech in a recommendatory tone, in which he laid out a roadmap for Pakistan’s future. The speech must be read as a whole to make better sense of what was going on in Jinnah’s mind on that historic day. Those who pick and choose are willfully distorting history to achieve their own contemporary political ends.

On 11 August, 1947, the first constituent assembly of Pakistan unanimously elected Mohammad Ali Jinnah to preside over its meetings. However, what would otherwise have been a joyous moment for him, the blood stained landscape of northern India had made him gravely saddened. Even the historic occasion and the thunderous applause could not pull him out of his morbid mood. What had been nagging him all along was the plight of millions of refuges who had either voluntarily or involuntarily chosen to migrate to Pakistan. The British Raj had decided to quit India in a hurry and by doing so had put millions of defenceless Indians before the wolves. The ethnic cleansing that took place was unprecedented in the recorded history of the human race.

Therefore, rather than choosing to lecture on the virtues of secularism, Jinnah decided to start his speech by reminding the constituent assembly of its two foremost responsibilities; framing of the new constitution and functioning of the new assembly as “a full and complete sovereign body as the Federal Legislature of Pakistan.” Underscoring the importance of sovereignty of the assembly, he further said, “The first and the foremost thing that I would like to emphasise is this – remember that you are now a sovereign legislative body and you have got all the powers. It, therefore, places on you the gravest responsibility as to how you should take your decisions. You will no doubt agree with me that the first duty of a government is to maintain law and order, so that the life, property and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the state.”

Of course Jinnah was not only an astute politician, but also a visionary. He had realised that the scourge of corruption would eat up the very foundations of the new state; therefore, he reminded the constituent assembly: “The second thing that occurs to me is this: One of the biggest curses from which India is suffering is bribery and corruption. That really is a poison.” The old sage then chose to warn the elected leaders against the malaise of black-marketing, nepotism, and jobbery. He then chose to justify the division of India and hoped that the future historians would agree with him. Next segment of his speech could rightly be classified as his “unity, faith, discipline” message, reminding the members to work for their constituents and for the prosperity of all Pakistanis, irrespective of their differences. It is only then that he uttered the famous words, music to some ears: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples…” Finally, he chose to conclude the speech by affirming “…My guiding principle will be justice and complete impartiality, and I am sure that with your support and co-operation, I can look forward to Pakistan becoming one of the greatest nations of the world.”

Those who have analysed his speech have often overlooked the fact that it was made before a group of “… mullahs, pirs, nawabs, rajas, shahs, and khans…” (Stanley Wolpert, Jinnah of Pakistan p. 338) Had Jinnah been a secular fundamentalist he would have either not allowed the mullahs and the pirs into the House or ordered their expulsion. Rather, being a realist, he appreciated multiple facets of the new state. He may have held Mustafa Kamal Ataturk in high esteem but unlike him he was a pluralist. Jinnah did not believe in a top down model but rather preferred politics of consensus. Therefore, those who make a point that he had an anti-clergy agenda, are advancing their argument on flimsy grounds. The clerics may have had an anti-Jinnah agenda; the reverse however is not true.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned, Pakistan could not have been a secular state otherwise as well. Sporadic communal rioting aside, neither the Muslims nor their religion was faced with mortal threat at any time in the secular British India. Nobody appreciated this reality better than Jinnah. Therefore, as late as 1946, he had no real desire or was in no hurry to carve out a separate secular state for the Muslims of India.

Furthermore, exigencies of realpolitik precluded Pakistan from turning into a secular state. It would have robbed the new state of its raison d’être. Pakistan had to be a special state, formed in negation of secular India. It, therefore, could not have been secular India’s twin. India’s demographics, of course, were ideal for the formation of a secular state. Notwithstanding its large minority population, the Indian Hindus, even today, are extremely diverse, owed largely to the fact that Hinduism is not a religion but a mythology. A deity worshipped in Delhi is not necessarily worshipped in Chennai. Brahmins are strict vegetarians all over India but in West Bengal, fish is a part of Brahmins daily staple diet. Therefore, even if the Congress’ hierarchy had ever dreamt of a Hindu India, the idea was readily and prudently shelved. Muslims of India however were a different case altogether.

During the 1946 elections, Muslim League ticket holders, mindful of the fact that the new nation could not be India’s clone, sparingly played the “Muslim card”; their Congress opponents with a secular manifesto really stood no chance. Contested on separate electorate basis, needless to say, the Muslim League trounced Congress in that election. The same politicians, lets be mindful, became members of our very first constituent assembly. Therefore, those who had won their seats on the “Muslim card” and separate electorate could not have turned around and advocated a separation between the state and the religion. It is interesting to note that neither that constituent assembly nor any subsequent assembly has ever chosen to pass a resolution demanding Pakistan to be a secular state. The Parliament, let’s not forget, represents the collective will of the people.

Pakistan, we all agree, was formed for the Muslims of India, in which they could not only live but also thrive according to their own ways of life. A thriving Muslim way of life naturally demands safeguarding its various aspects through legislation. How could a state stay neutral or in the extreme case, divorced, from religion, while regulating both the temporal and nontemporal, is a question for you to ponder. Hopefully a debate would start soon, determining for once and all the value we still attach to those words uttered on 11 August, 1947. Let me rephrase the question again: If Jinnah was secular; did he want the same for Pakistan?

Leave a Reply