Pakistan will be celebrating its 76th Independence Day on 14 August 2023, an occasion that will be marked by celebrations across the nation. However, amidst these festivities, it becomes imperative to pose some pertinent questions: Does Pakistan remain aligned with the vision of its founder, Jinnah? How has it fared as a democracy, as a state for the Muslims and as a state in the comity of nations?
The All India Muslim League (AIML), which was at the forefront of the effort to establish a distinct homeland for the Muslim populace of British India, got splintered into several groups soon after formation of Pakistan and all these claimants of Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan paid scant respect to the ideals that Jinnah outlined in his famous address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947. “You have the freedom. You have the freedom to visit your temples, you have the freedom to visit your mosques, or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan”: He went further, asserting that “you can belong to any religion, caste, or creed; that is not the concern of the state.” Just one year after Pakistan came into being, he passed away, which meant that he did not have much time to put his vision into practice.
While Jinnah used Islam as an instrument in his political battle for Pakistan, most of the leaders who joined the demand for Pakistan took his rhetoric very seriously and clung on to their dream of establishing an Islamic state. The resultant tension between the twin conceptions of Pakistan as a state for the Muslims and as an Islamic state has continued to plague the state even today.
At another level, Jinnah was a man of many parts. As a lawyer he did not mind taking alcohol, ate pork and married the daughter of his client-friend, a Parsi much junior to him. He never forced his Parsi wife to convert to Islam, even if he wanted her to be buried after her death rather than conducting the funeral in the Parsi way (Dokhmenashini).
As a statesman and founder of a nation, he talked about people of Pakistan sinking their religious affiliations in their identity as citizens of a free state. As a politician, to raise his acceptability among his followers and his political stakes, he used Islam at will to invoke the Muslimness of the Muslims and set off an Islamist impulse to galvanize them into action.
Soon after his 11 August speech, for example, he had talked about turning Pakistan into a laboratory of Islam and backed Islamic principles in economic affairs while laying the foundation for the State Bank of Pakistan! His followers were so confused with his utterances that when Jinnah talked about citizenship overtaking religious sentiments, his loyal lieutenant, Liaqat Ali Khan, reportedly told then Director of Pakistan Radio that the old man had lost his sense. Many Pakistanis asked like Maulana Maududi: “If this was to be the state of affairs in Pakistan, why was it established?”
This preference for religion as the defining rationale for the nascent nation overwhelmed all deliberations on how to build the identity of the new state. Despite the inclinations towards moderation demonstrated by Jinnah and few of his followers, the Islamists held sway at the end inserting the objective resolution into the constitution which emphasised that the sovereignty of the state of Pakistan was vested in Allah not the people of Pakistan!
Interestingly, since the late 1970s, religious groups and government authorities have sought to reimagine Jinnah as an Islamic leader. This goes beyond shaping a fresh identity; it involves a deliberate attempt to downplay and distort Pakistan's history and Jinnah's original vision.
During the 1970s, this approach found its most pronounced expression during the military rule by General Zia-ul-Haq. Seizing power after ousting Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) through a military coup, General Zia redirected Pakistan's ideological trajectory towards Islamization, which received a boost by the Islamist Jihad fanned and fuelled by the West during the 1980s coinciding with Zia’s rule in Pakistan, and this influence continues to be felt even today.
The consequences of such unthinking emphasis on religion as the basis of Pakistan has led to the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti, the former federal minister for minority affairs, and Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, in 2011. Both these individuals vehemently opposed the country's blasphemy laws, which discriminate against minorities and were enacted during the 1980s under Zia-ul-Haq's rule and continue to operate in Pakistan today. These laws have been invoked by vested interests over and over again against the minorities in Pakistan which has been noted by human rights organisations around the world. According to estimates from Pakistan, at least 1855 people have been charged with blasphemy between 1987 and 2021.
Zia used Islamization to counter opposition to his rule from mainstream political parties in the country. He required support from the religious extremist faction and initiated a comprehensive programme of Islamization, as he explained to a BBC journalist during an interview in April 1978, expressing his mission to “cleanse and purify Pakistan”. The late 1970s was marked by a concentrated effort towards Islamization, exemplified by the infamous Hudood Ordinances, which replaced the existing Pakistani Penal Code and introduced new categories for offenses like adultery and fornication.
Concurrently, Shariat Appellate Benches were established. This transition implied that legal cases would now be judged based on interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah, aligning them with religious Sharia law. Islamization has been so deeply ingrained that any future government seeking to reverse this course would find it difficult to reverse the process. Even after Zia's demise, his Islamist agenda has persisted with Nawaz Sharif seeking to reinvent himself as Amir-ul-Momineen in the late 1990s through legislation (15th amendment in 1998 that was not passed by the Senate due to political opposition to such a move).
During the last general elections in Pakistan in June-July 2018, Imran Khan invoked Islam unabashedly and the military used Barelvi mullah to favour blasphemy laws and run down Nawaz Sharif as a leader who supported the execution of Mumtaz Qadir, the killer of Salman Taseer. The tomb raised in the memory of the executed assassin attracts huge numbers of pilgrims as a hallowed place emphasising the place of Islam in Pakistani politics.
The Islamist impulse let loose by Jinnah and his successors has led different denominations within Islam to assert their contrasting views in a militant/violent manner. If Pakistan is to be an Islamic state, then which version is to be adopted as the state religion? Islam has thus been divisive and the militant zeal displayed by various sectarian groups to privilege their views over that of others has turned Pakistan into a sectarian cauldron. Each sect believes it has access to the most authentic version of Islam while the other is heretical in its own way and would want the state to adopt its world view at the expense of that of others. The most militant among these groups, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — known for its near-Wahabi persuasion, deep sectarian views and love for armed Jihad— poses a critical challenge to the Pakistan army and survival of the Pakistani state.
Pakistan has employed Islam strategically as a potent instrument since its inception. Regrettably, it has deviated from the basic tenets of Islam as espoused in the Quran and Sunnah. The emphasis of Islam on compassion and peace has been disregarded by the managers of the state. Soon after the success of Afghan Jihad, the power elite of Pakistan has even more enthusiastically pursued this strategy in their policies vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan, little realising that this has aroused a militant Jihadi-Islamist mindset that has swayed the imagination of the Pakistanis and posed an internal security threat to Pakistan. The idioms of Islam used by politicians in Pakistan today signal this persisting trend turning all creative energy of the people towards abstract conceptions of Islam rather than focusing on matters of statecraft that could help Pakistan become a normal state.
When we reflect on the last 76 years of Pakistan’s journey as a state, it is evident that Pakistan has transformed into the exact opposite of what its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had envisioned. What caused this significant deviation?
Following Jinnah's death in September 1948, barely a year after Pakistan was formed, a leadership void emerged in Pakistan. The absence of a unifying national figure ’weakened the processes of state- and nation-building. This void was filled by both civilian and military dictators, who, lacking the vision to work towards formulating a clear and forward-looking national identity, have imposed their own conflicting visions on the state. To gain popular support they have bolstered a strong anti-India sentiment among the people over time. The military-mullah combine has peddled a regressive kind of nationalism that has been the bane of Pakistan. Stress on Islam has proved counterproductive as has been stated earlier. The liberal constituency that imagines Pakistan as a liberal democratic state is a constituency in decline.
With Islam failing as a glue to bind Pakistanis together, anti-India sentiment has been periodically generated to act as a unifying factor in moments of crisis. This sentiment, too, is losing its appeal as Pakistan stays embroiled in internal political turmoil, where India has no role to play at all. More and more people are asking uncomfortable questions to their leaders: “Why bring in India for Pakistan’s failures, if you have failed Pakistan all these years?” They have sensed that their leaders are resorting to this tactic to divert their attention away from their failure to bring peace and prosperity to the country. There is a view emerging in Pakistan that Jinnah did not envision Pakistan and India to be in a state of permanent hostility and hoped that they would live together as good neighbours.
As long as Pakistan remains undecided about whether it should function as a Muslim theocracy or a progressive and open society, it will remain entangled in a conflict involving different groups advocating their differing visions. Jinnah's vision of Pakistan as a normal, neutral and liberal state, even with Islamic trappings, to be fully realized, requires the country's leaders to wholeheartedly adopt his principles, rather than quoting him selectively for political gains and distorting the nation's history.
Syed Eesar Mehdi is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Peace Studies, new Delhi. He has submitted his doctoral thesis as a student at the South Asian University, New Delhi.